Daily Reports from Stephen Kass on Copenhagen Climate Change Conference

December 2009

December 15, 2009

As the press has reported, Monday was the start of the second week of the 15th Conference of the Parties (COP15) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (the UNFCCC) and the 5th meeting of the parties to the Kyoto Protocol to the UNFCCC. Whether the nations and intergovernmental bodies gathered here (along with representatives of more than a thousand non-governmental organizations (NGOs)) are intending to act under the UNFCCC or the Kyoto Protocol has become a major point of controversy here. That is not simply a matter of form: the Protocol is the only binding agreement in effect today that commits developed countries to make significant financial resources available to developing countries to both mitigate and adapt to the impacts of climate change. However, the U.S. is not a party to and thus is not bound by the Kyoto Protocol. Nor do any of the developing countries, including China, India and Brazil, have any climate change obligations under the Protocol, though they are eligible to receive, and some of them (especially China, India and Brazil) have begun to receive, substantial financial benefits under the “Clean Development Mechanism” that helps to implement the Protocol’s carbon cap and trade program. 

Not surprisingly, both the UN, most of the developed countries and many of the emerging economies have focused their efforts at the conference on the willingness of the US to commit to a new agreement, rather than seeking to renew and extend the Kyoto Protocol, which expires by its terms in 2012 and is widely seen as anathema to the US Congress. Many of the least developed countries, however, view this focus on a new agreement as a way of circumventing and effectively reneging on the Kyoto funding commitments from which they hope to benefit and replacing them with a series of non-binding calls for future assistance from the developed world, commitments that are widely seen as inadequate and likely to evaporate once Copenhagen is over and heads of state return to deal with their own domestic budgets.

Fearing precisely this result, on Monday the group of African countries, with support from most of the G77 developing countries, effectively froze all discussions on the new agreement, not quite walking out of the Conference but pointedly accusing the EU of abandoning its obligations to the developing world under the Kyoto Protocol. The EU came back apologetically at the end of the day, promising to reach a binding economy-wide agreement with all countries this week -- something it clearly cannot do in the absence of any such commitment from the US -- and to restore the Kyoto Protocol to a central role in the negotiations. Both of these ploys appeared to have worked, and negotiations appeared to have resumed, though it was very difficult to confirm that by the day’s end.

On a personal note, I managed to avoid the incredible snafu yesterday that left many delegates, NGO representatives and public officials waiting outside the conference center for up to seven hours. I had arrived early and secured my press credentials shortly after 8 am, giving me access to a broad range of meetings throughout the day. More on this in Tuesday’s report.

December 16, 2009

Tuesday was a relatively good day for the US at COP15. The African delegations returned to the negotiations, having made their point on Monday and secured a commitment by the EU to continue to respect the Kyoto Protocol at least for the time being, and to consult more seriously with African representatives concerning the financing mechanisms to be included in the new agreement that will follow Copenhagen. This partial rapprochement was apparently helped by personal phone calls from President Obama to Prime Minister Meles Zenawi of Ethiopia and President Sarkozy of France. Todd Stern, the US climate change negotiator, denied that Obama had “brokered” a deal but did confirm the phone calls.

In general, the US appeared on the offensive for a change on Tuesday. The US Center at the Bella Center has been hosting a series of open climate change talks, followed by audience and press questions, on climate change science and Obama Administration initiatives, all intended to show US leadership by the Executive Branch even in the absence of Senate action on the pending Kerry-Boxer climate change bill. Tuesday’s presentations also featured a joint EPA-DOT announcement on their new proposed joint rules regulating auto emissions and fuel efficiency (very impressive), a discussion by the Secretary of Agriculture of farm initiatives (he skipped subsidies for corn-based ethanol), and a very strong press conference by Todd Stern defending the Obama Administration’s programs and holding out hope for a meaningful agreement with other developed countries on adaptation funding for developing countries, on emissions reduction goals with China and even on the principal point of continuing controversy with China -- the degree of “transparency” in each country’s annual reports of emissions reductions (something that China was said to be fiercely resisting as an intrusion on its sovereignty).

The day’s highlights for me were (1) Arnold Schwarzenegger’s star appearance (with smiles and nods to the audience) on what states and provinces can do, along with cities and people, to reduce emissions with or without a global accord; (2) Wangari Maathai’s eloquent appeal to all parties, including Africa, to compromise and reach agreement by Friday; and (3) the extraordinary range of people and organizations committed to forcing the world’s governments to act to combat the effects of climate change. The day’s greatest embarrassment was Prince Charles, whose talk (while heartfelt) made a strong case for ending monarchy.

December 17, 2009

Wednesday began with travel problems -- the police stopped buses and metro cars a mile before reaching the Bella Center -- and ended with about half of the Center’s lights out. Whether these were omens for the new climate change agreement is not yet clear, but the real possibility of failure hung over the conference most of the day.

The draft text for portions of the proposed agreement, which is not expected to be legally binding but is supposed to incorporate all material terms of a global deal, is being negotiated in several “working groups.” One of those groups focuses on the next phase of the Kyoto Protocol; the other focuses on the Long-Term Cooperative Action (“LCA”) intended to include the US and to set forth long-term obligations for both developed and developing countries beyond 2012. Early Wednesday morning, the Danish Chair of the conference, following the usual practice at previous COPs, released proposed draft conclusions for the open LCA points still separating the parties. That initiative, intended to put forward compromises language on most of those issues, was met with an avalanche of objections by the G77 coalition of developing countries (led by South Africa, India and Brazil) and strongly endorsed by China, which attacked the Chair for ignoring the drafts prepared the previous evening by the two working groups and refusing to proceed with any discussion of the Chair’s draft (or even to listen to the waiting heads of state who had arrived to address the conference) without assurance that the working group drafts would be the basis for further discussions.

China’s interventions were particularly strident and accused the Chair (and by implication conference Executive Secretary Yvo de Boer) of undermining the promised transparency and broad-scale participation of all members. This maneuver was followed by a lengthy tirade by Venezuela’s President Hugo Chavez, who mentioned climate change in passing while attacking the capitalist imperialists for ruining the world and cited Jesus, Rosa Luxemburg and Simon Bolivar in calling for a socialist solution to all injustice, including this conference.

The Chinese effort, aided by the G77, to sidetrack the negotiations during the crucial last three days caused real concern among the convention leadership, many of the several thousand NGOs in attendance and, almost certainly, among the delegations whose heads of state were already in or bound for Copenhagen, none of whom (except perhaps Chavez) wanted to return empty-handed. Few believed that anger at the Chair’s drafting was the reason for the floor rebellion, though some COP15 observers did fault the Danish leadership for failing to circulate more responsive drafts earlier in the negotiating process, as had been done at earlier COP meetings.

The most serious concern was that China either wanted to scuttle the conference (or was at least prepared to see it fail) because of US insistence on “transparency” in reporting and verifying future GHG emission reductions. By all accounts, China’s mid-level negotiators here have refused to accept any form of verification for its future emission reductions. China is surely aware that failure to include meaningful ways to verify its reduction claims in the new agreement would almost certainly sink its prospects for approval in Congress and, as a consequence, make both domestic US climate legislation and expanded US aid for climate mitigation and adaptation in developing countries highly unlikely. While this would be very bad for the world (including China), it would avoid exposing China to outside review of its economy and might even make developing nations in Africa and elsewhere more dependant on future bi-lateral aid from China.

Whether China could convince the African delegations to adhere to its objections was an open question until late in the day, when representatives of the African group and the EU met jointly to announce that they were nearing agreement on future financial aid to Africa and that they expected to have a successful outcome by Friday. The EU pointedly said that this left only the China-US transparency dispute to be resolved in order to have a successful outcome of the conference on Friday. While that may not be true, there seemed genuine relief that the threatened African walkout would now be avoided.

Besides the central issue of transparency, there still remained at day’s end major questions about the amount, if any, of adaptation aid that might be promised by the US and the difficult legal issue of how to maintain the Kyoto Protocol in effect while the new COP15 agreement went forward.

December 18, 2009

The special bus from Malmo, Sweden (where many conference participants stay) to the Bella Center was a half-hour late on Thursday because an inch of snow had fallen Wednesday night. When I asked the driver about this, he sighed and said drivers in southern Sweden don’t know how to handle snow. When we arrived at the Center, it seemed like a ghost town. With the continuing arrival of heads of state, most NGO representatives, who had provided much of the life and spontaneity to the conference, were banished, and the Center had the look of a cavernous airplane hangar. I was able to enter with my press pass but discovered that the press was to be confined to the designated media center, with no access to the delegates, the meeting areas or the press conference room. After protests by my new-found colleagues, the UN organizers lifted these restrictions, and we had the run of the place, which slowly filled with delegates and staffs of the arriving national leaders.

Wednesday’s gloom seemed slowly to recede on Thursday. Yvo de Boer announced that two new “contact groups” had been established to revise the earlier working group drafts of both the new Long-term Corrective Action (LCA) agreement and the Kyoto Protocol (KP), as demanded by China and the G77 the previous day, and that these groups were to report back to the plenary meeting of the parties in the evening with proposed final drafts of both documents. This was a formidable task, not only because there remained some 140 items of disputed text, but also because a half-dozen major issues had still to be resolved by the arriving leaders, including (1)the future role of the KP, (2) the money to be advanced by developed countries to assist developing countries to future emissions and, more importantly, adapt to the effects of climate change, (3) the overall emission target for the LCA (holding the global temperature increase to 2 degrees centigrade, as currently proposed, or 1.5 degrees, as urged by many scientists) and (4) most importantly for purposes of the conference, the continuing dispute between the US and China over transparency in reporting and verifying claimed emission reductions. Nevertheless, the negotiations had been put back on track, and de Boer appeared relieved.

Around midday Hillary Clinton suddenly appeared, fresh off a plane but buoyant and very firm. The Secretary of State announced that the US is prepared, in the context of an overall agreement, to commit to participate with others (presumably the EU) in making available significant funds, ramping up to $100 billion annually by 2020, to assist developing countries in combating climate change, including programs to slow deforestation. She insisted, however, that this commitment would be part of a broad “operational” agreement (as opposed to a legally binding document) that included meaningful reporting and verification commitments from China and others. Failure of China to commit to such transparency “would be a deal-breaker,” she said, while adding that the precise nature and procedures for assuring transparency could be worked out by her staff (Todd Stern) and his Chinese counterparts. When asked whether President Obama would attend the conference on Friday, Clinton said that depended on “whether there is anything to come for.”

Shortly after Secretary Clinton spoke, Nancy Pelosi, Henry Waxman, Ed Markey, Charley Rangel and several other House democrats appeared briefly to say they supported the promised funding and believed much of it was already contemplated by the Waxman-Markey bill and its pending Senate counterpart, the Kerry-Boxer bill (which Senator Kerry, in a whirlwind appearance Wednesday, had predicted would pass by June).

That set the stage for the day’s most interesting public discussion, a detailed press conference held by the Chinese Vice-Minister for Foreign Affairs, He Yafei, who outlined five principles for an agreement set forth by China’s Premier, Wen Jiabao, in talks with other delegations. The most important of these was China’s continuing resistance to US demands for full verification of emission reductions. In China’s view, such verification procedures may make sense for developing country actions funded by others as part of the new LCA agreement, but should not apply to voluntary actions taken by developing countries, such as China, as part of their own domestic development plans.

Nevertheless, China did offer to make available some emissions reports (unspecified) to the international community and to answer questions on such reports and to continue its dialogue on this issue with other countries. This held out some hope that face-to- face meetings between Premier Wen and President Obama on Friday might succeed in bridging their differences in time for the conference to end successfully on Friday.

December 18, 2009

By 8:30 Friday morning the Bella Center was filled with delegates, UN staffers, press and a few NGO representatives who had managed to attach themselves to national delegations. The sprawling press center, with thousands of laptops in operation, was buzzing in anticipation, largely for President Obama, who had arrived Thursday night. By 9:30 it was clear that the plenary session of the parties was being delayed, apparently awaiting the conclusion of side meetings involving the US, China, several EU countries, Brazil, India and the conference Executive Secretary, Yvo de Boer. Some of us welcomed the delay, since it was clearly time for the principal parties to step aside from the chaos of 15,000 people and 190 nations trying to negotiate a complex political text. The gathering of most delegates in the plenary, and the clustering of everyone else around TV monitors, until almost noon, seemed to provide the needed opportunity for the principal negotiators to make the final push required, against considerable odds, to complete the agreement.

The wait ended around noon, when Danish Prime Minister Rasmussen reconvened the meeting and introduced Premier Wen of China, who briefly stated China’s domestic emission reductions, including a 40-45% reduction by 2025 in China’s carbon intensity (that is, per capita carbon emissions per unit of GDP), reiterated the need for an agreement based on the established international environmental principle of “common but differentiated responsibility” and then reiterated China’s transparency offer along the lines outlined Thursday by the Vice-Minister of Foreign Affairs. President Lula of Brazil spoke next, promising to reduce Brazil’s emissions by 35-38% by 2020 (most of it through reduced deforestation) and invest $16 billion a year domestically for this purpose. He then demanded that the US and EU repay their “climate debt” by guaranteeing to take all actions required to hold temperature increases to 2 degrees centigrade, agreed with China that strict verification procedures were an excessive intrusion on sovereignty and insisted that no agreement was better than a bad one (he did not note that Brazil is already receiving considerable carbon-offset payments under the KP).

The wait over, President Obama entered and, especially for those of us who have grown used to his eloquence, was unusually sober and matter of fact. He recited his administration’s considerable steps to put in place domestic emission reductions, restated the Secretary of State’s $100 billion annual pledge, announced a $10 billion “fast start” fund for 2010-12 for developing country adaptation and reiterated the necessity for all countries to commit to emission reductions that could be verified by the international community. He then said, soberly, that this was not a time for talk but for action and that a successful Copenhagen agreement still required responsible compromises in the next few hours by many parties. I thought he said all he could substantively at the time, but his talk disappointed many who had somehow hoped either for much more money or some other form of magic bullet to overcome the parties’ own differences.

While people were digesting Obama’s speech, a new three-page document emerged publicly this afternoon (after having been leaked to the press) that was designed to short-circuit further discussion of the still-disputed agreement drafted by the working parties and to make it possible for the 110 presidents and heads of state to announce at least some agreement before leaving. Both this new draft and the manner in which it was produced proved, predictably, highly unpopular since it omitted much of what the parties had been negotiating and was said to draw heavily on the “Chair’s draft” that had been repudiated by the large majority of the parties Wednesday morning. The parties have been revising that proposal, and a new and more balanced draft has now been leaked to the press. All indications are that these discussions will go for many hours, despite the fact it is already long past the conference’s planned 6 pm closing time.
This is not the time or the place to try to analyze the three-page draft. Even if it continues to improve and is approved later this evening, it seems likely that many nations will regard that document as a meager outcome for their work over the past year and that considerable bitterness toward Denmark and others, including the US, will resurface as negotiations proceed toward formal agreement next year. This seems a great pity since, despite the parties’ disagreements and disappointments with respect to various parts of the agreement, some 193 nations have committed themselves to addressing climate change and to dedicating significant resources to the abatement of adverse impacts in developing countries. Moreover, some agreement was necessary, and the complex drafting process managed by Denmark had in fact run aground. The short closing “Accord” will in any case be accompanied by a series of technical annexes to the existing UN Framework Convention that were approved unanimously by the parties earlier this evening. It is those annexes that will themselves provide the bases for the future agreements to be negotiated in 2010.

So it’s time (10 pm) to sign off for the day, bid adieu to my most pleasant journalist colleagues, make my way through the absolutely mobbed conference facility and catch the train back to Malmo to try to catch on TV the sort-of-promised Obama-Wen-Rasmussen-deBoer press conference before leaving at 4 am for my flight home.


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