We sink or swim together

Jose Ignacio Garcia, SJ

14 October 2009

The schedule of UN meetings before the Copenhagen Conference on Climate Change shows how intense is the negotiation process: 1-12 June, UN climate negotiations in Bonn; 21-25 September, UN Climate Summit in New York; 28 September – 9 October, UN negotiations in Bangkok; 2- 6 November, final round in Barcelona; and 7 – 18 December, the Copenhagen Conference itself. We are entering a critical phase of the Copenhagen preparations at international and European level and any agreement will require energy, diplomatic skills, and generosity.

Amidst the bargaining, we must keep in mind the underlying long-term principles: “As people, as nations, as a species: we sink or swim together” said Ban Ki-moon, the UN General Secretary of United Nations, in Copenhagen recently. And in a very optimistic way he added he was looking forward the Copenhagen Conference in December to seal “the deal on a more equitable, safe and prosperous future for all. A deal that that will cut greenhouse gas emissions, promote green growth and support the most vulnerable as they adapt to change

Not everyone, however, is as positive as Ban Ki-moon.

Jairam Ramesh, India’s Minister of State for Environment, insisted that ambitions for a global climate deal at Copenhagen should be scaled down, so as to avoid “exaggerated expectations”. Instead of binding emissions cuts, Ramesh suggested that governments should concentrate on three policies: finance for adaptation to climate change; combating deforestation and promoting forestation; and technology sharing. He noted that agreement is still far off in two areas: targets for reducing emissions in rich countries; and support for climate change action in developing countries.

But things are moving all over the world. Last October, several African leaders stated that “Africa will demand that reparations and damages should be paid by polluting countries”. The Government of Burkina Faso calculates that 65 billion dollars are needed to deal with the effects of climate change in Africa. He added, pointedly, “the US state of Texas with 30 million inhabitants creates as many greenhouse gases as the billion Africans taken together”.

As the Copenhagen Conference approaches, political participants’ public positions naturally seek to defend strategic interests. The two key issues already mentioned – reduction in emissions and financial support for developing country programmes to mitigate the effects of climate change – remain difficult. One of the biggest obstacles is the question of whether any agreement on CO2 emission cuts will bind all the signatories. The USA, for instance, has indicated that it will not sign any deal that commits it to specific reduction levels unless the Chinese do the same. China has so far refused to agree to this, as has India. Mechanisms that allow China and India to find their own path to reach acceptable targets will have to be found.

The EU’s position has been defined since January and the financial instrument that supports this position was published in September. In this sense the EU position is one of the more consistent of the negotiating partners. Even if negotiating stances are diverse, it’s time for an optimistic approach. The Danish Minister for Climate and Energy recently argued that, even if insisting on emissions targets is unavoidable for the EU, “the West is going to have to be a little patient with the Chinese and other emerging economies. . . Getting them to agree to deviate from standard practices and take part in other CO2 reduction endeavours like ‘cap and trade’ is in the best interest”.

While politicians, diplomats, experts, activists and the media are immersed in this intense discussion, public opinion seems to be almost untouched. A survey from the British Government shows that only half of Britons think that climate change will affect them during their lifetime – and less than 20% believe that their children will be affected by global warming. It follows that any agreement in Copenhagen, in order to be effective, needs to enhance public awareness of the massive importance of climate change.


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