No Tipping Point Yet at Copenhagen

Despite rifts in climate negotiations at Copenhagen there are encouraging signs, reports Tom Hilde.

A representative from an African nongovernmental organization gets information from the interactive climate wall at the Bella Convention Center in Copenhagen, Denmark, on December 14, 2009. It's still unclear what the outcome of the talks will be, but the arrival of President Barack Obama and Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jiabao at the end of the week could be a decisive moment. (AP/Anja Niedringhaus)
A representative from an African nongovernmental organization gets information from the interactive climate wall at the Bella Convention Center in Copenhagen, Denmark, on December 14, 2009. It's still unclear what the outcome of the talks will be, but the arrival of President Barack Obama and Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jiabao at the end of the week could be a decisive moment. (AP/Anja Niedringhaus)

In Copenhagen the story of the day on Monday—call it The Day of Confusion—was the G-77 developing countries, led in this case by an African Union acting as a union, “walking out” of the climate talks. In fact, it was a boycott in protest of the wealthy countries ostensibly moving toward abandonment of the Kyoto Protocol in favor of a one-track climate regime architecture, favored by some of the wealthy countries. Despite concerned murmurs around the Bella Center and some dramatic headlines during the day, the act was designed to underscore the responsibilities of the developed nations. The G-77 walked back in for the evening session, of course. No one can afford to simply walk away from these meetings.

Yet, there’s cause for pessimism again as the Copenhagen climate conference, also known as COP15— the 15th Conference of the Parties of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, or UNFCCC—lumbers this week toward a finish line not much clearer than at the beginning of last week. The three principal disputes about greenhouse gas emissions targets, climate change adaptation financing for developing countries, and the treaty architecture for an agreement—continuing with the Kyoto Protocol alongside a new agreement, or discarding the Kyoto Protocol for one new agreement—remain unresolved. Proposed emissions reductions targets by the main parties remain meager and far from the most likely 85 percent aggregate reduction scenario needed by 2050 to remain within the 2 degrees Celsius warming limit above preindustrial levels urged by climate scientists to avoid the most catastrophic effects of climate change.

Financing remains locked into the $10 billion per year mark from developed countries to help developing countries adapt to climate change, which existed before COP15 began. The G-77 rightly questions this number’s viability since there appears to be little room set aside for the sum in developed-country foreign aid budgets. A further rift has emerged over which international entity would manage any mitigation and adaptation funds.

Meanwhile, the two leading actors, the United States and China, appear to remain as deadlocked as they were before the meeting began, when not outright haranguing each other for public display. And Sen. James Inhofe (R-OK) and Rep. Joe Barton (R-TX) will appear in Copenhagen this week to hack away for CNN and Fox with that old saw that climate change ain’t real. Not terribly promising. Ugly, even.

Still, is it possible that COP15 is nearing a “tipping point?” A tipping point is that ephemeral moment in international negotiations at which momentum crests, or a particularly powerful party shifts in a direction others ineluctably follow, or some unexpected contingency tilts the balance of negotiations. Tipping points are often generated by a major power acting decisively. The idea is that when this point arrives, an agreement or policy becomes inevitable.

Given the general narrative, the idea seems laughable.

Careful, though. Public positions in bargaining situations are by virtue of their very nature hardly ever entirely what they seem. Public political theater and private bargaining leverage each other in international negotiations. Moreover, climate negotiations never remain flatlined for long. This particular meeting carries a palpable sense of urgency to the crafting of its very large, complex, and necessary international agreement. Despite conflicting interests and disputes between particular countries and blocs, each country by its presence here shares recognition of more or less the same problem and more or less the same norms. There is nothing quite like this in human history. It’s an odd hybrid of high politics and collective management of a global public good.

The draft text released last Friday by the Ad Hoc Working Group on Long Term Cooperative Action under the Convention, or LCA—the UNFCCC group tasked with drafting the treaty text— though full of the brackets that officially signify contentious passages, repeated the proposed warming limit of 2 degrees Celsius. It added the Small Island States’—a coalition of small island and low-lying coastal countries that share similar development challenges and concerns about the environment—preferred 1.5 degree Celsius limit as a target under discussion. The LCA text proposed a range of worldwide emissions reductions of 50 to 95 percent by 2050 from Kyoto’s 1990 baseline and a midterm reduction of 25 to 45 percent by 2020.

Using the same years, the draft recommended a minimum of 75 percent reductions and adds the possibility of 95 percent reductions by 2050 for developed countries as a whole. It integrated the UNFCCC norm of the right to development and poverty reduction with recommended low-emission sustainable development. And for developing countries it proposed 15 to 30 percent reductions by 2020. Given that, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the 2 degress Celsius limit likely requires an 85 percent-plus reduction by 2050, these are serious numbers. And they made it out of the LCA with the U.S. deputy special envoy, Jonathan Pershing, saying the numbers lay the groundwork for further talks among the ministers this week.

These promising target numbers and dates disappeared, however, from the new LCA draft text released this morning. Of course, they were bracketed and it’s easy to be ambitious when there are brackets around the numbers. But what happened to the numbers? Rumors point to the U.S. delegation. The chair said in session today, however, that the entire text is essentially in brackets. Moving away from firm numbers, while cause for concern, does not preclude them reappearing in a final draft. Informal consensus on the warming limit seems to remain at 2 degress Celsius.

Individual countries haven’t proposed much yet in terms of emissions reductions, but the numbers that do exist are low-end negotiating points that, with some courage by the United States and China, could set off a domino effect of higher emissions reductions proposals. If the United States can move to a 20 percent reduction by 2020 from its proposed 17 percent, for example, Europe will likely move to 30 percent, others possibly bootstrapping to 40 percent. Various entities at the meetings are pushing hard on long-term financing of adaptation and mitigation efforts in vulnerable developing countries. Everyone knows that, politically, the process is held hostage by what reductions percentages the U.S. Congress will approve and President Barack Obama has a solid supply of good faith among COP15 participants.

Mitigation and adaptation funds and technology transfer from developed to developing countries are a real problem, and there are no good answers yet out of Copenhagen. The $350 million in renewable energy technology development funds from the United States, announced yesterday by Energy Secretary Steven Chu, is more important for its list of targeted technologies than for the sum. The $10 billion per year collective fund proposed by Europe and two weeks ago agreed by President Obama is a small start in the right direction. But the entire agreement depends on the money. Japan’s reported offer today of another $10 billion to the fund ups the ante from Europe’s promised $3.6 billion and the $350 million announced by Secretary Chu.

The United States and China may have spent the past week haranguing each other in public, but that is the public dance accompanying daily backroom discussions between them. Word is that they’re hammering each other in private, and rightly so. There’s plenty of difficult work to be done. Results dribble out slowly, such as China admitting on Monday that the country is unlikely to receive funds from the Annex I countries, the category of wealthy developed countries in the Kyoto Protocol obligated under that treaty to reduce emissions. But, as The New York Times cites Barbara Finamore of the Natural Resources Defense Council this morning, “They’re going to wait until the last hour of the last day and just as the other side is walking out they’ll say, ‘Hey, come back.’ Just as they do every day in every market in China…That’s why they’re the best negotiators in the world.”

Finally, in the streets this past weekend the message missed entirely by the U.S. mass media in favor of reporting at best on rabble-rousers—actually, there were astonishingly few of them—was the 50,000 to 100,000 demonstrators urging the negotiators inside the Bella Center to push for a more comprehensive, concrete, and binding agreement. The overall message was one of hope, “Hopenhagen,” as they say. These people who braved the cold for hours should know that the demonstration and its message were splashed on the large video screens inside the Bella Center.

There’s no tipping point yet. But fatalistic narratives in the media are miscast. The 100-plus world leaders arriving in Copenhagen this week are not going to stand on the world stage on the final day and announce that they’ve agreed to 5 percent global emissions reductions by 2020. President Barack Obama and Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jiabao have not committed their appearance at COP15 to a public shaming. This will come down to the wire, and expectations in Copenhagen appear to be largely pinned on the arrival of President Obama and Prime Minister Wen at the end of the week as an 11th-hour tipping point.

In the hall today, everyone knows that the serious work needs to be completed before the ministers arrive.

As we’ve known from the outset, any agreement between the United States and China will be the deal sealer, and the final day of the meetings will tell us all a lot about our collective future. That is a far larger tipping point than any bureaucratic arrangement.

Tom Hilde teaches at the University of Maryland School of Public Policy, specializing in ethics and political philosophy, international environmental policy and institutions, and sustainable development. He will be contributing to CAP and Climate Progress this week from Copenhagen.

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