Totaling the check and tallying the score

One of the two, large halls used for the morning and afternoon plenary sessions at COP15.

When I arrived in Copenhagen about 10 days ago, the Hopenhagen signs plastered on the walls of the arrivals area – many of them sponsored by Coca Cola – perked me up after a late night flight.  Today, reading the post-mortems in the Sunday NYT and reflecting on the roller coaster ride of the last two weeks, with an up close and personal view of days 3 through 6, left me somewhere between disconcerted and dismayed.  Not quite all the way to Nopenhagen, but wondering about the process and whether it can result in a binding deal on how to respond to climate change.

Our professorial contingent of the VLS delegation: Laurie Beyranevand, Teresa Clemmer (delegation leader), and Tracy Bach.

During week one of the talks, when it was still the Fifteenth Meeting of the Conference of Parties, as the moniker COP15 denotes, and not a summit of world leaders, progress was viewed as slow.  (For daily reports on COP15, I highly recommend this site, where I followed the U.S. and French trackers’ posts, both when I attended the meetings and when not there.)

Protesters outside the plenary room making the case for Tuvalu's negotiating position.

The plenaries I attended, where state parties commented on the new draft text reported publicly, were dry on the surface yet contained their own brand of diplomatic fireworks (if that’s not too much of an oxymoron).  For one, the G77+China (for a terrifically clear listing and explanation of the various negotiating blocs, see this NYT website) stuck to the team playbook, tapping various country delegations to lead the charge and the rest falling in line behind, with opening statements like “I agree with my esteemed colleague from Sudan, who has stated . . . .”  At a press briefing by key members of this group – China, India, Pakistan, AOSIS (as represented by the Ambassador from Grenada) – on the dais with the EU, China and India eloquently passed the lead back and forth, challenging the EU (and the notably absent US) on its low adaptation fund numbers.

The press briefing where China and India (center and right) tag-teamed the EU (left).

Responding uniformly to ripostes about the industrialized countries wanting these two growing economic powers to agree to clear and verifiable mitigation targets, both China and India described how their countries didn’t contribute to the GHG emissions that have created the current climate change conditions and thus should not need to submit to mitigation targets nor contribute for adaptation.  In fact, both asserted their status as developing countries (although certainly not as LDCs), deserving to receive adaptation funds due to them under the polluter pays principle that guides the fund.  At the time, this struck me as real politic fiction.  But a Week in Review article in today’s NYT helped to make more sense of this position.  “Never before, perhaps, have there been two nations so powerful in aggregate-income terms that are so poor relative to others at a per-person level.

The chief Chinese climate negotiator, Qingtai Yu, who headed up a 233-member delegation.

China is the third-richest nation over all, but it is poorer than 132 countries in per-person terms; India is fifth-richest over all, but poorer than 166 others per person. Together, that is $11.3 trillion worth of power being steered, if you divide income by population, by a $4,500-a-year mentality. The result is that India and China face enormous pressure to think like the Western great powers of 2009 and, simultaneously, to think like those great powers did 100 years ago, when they were much more focused on economic development and much less interested in global justice.”

One of the many art displays at COP15, a black and white globe against the backdrop of a wall colllage of brightly colored photos.

As reported earlier, bridging the climate divide will require trillions of dollars spent by industrialized countries over some 20 years.  But as John Broder reported in the NYT last week, this big number is a relatively modest part of the overall economic output of the world.  For example, the COP15 delegates in Copenhagen intended to commit some $10 trillion in additional energy infrastructure investment from 2010 to 2030.  The International Energy Agency, however, reasons that the benefits produced by new jobs, improved lives, more secure energy, and diminished likelihood of climate catastrophe largely offset this amount.  “People often ask about the costs,” said Kevin Parker, who tracks climate policy for the Deutsche Bank.  “But the figures people tend to cite don’t take into account conservation and efficiency measures that are easily available. And they don’t look at the cost of inaction, which is the extinction of the human race. Period.”

A COP15 participant, rushing off to the next meeting.

The Obama Administration supported a short-term fund to aid developing nations and has pledge to pay “its fair share” (which often translates into 35 – 33% in existing multilateral relationships.) It reasoned that “providing this assistance is not only a humanitarian imperative — it’s an investment in our common security, as no climate change accord can succeed if it does not help all countries reduce their emissions.”  This money would be specifically used to help developing nations reduce emissions by switching to renewable energy sources like wind and solar, and by compensating landowners for not cutting down or burning forests, a major source of carbon dioxide emissions. Other funds might be used to adjust to effects of a changing climate, like building flood walls or relocating settlements to higher ground to rising sea levels.  As you see here, this general position made it into the Copenhagen Accord, which the COP15 delegations were at pains to take note of in the final, wee hours of the meeting.  But it lacks the specificity needed to make it stick.

Before the start of a plenary session.

Which comes to a conclusion that has been offered by more than one observer:  COP15 pointed out how hard it is to forge compromise through a consensus-based process with 193 countries.  “The climate treaty process isn’t going to die, but the real work of coordinating international efforts to reduce emissions will primarily occur elsewhere,” said Michael Levi, who followed COP15 for the Council on Foreign Relations, in today’s NYT.  This other place mostly likely will be a much smaller group of countries who pollute the most, for roughly 30 countries are responsible for 90% of GHG emissions.  One could see the roots of this in the bilateral diplomacy conducted by the US between the Barcelona and Copenhagen meetings (meaning between the officially established multilateral meetings organized by the country parties as the Bali road map two years ago), the French-African deal on forests brokered by President Nicolas Sarkozy three days before the meeting’s conclusion,  and President Obama’s 11th hour efforts on Friday, described here in oddly heroic detail.

A view from outside the Bella Center: climate change sculpture, public transport, and green architecture abound.

Editorialist Tom Friedman weighed in with his version of a better international process for addressing climate change:  an Earth Race, akin to the early Cold War space race.  Starting with the same conclusion that just too many countries “have to hold hands and attack this problem with a collective global mechanism,” Friedman seeks to use “Father Greed” to help out Mother Nature by pitting the two largest world GHG emitters against one another to be the first to invent the most clean technologies and the greenest economies.  “Maybe the best thing President Obama could have done here in Copenhagen was to make clear that America intends to win that race. All he needed to do in his speech was to look China’s prime minister in the eye and say: ‘I am going to get our Senate to pass an energy bill with a price on carbon so we can clean your clock in clean-tech. This is my moon shot. Game on.’”  Interesting to imagine Obama and Wen Jiabao shooting hoops one-on-one.  Yet another example of the multilateral process going by the wayside.

The climate divide was viscerally on display in Copenhagen.  How to bridge it is still an open question.  The strategies used at the COP15 did not work fully for countries on both sides of the gap.


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