The climate change caravan has arrived in Copenhagen. But who are the people doing the actual negotiating—haggling over every word—and what are they likely to achieve?by / October 21, 2009 / Leave a comment
Published in November 2009 issue of Prospect Magazine
So here we are. Copenhagen. Showtime. In the course of 11 days this December, the leaders of the world must agree on their self-appointed task of saving it. Seventeen years after they first convened at the UN’s Earth Summit in Rio and acknowledged the threat of global warming, the calamity has advanced on every front. The ice is melting, the waters are drying or rising, the birds and the beasts and the bees are dying. Yet humanity, perversely, flourishes—since that summit, the world’s population has grown by 1.5bn and it will grow again by 50 per cent by 2050 to a total of 9bn, just when our worst prophecies may be coming to a head. Nature’s breakdown will be society’s. And for this reason, climate change has joined our everyday thinking. We hear about it on the news. We see it even where it is not there: on balmy winter mornings and in the mottled outbreaks in the garden. Its invisible, enveloping nature has made it part of our human lament. We worry about putting out the recycling but we know this is not enough, because everything we do now—stay too long in the shower, eat a foreign vegetable, fly off on a foreign holiday—is making it worse. Our condition, our comfort, is killing the polar bears, and it is going to kill us too.
So what can 11 days in Copenhagen do about it? The aim is to conclude a new global political agreement on how to stop the damage. Whatever is agreed at Copenhagen will come into force on 1st January 2013, and supersede the last attempt to save the environment, the Kyoto protocol. Kyoto took aim at the emissions of six greenhouse gases (mostly CO2, methane and nitrous oxide) that have upset the preindustrial, prelapsarian blend of air in the earth’s atmosphere. Adopted on 11th December 1997, the treaty bound by law the world’s 37 richest countries (a group known as “Annex 1”) to cut their emissions by 5.2 per cent from 1990 levels by 2012. America pulled out of the negotiating process (and has increased its emissions by almost 20 per cent since 1990) but much of the rest of the rich world stuck with it and now, in 2009, it looks like we will make it. Some countries, like Spain, Italy and South Korea, will miss their targets, but as a group, we are on target—a corrective to the critics who dismiss Kyoto as a failure. True, the collapse of heavy industry in the Soviet Union has been the biggest single contributor to cutting global emissions since 1990, but other Kyoto-related policies have helped. In 2005, the EU launched the world’s largest carbon-trading market, covering 40 per cent of the bloc’s emissions, and in 2008, helped by the financial crisis, achieved a cut of nearly 3 per cent in a year.
Yet the countries that have, by hook and crook, met their Kyoto obligations now account for only about a quarter of the world’s emissions. The action has moved elsewhere. Now it is the major developing economies of India, China and Brazil, and the millions of people who are buying their first televisions, refrigerators and cars, that are inflicting their first meaningful injuries on the atmosphere. Per head, their emissions are paltry—ten Indians have the carbon footprints of a single European—but as a collective, heading fast down the same fossil-fuelled path that led to this predicament, they have the capacity to finish us off. Greenhouse gas emissions from the developing world account for around 46 per cent of the whole—less than its fair share, but more than enough.
So Copenhagen can, and must, do three things. It must take the cuts agreed by the 37 Annex 1 countries at Kyoto and make them much deeper. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the scientific body that advises the UN’s climate negotiations, these new cuts must be in the range of 25 to 40 per cent from 1990 levels by 2020. In the longer term, rich countries are under pressure to agree cuts of up to 80 per cent by 2050 (Britain has already signed up to this). Second, Copenhagen must bring the Americans on board. The US may have been surpassed by China as the world’s largest emitter, but the hegemon still produces 20 per cent of the planet’s carbon emissions and its people consume energy like no other. Even more important, Copenhagen needs America because without Washington, without Barack Obama, there is no chance of the talks’ highest and most necessary aim: the devising of the grand pact under which the world’s industrialising billions will agree not to follow the same riches-for-planetary-ruin path that the rest of us have done. The price of placing environmental constraints—“actions” rather than emissions targets—on the economic appetites of China, India, Latin America and Africa will mean tens of billions of dollars and the sharing of green technology. The institutions, the funding and the monitoring to make it work are what need to be resolved. If the deal can be done, Copenhagen could turn the apocalypse into a plan.
So who are the people who are going to engineer this covenant? Everyone agrees that Obama and President Hu Jintao of China must attend if there is the chance of something significant being agreed. But it is the figures in the background that I want to introduce, the faces you do not recognise, who have spent the past two years in hotel ballrooms, airport canteens and the offices of environment ministries, haggling and fiddling over paragraphs, phrases and words. These are the men and women of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), unknown delegates from every government on Earth. In the end they will duck out and let their ministers take the glory, or blame, in Copenhagen. But the slender text that is agreed in December is theirs, and the world of rules and rivalries, process and paranoia, in which that text was conceived is their world.
In August, I went to meet some of the climate negotiators in Bonn. If the UNFCCC has a home, it is in the former West German capital. The UN’s climate change secretariat is there, housed in an office block more than 20 stories tall, towering over the Rhine. The UNFCCC itself, though, is a document, the outcome of the Rio summit in 1992. In 24 pages, the UNFCCC established the rules of the political game. The signatories, which now number 190 nations, agreed to meet once a year, at a so-called conference of the parties (COP), to take actions, which might include the writing of protocols and treaties. COP1 was in Berlin, Kyoto was number three, Copenhagen will be COP15. In between the glamorous COPs, which attract between 6,000 and 10,000 delegates, the UNFCCC holds lower-key negotiating sessions to get things in order before the full, noisy maelstrom of journalists, pressure groups, business wallahs and politicians descends. In the build-up to Copenhagen, where as many as 20,000 people are expected, these intersessionals have been especially numerous and intense. The one I went to in August was the third in Bonn this year—and there were still 2,500 people there.
Wherever the climate negotiations take place, be it in Delhi, Poznan, or Nairobi, the same circus, the same meeting rooms with their parabolas of desks and country names are replicated. In Bonn, the talks are held in the Hotel Maritim, a ghastly hangar of a place next to a motorway—a mixture of campus and airport. Beyond the X-ray machines, manned by security guards in UN blue, all I could see were delegates drinking coffee on uncomfortable sofas or looking for places to plug in their laptops. The crowd was as polyglot, as multi-everything as it could be, but the first words I heard were unmistakeably English. “I do need another laptop,” a blonde woman said, “because mine is shit.”
Before travelling to Bonn I read a textbook explaining how the talks worked. From this I knew that the place to start was the document centre, a sort of den fashioned out of filing cabinets that was run in the Maritim by a raucous coven of diplomats’ wives. (Almost all the support staff at the talks in Bonn are married to UN employees.) The document centre is where delegates keep track of the huge variety of texts being churned out by the talks. These range from rare formal documents, which are translated into the six UN languages of English, French, Russian, Spanish, Arabic and Chinese, to bumper “informal” texts and interminable working papers. The final negotiating text at Copenhagen will probably be about 20 pages long, but it was almost 200 in Bonn. At the document centre, I asked a tall African woman in a purple shirt with a haircut like a huge lightbulb for the latest version of the negotiating text. Her name was Ditheah. I asked her what she did when she wasn’t at the talks. “We are executives,” she said, indicating her three colleagues, who giggled at her nerve. “Executives at home.” She meant housewives. As delegates came and went from the counter, I asked Ditheah if she thought they could save the world. “You know they try,” she said. It was as if she was talking about children. “They try. But it is not in one man’s hand. We all have a will and the wills are many.”
The formal arenas of the climate change talks are the open negotiating sessions. At the Maritim these were held in a series of large conference rooms named after German composers, decorated with caramel carpets, dark wood, cream walls, mirrors and diamante-style light fittings. The Copenhagen deal is going to be a merger of two streams of negotiations that have been running in parallel for several years. The first has been taking place under the Kyoto protocol and is, in brief, aimed at setting tougher emissions targets for the Annex 1 countries. The second is the attempt to construct the more comprehensive agreement that will compel the rest of the world to take action on climate change for the first time.
The shape of this proposal, known as “Long-term Co-operative Action” (LCA), was agreed over the dying body of the Bush administration at COP13 in Bali in 2007. It represents the highest ambitions and worst tangles of what might happen in December. At its heart is an argument over money: how much the developed world will pay to cushion the world’s poor against the impacts of climate change, and how much support they will give developing economies to forsake the oil and coal that seem to offer the swiftest path to industrialisation and prosperity.
The orthodox developing country view is that any “deviation from business as usual,” as it is known in the negotiating text, should be funded by rich countries, preferably up front and in the form of grants. The classic “Annex 1” position, meanwhile, is that funding will be best and most efficiently delivered through private enterprise and carbon markets, and that this can only happen if developing countries agree to legally binding action plans in which emissions are audited and projects inspected. Standing between these positions is the technical junk of the talks: how much change should come through the market? Is climate-change aid different to traditional development aid? Should there be new financial institutions? Should they be UN-run? Should the money go through treasuries or companies? What is the role of intellectual property in green technology? How do you compare the actions of developing and developed countries? What is fair?
To thrash this out, delegates decided to divide the LCA into four chapters—mitigation (how to cut emissions); adaptation (how to respond to climate change); technology transfer (how to share green technology); and finance (how to pay for everything)—and then negotiate the sections alongside each other. Under UNFCCC rules, no more than two negotiating sessions can take place at any one time, so in Bonn, as will happen in Copenhagen, the meetings are stacked up one after the other. Delegates come out of one, stand in front of blue screens set up in the hallways to tell them where to go, and then hare off like accountants late for a connecting flight.
Once inside the room, however, the negotiations have a calming, iterative effect. Every open meeting, from the grand plenaries to the “informal sub-group on mitigation under paragraph (b) (iii) of the Bali Action Plan,” looks the same. Country desks are laid out in alphabetical order and there is a platform from which the two chairs of each negotiating group—one from a developing country, one from a developed country—control proceedings. Sprinkled around them are staff from the secretariat, who whisper to each other.
The UNFCCC secretariat is the glue of the climate change talks. Set up in 1992, it now employs 200 staff and has a budget of about $30m (£19m). Beyond running the logistical side of the talks, the secretariat compiles country submissions and turns them into negotiating texts and oversees the collection of greenhouse gas data. “I see us as the butlers of the process,” said Yvo de Boer, the executive secretary. “And as you come from England you know that a good butler is the servant but, unobtrusively, is also the person running the household.”
De Boer is Dutch but went to an English boarding school. We were talking in his room at the Maritim on the third day of the Bonn meeting, where, as is not unusual, an argument over the timetable of negotiating sessions had broken out. A broad man with a quiet, concrete demeanour, de Boer was in a terrible mood. When I came into his room he was jabbing furiously at his BlackBerry but as he spoke, he calmed down and assumed his customary public role as the grim cheerleader of the talks. Since becoming executive secretary in September 2006, De Boer has fashioned himself as what he calls “the conscience of the process” and is most often heard berating the delegates for slow progress. (“We seem to be afloat on a sea of brackets,” was his wry verdict at the end of Bonn, referring to the 2,000 pairs of brackets, all indicating disagreement, that remained in the negotiating text.) On the long, last night of Bali in 2007, De Boer broke down in tears when challenged on a piece of procedural business by the Chinese delegation, a display of emotion that both humanised and weakened him. Unlike the most polished players in the talks, De Boer’s mask slips from time to time, and when I asked him whether he sensed a feeling of common endeavour, among the delegates, he grew reflective and started talking about some ancient underground churches he once visited in Lalibela, Ethiopia. To carve a church out of rock, De Boer explained, the Lalibelans must have had an extraordinarily united vision of what they were trying to make. “And what I sometimes have the feeling of in this process,” he said, “is that you have someone in one corner chiselling out a pulpit, someone in another corner chiselling out a bench but there is no shared vision of the structure being created.”
When you listen to the actual negotiations you realise why De Boer cried. Before anyone opened their mouth, though, I couldn’t help feeling an Arcadian sense of the possible. I sat at the back of the largest of the Maritim ballrooms—in among the NGO delegates with their three-quarter length trousers and canvas bags—and watched as the country delegates filed in to a meeting on adaptation. Greece was there bright and early. The Kazakhstan team came over to pay their respects to a couple of observers from Opec. The British took their seats between the United Arab Emirates and Tanzania, while a woman from Turkey came in and buried her head in her hands. At the front, big pink digits counted down to Copenhagen (117 days, 0 hours, 59 minutes and 40 seconds). William Agyemang-Bonsu, Ghana’s climate change co-ordinator, was one of the session chairs—a dapper man with bifocal glasses. I interviewed him earlier this year at the end of a long day in his gloomy office in Accra. But on stage in Bonn he was beaming. He greeted me from the edge of the platform and the pride came flowing down. “When you are up here,” he said, “you feel the responsibility to wrought a deal.”
My sense of the possible remained strong when the EU had the floor. The EU is one of the main coalitions at the climate change talks, and they are its swots. Led this year by Sweden, which holds the EU presidency, the bloc has agreed to cut its emissions by 20 per cent by 2020, and 30 per cent if it is satisfied by the commitments of other countries, notably the US, China and India. The EU was also the first coalition to submit a detailed proposal on financing Copenhagen, offering to contribute 30 per cent of the estimated annual €60-80bn (£55-73bn) cost of global climate change action to poor countries by 2020, in the form of revenues from its carbon market, new taxes on planes and ships and direct aid.
Watching the Swedish delegate talk, with a bird-faced man from the Vatican peering over his shoulder, I felt reassured, a feeling that continued when I met Staffan Tillander, Sweden’s climate change ambassador. Tillander has spent years as a diplomat and oozes Scandinavian steadiness. He said that whenever there has been sufficient technology, political will and popular awareness, the world has managed to tackle environmental problems. He reminded me of the hysteria about the hole in the ozone layer and acid rain in the 1970s and 1980s and how domestic and international regulations on CFCs and air pollution helped bring them under control. “These problems were dealt with quicker and at lower cost than anybody could have expected,” said Tillander. “When we look back on this in 20 years, I think we’re going to see that we did more to resolve this than we thought was possible.”
But apart from the EU, and a few other constructive early-movers such as South Africa and Mexico, watching the negotiations close up is a painful, baffling experience. “Complete unreality” is how the leader of one European delegation describes it. Astonishing claims are made and agreed with barely a murmur. Paragraph 21 of the draft text of Copenhagen reads as follows: “The financial crisis should not constitute an obstacle to the provision of financial and technical assistance to developing countries.” Fine. That’s sorted then. The rest of the time, delegates just talk past each other. In a meeting on adaptation I heard Canada read out a speech about “potential synergies and networks”; Indonesia propose “an ecosystem-based approach” and Venezuela talk about its “ancestral knowledge of living in harmony with the Pancha Mama or Holy Mother.” Then it was time for lunch.
The invisibility of progress is partly down to the dynamics of all multilateral negotiations, in which the tactics of bluffing and delay are rewarded. The tendency to wait for as long as possible before revealing your true position is a classic bargaining technique, and in the case of the climate change negotiations, where collective interest and national interest overlap but not always precisely, the myth of the last-night deal is especially strong. Kyoto was agreed at noon the day after talks were supposed to have finished, after a marathon 12-hour plenary session, while COP6 at The Hague in 2000 fell apart completely and was only rescued six months later in Bonn, when members of the UN secretariat crept from hotel room to hotel room in the middle of the night, cutting a deal. The power of delay is amplified because the UNFCCC has no voting procedure. It has never agreed how to agree, so everything is adopted by “consensus”—essentially the gut instinct of those chairing the talks—which means that a delegation can wield enormous power by not saying anything.
Many countries are playing this waiting game. Joanna Depledge, a research fellow at Cambridge who helped draft the Kyoto protocol and now studies the negotiating process, told me that she has identified a “micro-community” of 20 to 30 delegates, mainly from developing countries, who are resistant to the kind of deal envisaged at Copenhagen. Plus, according to one former US negotiator, “there is a mafia that just wants a continuation of the process. These are professional negotiators who have a much higher standard of living as a result of being part of this process, and are rewarded for saying no.”
The greatest cultural shift that Copenhagen represents is that poor countries will have to start properly measuring and curbing their emissions for the first time. Their obligations will be called Namas (Nationally Appropriate Mitigation Actions) and in return for taking them, they will be funded—most projections posit a number of around $100bn a year—by the developed world. But the fashioning of this bargain has been interrupted in the negotiating rooms not only by matters of principle, but by a ceaseless garbage of protocol, tactics and stubbornness.
You hear two names most often when people complain about this. The first is Bernarditas Muller, from the Philippines. Bernarditas (as everyone calls her) will chair “the G77 plus China” at Copenhagen. The G77 is, confusingly, a coalition of 132 developing countries, including China, Brazil and India. It is the scarcely-manoeuvrable big beast of the talks. For all her conviction, when Bernarditas speaks, it is with the hectoring quality of a deeply-wronged aunt. I watched her consume 15 minutes of a 90-minute negotiating session about finance, railing against typhoons, poverty and global injustice, her right hand a flying puppet of fingerpoints and balled fists. Bernarditas loves to recite articles of the convention. The principles that she returns to again and again are those of “common but differentiated responsibilities” (the climate debt, both current and historical, of rich nations) and the “respective capabilities” of developed and developing countries to fight climate change. The principles are valid, but they do not become more so with repetition. One observer of the talks told me when they heard that Bernarditas would be leading the G77 they reduced their expectations of any deal by 50 per cent.
The second name, which always comes with a whiff of the mythic, is Mohammed al-Sabban, leader of the Saudi delegation. Saudi Arabia, and Opec more generally, are the boo-boys of climate change. Since 1992, they have argued that international policies aimed at weaning the world off fossil fuels are a form of economic discrimination against oil-exporting countries, which deserve to be considered, like low-lying island states such as the Maldives and the Cook Islands, as particularly vulnerable to climate change. Al-Sabban is a senior adviser at the Saudi oil ministry and is sometimes thought to have a preternatural ability to delay the talks: asking for translations into Arabic when he may well not need them, delighting in procedural arcana and masterminding the G77 to make sure that Opec members lead in key negotiating sessions.
In Bonn I heard al-Sabban called a “wizard,” a “shark” and “the prince of darkness.” We met one evening after the day’s negotiations were over and talked in an empty ballroom. Al-Sabban is charming, with a sliver of gold in the brown pupil of his left eye. He laughed off his nasty nicknames. “We get used to all these terminologies,” he said, before explaining the Saudi position. “Industrialised countries are trying to achieve energy security through this noble cause of beating climate change,” he said. “That is very serious.” Deadpan, al-Sabban said the minimum price for a deal in Copenhagen was funding for developing countries of $250bn a year. “You will not make us economically vulnerable,” he said. Then he stood up in the deserted chamber and, gesturing to the empty desks, told me that he was proud of what he was doing. “Look at it. “Look at it. Everyone is doing it. United States is doing it. China is doing it. Everybody is defending his interest.”
Mercifully, while Bernarditas and al-Sabban weave their way through the formal negotiating sessions, the talks find other ways to proceed. “You learn more about what is going on in the negotiations by looking at who is talking to who in the lunchroom, rather than what they are saying on the floor,” Jennifer Morgan, who runs the climate change programme at the World Resources Institute, told me. The hallways are one long, low-level burr of policy chatter and leading questions: “Is that something that could be a gateway?” “We have to de-compartmentalise the technology…” “You know 10 per cent of a car’s carbon emissions come from its manufacture…”
It is in this outer, netherworld of the negotiations that hope resurfaces. This is where I met Saleem ul-Huq. Huq is a Bangladeshi scientist who helped write the most recent IPCC report on climate change adaptation. He has been coming to talks since the early 1990s, coaching delegates from the poorest countries on how to take part. “As the saying goes,” he said, “if you are not at the table you are part of the meal.” Whenever I saw Huq, smoking on the terrace or holding court to a table of African delegates, he had already seen me first and waved. Huq has no direct means of influencing the talks, yet he has spent the second half of this year flying between east and west Africa, and hopscotching around European capitals giving presentations in embassies of the world’s 50 or so “least developed countries,” on how to improve their negotiating positions. Trusted NGO leaders and academics like Huq are all but invisible at the talks. Yet they play a valuable role, keeping delegates up to date on science and policy news and acting as couriers and go-betweens, sharing hints about the truth behind official positions. Like many others who have been taking part in the talks since Rio, Huq plans to leave the negotiations at the end of the year. He will return to Bangladesh to set up a climate change institute and prepare for the worst. “I have another foot in the real world, in which climate change is happening, in which poor people in poor countries will suffer,” he said. “That world is my first love.”
The sidelines were also where I met Kevin Conrad, Papua New Guinea’s delegate at the talks. Conrad is the closest thing to a YouTube phenomenon at the UNFCCC. During the same session in Bali when De Boer had to be led from the room weeping, Conrad faced down the US, saying: “If you are not willing to lead, then leave it to the rest of us, get out of the way”—a rebuke that prompted a policy shift from the Bush administration. Since 2007, Conrad has also led the Rainforest coalition, a group of 40 tropical countries in pursuit of a deal on deforestation. Emissions from deforestation account for between 12 and 25 per cent of the world total, but are not counted under Kyoto. Under the coalition’s plan, known as REDD (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation), the emissions will not only be counted in Copenhagen, but developing countries will be able to apply for funding to help them monitor and look after their forests, and trade resulting emissions savings on international carbon markets. It won’t be easy to implement, but REDD is one of the surest, most positive things that will come out of Copenhagen. And if everything goes according to plan, Conrad thinks that by 2020, Papua New Guinea will be earning its current $1-2bn annual income from logging not from cutting trees down but from leaving them alone.
This thrum of activity in the informal corners of the negotiating process, the sheer levels of knowledge and commitment to achieving a deal, mean that there are several wheels turning at once at the talks. And countries sometimes struggle to stay in sync with their official positions, let alone their allies and rivals. India can be particularly contradictory. In formal sessions, the world’s fourth-largest polluter continues to flatly refuse to accept reductions in its emissions. One afternoon in Bonn, I ducked out of the talks with Shyam Saran, India’s chief negotiator. He spoke for an hour about his country’s “equal entitlement to the planet’s atmospheric space” and its relatively low per capita rate of emissions—1.2 tonnes of CO2 per person per year, compared to 12 tonnes for every European. “India will not sign up to cuts,” said Saran. “It is like saying India must not grow at 8 or 9 per cent per annum, rather at 3 to 4 per cent. That is just not saleable.”
And yet outside the room, sotto voce, there is the sense that India will come onside in the end. Its diplomatic campaign has little to do with the industrialists and entrepreneurs who have made India the third-largest beneficiary, after China and Brazil, of the UN-run offsetting facility devised by Kyoto. (This clean development mechanism, or CDM, which enables wealthy countries to offset their emissions by funding pollution-cutting measures in the developing world, is forecast to earn India $5bn per year by 2012.) Nor does it have much to do with the country’s scientists, one of whom, RK Pachauri, leads the IPCC and collected the Nobel peace prize on its behalf in 2007. India’s negotiating position does not even appear to have much to do with its own government, which will launch the world’s most ambitious solar power scheme in November and is planning domestic legislation on fuel efficiency and renewables. Behind the scenes in Bonn, I learned from one of the delegates working closely with India that their chief sticking point is currently around the technical question of how emissions might be audited under the deal, a process known as MRV—Monitoring, Review and Verification. (See box, “Measuring emissions” p10). “It’s all to do with sovereignty,” the delegate said. “That has turned out to be a sensitive point for India.”
For the biggest players at Copenhagen, the US and China, what is said around the negotiating table seems least relevant of all. The weak gravitational pull of the multilateral is nothing compared to what matters back home. And with December looming, the domestic agendas of the two polluting superpowers are pulling them in opposite directions. In Bonn, where China’s disarmingly young negotiators modestly spoke on behalf of “mainstream developing countries” and played good citizens, there has been little sense of Beijing’s conversion to the green cause since becoming the world’s largest emitter in 2007. Yet in the summer of that year, announcing the country’s first climate change programme, Chinese scientists warned of disappearing glaciers, coastal flooding and “immense impacts on socio-economic development and people’s living standards” if China’s emissions continued to rise at 4 per cent a year.
Belying their low public profile, the Chinese are regarded within the talks as constructive contributors. “They have done the analysis,” Saleem ul-Huq told me. “They made the mental switch.” Huq’s view was echoed by a senior British negotiator. “They are signalling a willingness to take action and write it into a deal,” he said. “How they do that is still highly sensitive and contested, but they are a lot more serious.” Beijing’s environmental credentials have improved month by month this year. In May, the green spending in China’s $585bn economic stimulus package dwarfed anything comparable in Europe or the US, with over $190bn going on railways and a “smart” electricity grid. At a UN summit in September, Hu Jintao reiterated his country’s plan to reduce its “carbon intensity”—emissions as a multiple of GDP—while promising to plant forests to cover an area the size of Norway and generate 15 per cent of its energy from renewable sources within a decade. The challenge at Copenhagen will not be getting China to take action, but to find an arrangement that makes its actions open to international inspection and encourages other developing economies to follow its lead. “They are doing more than they are prepared to sign up for,” the British negotiator told me. “That is the issue.”
The opposite is true of the auld climate enemy, the US. If the Chinese are inconspicuous at the talks, but have a strong domestic impetus for action, then the Americans are the reverse. The talk is always there, even if the trousers are not. Scepticism about multilateral diplomacy does not preclude getting the best suite in the hotel, sending 80 negotiators (poor countries typically have two, whose trips are paid for by the UN) or understanding the process better than anyone else. And in Copenhagen, the Obama administration will be represented by one of the founding members of the climate change brotherhood. Bearded and large-spectacled, Jonathan Pershing is widely admired by fellow delegates and has been working on climate change diplomacy since before it began in the late 1980s. He left government in 1999 before returning to the state department this summer. When Pershing talks, it is as if fresh negotiating text is spooling from his mouth.
But escaping the Bush-coloured past is easier said than done. The main aim has been to get congress on side. In May, two Democratic US representatives, Henry Waxman and Edward Markey, introduced a 1,201-page bill to congress. The bill would create a new US registry of greenhouse gas emissions and establish a domestic cap-and-trade carbon market that would seek to cut emissions by 83 per cent from 2005 levels by 2050. It cleared the House in June, and the idea was that the senate would pass it in November, giving Pershing the mandate to go to Copenhagen, bargain with China and India and agree to specific cuts, most likely 17 per cent from 1990 levels by 2020. However, the plan is falling apart. As the House prepared to vote on Waxman-Markey in June, the Wall Street Journal published an editorial saying: “Americans should know that those members who vote for this climate bill are voting for what is likely to be the biggest tax in American history.” The tax charge has stuck and, in September, senate Democrats admitted that the chances of getting the bill passed before Copenhagen were receding. Optimists say that the huge amount of political capital demanded by Obama’s healthcare package has sapped the bill’s momentum, but there is still a chance that it will happen, if not in 2009, then early next year. The other, graver, concern is that it could disappear altogether. “Healthcare is taking up a lot of oxygen and that is not helping,” Nigel Purvis, a climate policy expert who advised Obama’s presidential campaign, told me. “But the real problem is that cap-and-trade is not broadly supported enough to sail through.”
The larger conundrum that stalks Copenhagen is this: how much ambition, how much that is binding, will be sacrificed to get everyone signed up? According to Purvis, in the absence of a clear mandate from the US senate, the only way the White House will be able to convince China and India to agree to curb their emissions will be to give them “schedules.” The Australians, the highest per-capita emitters in the world, came up with schedules, which means that each country can submit its own mitigation action plan—a mixture of targets and commitments—which will be scrutinised by a central monitoring body. Depending on who you ask, schedules are either the future of the climate change regime—a world of bottom-up targets and bilateral and regional collaborations to replace the clunky centralised machinery of Kyoto—or its fatal weakening. “Kyoto was about numbers. Kyoto was about targets. This is about actions, and recognising that actions are diverse,” Purvis told me. “We can let a thousand flowers bloom.” Allowing each country to draw up its schedule would give Obama time: the US would not have to sign up for a short or medium term national emissions target in December. But the problem, surely, is that no one else would have to either. “This is the choice,” said Farhana Yamin, a former adviser to the EU. “Do we stay in this tried and trusted, difficult to live-in house or do we move to something untried and untested with no greater prospects of adherence?”
So what will they resolve, these thousands of hagglers? “We absolutely can get there,” says Pershing. But you don’t have to be a pessimist to be sceptical about what will come out of Copenhagen. Ahead of the final preparatory session in Barcelona in November, the text remained sinister in its opacity, the level of agreement low. During my four days watching the negotiations, the text was supposed to shrink, but instead it grew, begetting tables and revisions, in a kind of hideous sprouting of still more complexity. For two days, the delegates could not even agree what they were supposed to be doing in Bonn: surreal, semantic arguments over the difference between “streamlining” and “consolidating” kept breaking out. And yet they did not waver. They carried on their business, looking at the blue screens, dropping by the document centre, going to the next session. It was hard to know whether to be impressed by their calm, or outraged.
In the end, I went to see Michael Zammit Cutajar, the silver-bearded Maltese diplomat who will chair the final Copenhagen negotiating session. Zammit Cutajar is the negotiator’s negotiator. He led the UN secretariat at Kyoto and will now wield the chairman’s gavel as a delegate in December. Quietly spoken and fond of neat turns of phrase, he is also alarmingly human and self-deprecating for someone steering the talks intended to save the planet. When I walked into his hotel room, he was eating a sticky Indian sweet and had to turn around for a moment until his mouth got control of the situation and his assistant fetched tissues. He made no effort to romanticise the process he oversees. “I don’t think the capacity to change is found easily in these halls,” he admitted. “I am hoping that the determination to change comes in from the outside. After all, it is not a debating society where a good argument will win. Positions remain the same until the instructions are changed.” It might have been depressing to hear him say this. Zammit Cutajar will be leading the midnight conversations that determine what we are prepared to give up in order to survive, the search for our better selves. And yet, strangely, it wasn’t. It was a reminder that even those closest to the knotted centre of Copenhagen are still connected to the rest of us, that the materials they are working with—real and abstract—are fundamentally ours. They are the negotiators we deserve.