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For whom the bell tolls

15 September 2010
UNFCCC - COP15 - Negotiations

UNFCCC - COP15 - Negotiations

An insight at the Copenhagen Climate Change Conference

By Jose Ignacio Garcia, SJ

7 January 2010

Lack of political will and exaggerated expectations could explain the failure to achieve a fair, binding and ambitious agreement at the Copenhagen Conference.

As Archbishop Desmond Tutu began the concluding prayer at the ecumenical service on Sunday December the 13th, Copenhagen Cathedral bells started to ring, 350 times. Simultaneously, hundreds of Churches in Denmark joined the Cathedral bells – also ringing 350 times. 350 is a symbolic number for environment campaigners: 350 parts per million is deemed the safe upper limit for carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, so as to avoid runaway climate change.

The service was held after the first week of the Climate Change Conference. That week had already shown the fragility of the negotiations. Even as the bells rang, it was hard not to think that they could be funeral bells, marking the burial of the Conference. On the other hand the mood had been calm, except for ‘Climategate’. This term described the incident in which emails were stolen from the computer of a scientist member of the IPCC. But it turned out to refer to a minor dispute between scholarly colleagues rather than a plot proving that the ‘climate-change sceptics’ were right. In Copenhagen, the media were more interested in the long queues that participants had to endure than in the technical, scarcely gripping negotiations.

The two main bodies of the Conference had started their work: the ‘Ad Hoc Working Group on Further Commitments for Annex I Parties under the Kyoto Protocol’ (AWG-KP) and the ‘Ad Hoc Working Group on Long-term Cooperative Action under the Convention’ (AWG-LCA). The AWG-KP was to produce the agreement among those countries that had already signed the Kyoto Protocol – that is, most developed countries, but not the USA. They were expected to agree firstly on strict limits on greenhouse emissions (the scientific consensus targeted a 50% reduction by 2020), and secondly on a generous financial commitment to fund the mitigation and adaptation measures needed to be taken by the less developed countries.

The AWG-LCA group, comprising almost all the countries of the world, was supposed to design a framework for long-term economical and technical collaboration: this was the forum for commitments by less developed countries which were now major economic powers: China, India, Brazil, South Africa – joined surprisingly, by the USA, which had not signed the Kyoto Protocol.

This two-track negotiation was not satisfactory for the European Union, which sought a single treaty but such a twin-treaty outcome. The reason is significant: the Kyoto Protocol binds its members, whereas the Climate Change Convention does not. While the EU, and some other major world major economic powers would be accepting a clear, specific, expensive agreement, other major economies would live in a juridical fog.

This asymmetry may explain the seeming calm, but the absence of progress, during the first week of the Conference. It may also explain, though not justify, the clumsy attempt by the Danish Presidency to elaborate a draft (which was never published but acquired a high profile popular) for a single treaty. The draft did not go into detail. But its very existence set of the alarms of some more sensitive members of the Assembly, who could not accept, even hypothetically, that the sovereignty of the UN Conference might be evaded. The following days would show that this ‘sovereignty’ was hi-jacked by a powerful group of countries.

During the next week, negotiations were completely stuck. The arrival of almost two hundred Heads of State and Prime Ministers gave rise to slender political hope that so many leaders could not go allow themselves to return home empty-handed. But this desperate tactic was also unsuccessful. The differences were so great that there was neither scope nor time to reach an agreement, satisfactory for all, that was fair, ambitious and yet binding.

As we left Copenhagen Cathedral in a candlelight procession, the bells’ toll became a call to awake our consciences to the magnitude of the problems we now facie. Millions of people, all over the world, had expressed their concern, yet that was not sufficient. The attempt to raise awareness and to propose solutions must not and will not be abandoned. In this campaign the churches can continue to play a significant role.

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