Making sense of the UN climate talks – even when you’re in Copenhagen with an access badge – is no easy task. The bustling clamor of 15,000 negotiators, policy experts, business leaders, and environmental activists in the Bella Center can leave experienced observers still searching for clarity. But after nearly a week of watching, listening, and asking questions, I’m hopeful about the progress the parties are making towards a climate agreement and mindful of the challenges that lie ahead in the final days of discussions.
My strongest impression is that all countries – 190 represented here – are committed to doing something about climate change. The counter-productive arguments of “we won’t act until you do” have been largely replaced by firm pledges to cut emissions. The U.S., E.U. nations, China, India, and scores of other countries have now put numbers on the table. We can debate whether these emission reductions are deep enough or fast enough, but at least they provide a basis for negotiation. Similarly, the pledges of industrialized countries to give financial aid to developing countries for mitigating and adapting to climate change are starting points for serious discussion. I hope that the recent posturing by the Chinese over emission verification rules and the temporary walkout by African nations over proposed aid levels will eventually give way to a common purpose for saving the planet.
The UN conference is about to enter a critical phase as environment ministers and more than 110 heads of state arrive in Copenhagen. This is crunch time for the negotiators, ably led by the Danish president of COP-15, Connie Hedegaard, who now must fashion diplomatic language acceptable to all parties. In a briefing for NGOs that I attended yesterday, Hedegaard implored the governments to deal with as many tough issues as possible:
> “Nothing gets easier. The science is here; the knowledge is here, and the political leaders are here. If we don’t resolve our differences now, when will we ever again have 110 heads of state in the same place talking about climate change?”
The prevailing wisdom is that Copenhagen will end on Friday with a political agreement that puts the parties on track to reach a legally binding treaty in 2010. Watch the proceedings via webcast here.
Walking around the sprawling Bella Center complex can be a surreal experience. In just half an hour this afternoon, I saw a group of African delegates consulting over treaty language, two European environment ministers closely trailed by TV cameras, a trio of Bhutanese monks sharing tea while working on their laptops, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger delivering a speech, and six activists dressed in polar bear suits with signs that read “2 degrees is too much; save our home!” It’s almost more than the brain can process.
On Saturday, we watched on TV screens in the Bella Center as 60,000+ climate demonstrators marched in the streets of Copenhagen. No one could predict whether the march would be a helpful boost for action at the conference or a downward spiral into violence. Fortunately, the Danish police were well trained and managed the situation with limited confrontations. The demonstrators got to make their point without disrupting the conference.
As an American, it’s refreshing to see the U.S. re-emerge as a climate policy leader on the world stage. The Obama Administration has pulled out all the stops by sending five Cabinet-level officials (Chu, Vilsack, Locke, Salazar, and Jackson) to give presentations during the conference. With new fuel economy standards for cars, investments in energy efficiency and renewable energy, the EPA greenhouse gas reporting rule, and an endangerment finding on carbon dioxide, the U.S. can point to many positive achievements. President Obama’s decision to come here on Friday has motivated other leaders to attend, too.
Among the most popular young people at the conference is Oliver Bruce, a New Zealander who I met on the Metro. He set up a Twitter feed to alert participants to where receptions are serving free food. Oliver is one more character in a cast of thousands in Copenhagen that look optimistically for world leaders to reach a deal.
Whatever emerges in the final diplomatic text and pronouncements, one of the most significant achievements of the conference may simply be that this massive gathering took place. The conference can be seen as the culmination of 30 years of science, technological advances, and policy advocacy. Business leaders will leave here bolstered to produce more renewable energy and energy-efficient products. Policymakers will depart intent on enacting new caps on emissions. Activists will go home inspired to keep the pressure on their elected officials. When everyone leaves Copenhagen, the long-term momentum towards a low-carbon, green economy may be unstoppable.