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The climate debacle and reality of a changing world order

By Paul Okunlola, Assistant Editor
20 December 2009   |   10:00 pm
IF the hype that preceded the 15th Conference of Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC COP 15) was a measure of global interest in the threats to the Earth from its changing climate, the controversy that attended it's closing hours may have inadvertently confirmed assertions that the talks were in effect a referendum on the ability of the contemporary world to collectively resolve the looming challenges of the modern age.

From the onset, the expectations may have been unfairly high, being billed to be the ultimate summit at which the future of the Earth and its ability to sustain life in it’s currently form would be determined. And, with just two weeks to “seal the deal” and given the scope of challenges already facing the world from the changing climate, this may in fact, have been a rather tall order.


Further complicating matters, according to observers speaking with the benefit of hindsight, is that as the threats facing the Earth have loomed larger by the day, so also have the divisions between negotiating parties run deep, as deep perhaps, as the ideological lenses through which they are viewed.

But after two years of progressively intense negotiations on the text of a treaty to address fears over the Earth’s health, the arrival of delegates in their hordes at the Bella Centre venue of the summit – also doubling as the Conference of Meeting Parties – in Copenhagen Denmark, reflected the unprecedented interest by parties in pushing for a successful outcome for the talks.

The numbers were almost as staggering as the science that placed the world on edge since the alarm was first sounded in 1972 that all was not well with the Earth’s climate. Assembled together were 119 heads of state and governments along with 31,310 official participants, made up of 10,584 registered delegates, 13,495 representatives of observer groups – comprising non-governmental organisations, international organisations – 3,051 media representatives and 4,180 technical, security and administrative staff.

And indeed, after more than 264 hours of intense negotiations since the summit formally kicked-off on Monday December 7, by the final day of the talks the science behind the threats was no longer in doubt, and neither was the urgency of the need for collective action.

However, as the two-week long talks entered its final 24 hours, such were the deepening divisions among negotiating parties that the realities of a changing world order had begun to play out even in the unlikely context of the debate on a basically scientific issue.

For instance, 10 years ago, it may have been safe to bet on the likelihood that the opposing poles in any major global dispute would be the United States on the one hand, and Russia and its allies on the other. But it now seems such a long time ago since that age, as the principal actors are no longer the same.

Amid major differences that emerged during the talks, the balance of power in the negotiating halls this time around was decidedly altered, as China, not Russia, or the European Union, or even Japan, became the major factor, along with the U.S., in determining the ultimate direction of the summit.

For instance, attempts by some industrialised nations, acting on behalf of countries charged under the Kyoto Protocol with mandatory emissions limits – the so-called Annexe 1 countries – to push through a ‘Danish Draft,’ were eventually abandoned on Friday after China and other powerful emerging economies lined up in opposition.

China, evolving a strong alliance with three other major emerging economies – Brazil, South Africa and India – and in alliance with the African bloc and other members of the G77 group of developing nations, had led the efforts that eventually put to rest attempts to dump or downgrade the Protocol.

Some nations, led by Japan, Europe, Australia and Canada, had moved to replace the Protocol with an agreement that adds obligations by the U.S. as well as developing nations. The G77 and African nations, however, want to keep the Protocol because it is the only legally binding pact in existence and clearly spells out the responsibility of industrialised nations to help developing countries to cope with the impact of climate change.

“Whether Kyoto protocol will survive is an important criterion whether developed nations fulfill common but differentiated responsibilities. It is a matter of credibility,” said China’s chief negotiator Su Wei.

Again, dissentions making the rounds among nations opposed to the move to dump the Kyoto Protocol were only given a public face by another emerging vocal group, the leftist economies of South America, led by self acclaimed American nemesis, Hugo Chavez, the President of Venezuela, who along with Brazilian President Lula da Silva and Bolivia’s Evo Morales publicly denounced the move before the plenary session.

Informally representing the Latin American alternative trade alliance ALBA – which stands for the Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas and means “Dawn” in Spanish – the group was founded by Cuba and Venezuela in 2004 as a fair trade alternative to U.S.-backed free trade policies. Following their elections, Evo Morales from Bolivia and Daniel Ortega of Nicaragua also joined ALBA, which Chavez has nicknamed the Club of ‘Chicos Malos,’ or bad boys, because of its opposition to U.S. domination.

Taking the floor after President Barack Obama delivered his address warning that the U.S. had set its targets and would expect other nations to, in essence fall in line, Chavez said, “I still smell sulphur,” in a throw-back to his description of former President George Bush as the devil at the UN General Assembly in New York last year.

While industrialised nations have insisted on the need for transparency in the reporting by nations on their emissions targets as a precondition for accepting any deal, developing nations were on their part strongly opposed to what they described as a glaring lack of transparency in the way the process of the negotiations were conducted.

For instance, referring to Obama’s entry into the hall through an obscured security door on the platform, Chavez said: “That is the emperor that arrives in the middle of the night and cooks up a document that we will not, will never accept.”

He went on: “I want to state clearly here that all countries are equal and all parties also. There are no first category Presidents or second category Presidents. All Presidents are the same, just as all people are equal. There is a real lack of transparency here; it is not through a small back door that pieces of paper marked ‘Top Secret’ should be slipped into the hall, which will be expected to solve the problems of the world.

“Let me also say that Obama said something here that is ridiculous. The United States that could put in $700 billion to save its banks can only raise $10 billion to help poor nations cope with climate change. Obviously, this government is not different from the ones before it and Obama will turn out to be one of the major frustrations of the world, because people believed in him.”

In a much anticipated speech, Obama had laid out the U.S. position on how to move the climate debate forward.

“After months of talk, and two weeks of negotiations, I believe that the pieces of that accord are now clear.

“First, all major economies must put forward decisive national actions that will reduce their emissions, and begin to turn the corner on climate change. I’m pleased that many of us have already done so, and I’m confident that America will fulfill the commitments that we have made: cutting our emissions in the range of 17 per cent by 2020, and by more than 80 per cent by 2050 in line with final legislation.

“Second, we must have a mechanism to review whether we are keeping our commitments, and to exchange this information in a transparent manner. These measures need not be intrusive, or infringe upon sovereignty. They must, however, ensure that an accord is credible, and that we are living up to our obligations. For without such accountability, any agreement would be empty words on a page.

“Third, we must have financing that helps developing countries adapt, particularly the least-developed and most vulnerable to climate change. America will be a part of fast-start funding that will ramp up to $10 billion in 2012. And, recently, Secretary Clinton made it clear that we will engage in a global effort to mobilise $100 billion in financing by 2020, if – and only if – it is part of the broader accord that I have just described.

“Mitigation, transparency and financing. It is a clear formula – one that embraces the principle of common but differentiated responses and respective capabilities. And it adds up to a significant accord – one that takes us farther than we have ever gone before as an international community,” he said.

Earlier, Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao, had also urged an appropriate response to the challenges by the summit. “At this very moment, billions of people across the world are following closely what is happening here in Copenhagen. The will that we express and the commitments that we make here should help push forward mankind’s historical process of combating climate change. Standing at this podium, I am deeply aware of the heavy responsibility.

“Climate change is a major global challenge. It is the common mission of the entire mankind to curb global warming and save our planet. It is incumbent upon all of us, each and every country, nation, enterprise and individual to act, and act now in response to this challenge.”

After reeling off his country’s efforts at correcting its climate faults, the Premier said; “To meet the climate challenge, the international community must strengthen confidence, build consensus, make vigorous effort and enhance cooperation. And we must always adhere to the following principles: First, maintain the consistency of outcomes; second, uphold the fairness of principles, notably the principle of common but differentiated responsibilities; third, pay attention to the practicality of targets; and, fourth, ensure the effectiveness of institutions and mechanisms.”

But it was Brazil’s President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva that won the accolades of the delegates after an impassioned speech in which he urged all nations to set aside self-interest and economic sentiments and come together to save the Earth.

His words: “I am a little frustrated, because for long we have been discussing the climate change issue, but more and more, we see the problems in even more severe terms than we imagined.

“Last night I participated in an unprecedented meeting with other leaders till 2.00 a.m., which was uncommon and reminded me of my trade union days when I had to bargain with businesses. This only happened because we did not act responsibly before now.

“The truth is that we cannot run away from adopting common but differentiated responsibilities. Money is not everything. Money put on the table is a payment for emissions done for two centuries, so it is not a bargain between those who have and those who do not have money. It is a commitment needed, as scientists are saying that climate change is irreversible. Those who have money therefore need to protect those who are in the need. In some countries, three square meals a day is something achieved a log time ago, but in my country, for so many people, three square meals a day is still something of the future. So, it is not only climate change we are discussing, we have to discuss development and opportunities for all.

“Before now, there was an agreement on two degrees limit of temperature rise. Everybody has consciousness that building agreement is only possible if strong countries take other countries along. These targets should be easier issues to decide on, but there are those who want to bargain about it. We believed that the principles of the protocol and of the convention were supposed to form the underpinning s of this conference.

“So, what we do not agree to, is that all the most important countries in the world gathered to sign a paper only because we want to sign a paper. But if we are not able to draft a paper till this time, I don’t know which angel will come and put in us the intelligence and the wisdom we lacked till now.

“Anyway, because I believe in God, I also believe in miracles, but we need to be responsible. What we really want is that we all work together, rich countries and poor, so that we can say we all have the common good that will allow us together, to show that we are truly concerned about the planet,” he said.

As the clocked ticked towards midnight on Friday and delegates remained buried deep in negotiations within the cavernous belly of the Bella Centre conference venue, as the word went round that UN Secretary General Ban Ki moon had persuaded heads of state to delay their departure till Saturday morning, the prevailing sentiment as the bells tolled was that indeed, only a miracle would save the talks from collapse and snatch a deal from the looming jaws of discord.