To describe the pace of negotiations during the first four days of the Copenhagen climate summit as “glacial” is not just cliched; it is an insult to glaciers, especially given the rate at which they are melting around the North Pole.

As each minute goes by it becomes clearer just how delusional hopes were that a legally binding successor to the Kyoto Protocol could be negotiated here.

No disrespect to the geopolitical superpower that is Tuvalu, but if an island nation with a population smaller than Broken Hill can suspend part of the talks for two days then something is amiss.

There is an endless stream of meetings (most closed to the public and the press), media conferences and protester stunts. But even the most fundamental issues are still being hotly contested.

Take the issue of global temperature rise. About 100 nations  — that is, half the COP15 participants — want to keep the increase to 1.5 degrees. These are mostly the poorest nations and those most vulnerable to the effects of climate change — vulnerable, in the case small island states such as  Tuvalu, meaning literally going under water if the most dire predictions eventuate.

“It is not possible to agree to a temperature increase of 1.5 degrees,” Dessima Williams, chair of the Association of Small Island States, said today. Lumumba Di-Aping, lead negotiator for the G77, says that a 2-degree temperature rise will “condemn Africa to death”.

But the chances of America, China and the European Union committing to 1.5 degrees are zero. So unless the Danes want to see see half of all UN countries refusing to sign the eventual Copenhagen agreement — which wouldn’t be the best look — some serious money is going to have be put on the table. An amount far bigger than the $10 billion so far suggested.

Then there is a question of what type of agreement will replace Kyoto — if there is one at all. The US, Australia, most industrialised countries favour a new pact in which the targets of all nations, developed and developing, are contained within a legally binding and verified by the UN. Most poorer countries want Kyoto to continue with deep cuts for the rich and a new, less binding accord for them.

China says that it won’t open up its emission-reduction efforts to public scrutiny unless it receives financial assistance from the West — something the US has already ruled out. India has gone even further by refusing to put its own target on any legally binding agreement.

Then there are logistical problems: there are various different “tracks” running at Copenhagen, with names such as the AWG-LCA (Ad Hoc Working Group on Long-Term Co-operative Action) and the AWG- KP (Ad Hoc Working Group on further commitments under the Kyoto Protocol). The US is involved in the first but not the second as it didn’t ratify Kyoto, making getting anything done even more complicated.

On the metro home, I overheard a Bangladeshi newspaper journalist chatting to a member of the Japanese negotiating team.

“In Copenhagen I have realised how little I know about this issue,” said the journalist.

“Don’t worry,” replied the man from Japan. “I’m in the negotiations and I don’t really understand what is going on.”

At the opening of the talks conference President Connie Hedegaard said: “Copenhagen will be the city of the three Cs: Cooperation, ‘Commitment  and Consensus. Right now it’s just looking like the city of confusion.

Peter Fray

Fetch your first 12 weeks for $12

Here at Crikey, we saw a mighty surge in subscribers throughout 2020. Your support has been nothing short of amazing — we couldn’t have got through this year like no other without you, our readers.

If you haven’t joined us yet, fetch your first 12 weeks for $12 and start 2021 with the journalism you need to navigate whatever lies ahead.

Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey

JOIN NOW