Friday, 1 January 2010

19 December 2009

COPENHAGEN: There may have been 192 governments represented at the climate change conference here, but in the end, it came down to just two men: the former law professor Barack Obama of the US, and the one-time geologist Wen Jiabao of China.

I’m told that yesterday morning they realised that there was no workable text to present to their fellow leaders, so they rolled up their sleeves (figuratively, you understand) and did it themselves. One veteran negotiator told me it was unprecedented in his experience to see world leaders do the hard graft of drafting themselves.

And so the Copenhagen Accord was born. It will never take its place alongside the Magna Carta or the US Declaration of Independence – but it was the best they could come up with.

And so ashamed of it were its sponsors that they could scarcely even bring themselves to damn it with faint praise. A first step, they called it, a modest success, something to build on. As late night turned into early morning, and as press conference followed press conference, it was almost embarrassing to see them trying to sound positive.

They all know they failed. They didn’t do what they came here to do. Nor did they do what the scientists told them they had to do to have even a small chance of avoiding the worst effects of climate change.

Here’s where we stand: suppose they had committed themselves to reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 50 per cent of 1990 levels by 2050. (Which they didn’t do.) Even that, almost certainly, would not have been enough to stop global temperatures rising by more than 2 degrees Celsius. That’s the point at which scientists say really nasty things start to happen.

Suppose they had come up with a cast-iron finance mechanism to help the poorest countries deal with the impact of climate change (floods, drought, famine) and to adapt to the needs of a low-carbon economy. (Which, again, they didn’t.) Even then, countries like India and China would have gone on increasing their emissions for years to come. After all, they argue, why shouldn’t their citizens have the comfy cars, the deep freezes and the air conditioners that rich people have? It wasn’t the Chinese or Indians who caused the problem, was it?

So the negotiators will have another go next year. They’ve set themselves some more deadlines, but given how much notice they took of the Copenhagen deadline, I don’t recommend holding your breath in anticipation. (Who was it who called this conference the most important gathering in the history of humankind? Ah yes, of course, the environment secretary Hilary Benn.)

As for the proceedings of the past few days, for a grizzled old reporter like me, it was all horribly reminiscent of a particularly fraught EU summit mixed with an even more fractious than usual political party conference. Too many people, not enough fresh air, and a vast amount of energy expended to produce not very much.

I was more or less right in my prediction last week about how it would all end, although I did think they would go on later into the night and eventually come up with something a bit more impressive.

On the other hand, they did try. And these are fiendishly difficult issues to get right. So what do you reckon? How about a B for effort and an E for achievement? Must try harder next time?

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