Arrival of 110+ Heads of Government to Turn Climate Talks into Climate Summit

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Included in the official daily program published at the end of the first week of UN climate talks here in Copenhagen is a 14-page list of speakers for this coming Wednesday and Thursday. All are presidents, prime ministers or high-level ministers whose decision to attend the final days of the meeting are raising high hopes for progress.

“As the same order as ministers arrive, so does political will,” said Connie Hedegaard, president of the climate conference, in upbeat remarks at a press conference recapping the first week of work.

NGO observers are wryly saying that the conference is now “doomed to success,” meaning two things at once: On the one hand, the presence of so many leaders could be an unprecedented opportunity that makes successful outcomes unavoidable; on the other hand, even if agreements end up weak and lacking in ambition, they will nevertheless be trumpeted as a success by governments loathe to admit failure while standing in the global spotlight.

As late as Friday, observers were pessimistic about the deadlocked and contentious talks, which gave way over the subsequent 24 hours of informal closed-door talks to outcomes that Hedegaard characterized as “very, very productive.” Still, she cautioned that good intentions will not be enough, and that the time pressure is enormous with much work left to do.

Government negotiators have gotten as far as they can with each other and are sending the talks up the chain to government ministers, who have now arrived in Copenhagen three or four days earlier than any meeting like this before. They will advance the talks as far as they can before turning over the resolution of final details to arriving heads of government.

Hedegaard is responding to accelerating and unexpected developments with flexibility. Outside the official schedule and obligatory turns at the podium, she is creating space and time to allow world leaders to speak with each other informally to see if they can forge a deal on the “crunch” issues that must be agreed upon at the highest levels.

It will not be easy. The issues are tough and inter-related, and countries that find common ground on one may find themselves separated by a non-negotiable red line on another. And despite long preparation starting four years ago at the climate talks in Montreal, governments are heading into this final week still trying to agree upon a shared vision of what the global emissions reduction target should be and in what year emissions should peak.

Crunch Issues

Setting emissions targets is the first crunch issue. No less important is the finance issue — what industrialized nations must put on the table to help developing nations embark on a low-carbon pathway of economic development and adapt to the impacts of climate change. The two other primary issues facing world leaders is a clear decision on the legal form the next phase of obligation will take, and the depth and scope of commitments required from developing nations.

Since the U.S. rejected participation in the Kyoto Protocol more than a decade ago, the global economic landscape has shifted dramatically. The Senate would not ratify a treaty that excluded emerging economies, particularly China’s, from emission reductions obligations, but now China is at the negotiating table perhaps with even greater leverage than the U.S. as America’s largest creditor.

The two chief climate negotiators from the U.S. and China — Todd Stern and Su Wei — have been publicly jousting, and no one is certain what precisely is on display. The most optimistic assessments characterize the trading of barbs as a shadow play meant for media consumption, intended to mask the true nature of the back room talks. Others worry that China may be intentionally keeping a deal out of U.S. reach so that it can proceed unhindered in its own quest of a clean energy future, without U.S. competition. Could it be in China’s best interest to give fodder to Republican opponents of U.S. climate legislation? The speculation in the briefing rooms and hallways and after hours parties is endless.

This genial city of less than two million people has been transformed by the conference, magnifying the pressure on the negotiators. Hundreds of climate-themed side events, exhibitions and various forms of street theater surround the official proceedings, and a massive rally in support of climate action drew an estimated 100,000 people on Saturday. It ended in a candlelight vigil in front of the conference center where Nobel Peace Prize winner Desmond Tutu waited for the throng to arrive, together with human rights campaigner Mary Robinson.

But the conference has also attracted others who have come to disrupt proceedings or make sure the talks fail: Anarchist protesters who promised a day of action this coming Wednesday. At Saturday’s rally, well-organized Black Group teams wearing masks broke windows with bricks before being dispersed or arrested. Initial reports said almost 70 were detained, followed by another sweep that netted close to a thousand, who were handcuffed and seated in rows on the pavement before being taken away in police vans. Further detentions followed on Sunday. The police have established a visible presence and have been empowered with sweeping new laws that permit pre-emptive detentions.

While a sideshow to the larger climate proceedings, the violence is adding weight to the sense of urgency that is accelerating. Officials in charge of logistics for the conference have announced they will start restricting access to NGO observers to make room for swelling government delegations. The conference center is equipped to handle 15,000 people, but as the talks have now turned into a global summit, more than double that number of people with accreditation are pressing for entry.

Everybody Improvising

While the arrival of so many heads of government to a meeting devoted to climate change is unprecedented, there is worry that the talks could still unravel. With little apparent preparatory groundwork in place to accommodate high-level dealmaking, it is unclear what agreement can be reached, and everybody is improvising.

While hope for a positive outcome increased when President Obama earlier this month announced he would attend the last day of talks, it remains to be seen what will happen when he shares the limelight with Hugo Chavez of Venezuela, Evo Morales of Bolivia, Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe, and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran, among many others. Other observers are optimistic, believing that the surge of interest among heads of government is a sign that the world is finally ready to act and the moment too precious to squander.

Many political players, peripheral to the official negotiations, will also be making their case in the coming days. Eleven hundred mayors from around the world are holding a summit of their own, forming the second largest overall delegation to the climate talks. U.S. governors, headlined by Arnold Schwarzenegger of California, will make appearances to showcase impressive state actions to reduce emissions and to press the U.S. government to follow suit.

Republicans from the U.S. Congress, too, are sending a delegation with an anarchic agenda of its own. It was to be headed by Sen. James Inhofe of Oklahoma, but a vote on health care might keep him home from the overt mission to undermine progress that the Obama delegation, already publicly jousting with China, can make at this the 15th Conference of the Parties (COP15).

“In no time in the six COPs that I have attended,” Hedegaard said, “have talks been more constructive between the U.S. and China.”

Yvo de Boer, the UN climate chief, explained the negotiations between China and the U.S. this way:

“China is calling on the U.S. to do more. The U.S. is calling on China to do more. And I hope everyone will be calling on everyone to do more.”

De Boer, though, while hopeful of progress, said unequivocally that he didn’t expect there to be a legally binding agreement to emerge from these talks, but a political pathway to a treaty six to 12 months hence. For now, he called on all nations to raise the level of ambition on emissions reductions and to provide adequate financing for developing nations for mitigation, technology transfer and adaptation.

The issues still facing negotiators are complex, but one key text, which started out at 200 pages some months ago has been whittled down to a mere seven pages. It sets the stage for the next level of ambition and precision.

There was hope that the European Union would agree to unilaterally raise its emission reduction target to 30% below 1990 levels by 2020 in order to spur commensurate commitments, but the 27 member states of the EU could not find the will. A special heads of state meeting scheduled for Wednesday will let them try again, even though they have been marginalized by the overarching importance of the U.S.-China negotiations, the two countries which together account for half of the world’s emissions.

Eyes are also turning to Japan, with rumors circulating that the new prime minister might announce a generous offer to kick start the financing for commitments that need to reach about $100 billion a year for developing nations.

The fluid nature of the talks is hard for anyone to grasp, and nobody knows what to expect in this moment of great opportunity and danger.


See also:

Deforestation Deal, Copenhagen’s Supposed Savior, Hits New Low as Targets Dropped

UN Climate Chief Commits to Kyoto, But Uncertainty Over Treaty’s Future Grows

Adapting and Mitigating Climate Change: A Deeply Nuanced Approach

Investors Ready to Fight Climate Change, But Government Policies Aren’t Helping

China’s Entrepreneurs Are Ready, But Is Their Government?

Making Sure Uncle Sam is Dressed for Copenhagen

(Photos: David Sassoon)

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