Friday, 4 December 2009

Greenwash: The last chance to stop global warming...until next time

The Copenhagen summit is part of a never-ending circus that is about so much more than just climate change

Ben Webster, Environment Editor

When politicians say there is no Plan B, it usually means that they have given up on Plan A and are unsure what to do next.
The UN climate summit in Copenhagen has been portrayed as the last chance to save the planet by those keen to bounce the world into agreeing a treaty on cutting greenhouse gases. Copenhagen is, of course, merely the last chance until the next chance. The key players are already preparing for another summit next November, when the real deal may be signed.
To give it its formal title, Copenhagen is the 15th Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) — often abbreviated to COP15. Mexico will probably host COP16 and the UN has begun planning COP17, likely to be in South Africa in 2011, and COP18 in Asia in 2012. This is an unstoppable global bandwagon that will just keep rolling, regardless of what is agreed on emissions.
COPs usually attract about 5,000 delegates, observers and journalists, but the sense of the world being on the edge of an abyss means that about double that number will be in Copenhagen. The same number of activists are expected to travel to the city, many staying in the hippy commune of Christiania where they will plot various stunts and blockades.

Most will arrive by plane, generating an enormous carbon footprint, though a special climate express will carry 400 delegates on a 13-hour train ride from Brussels to Copenhagen. Yet when the conference ends and no one is watching, many of the rail martyrs will quietly fly home.
The delegates may come from 192 countries but they all belong to the same travelling circus and they greet each other like old friends. Many going to Copenhagen are veterans of the Rio Earth Summit of 1992. And in addition to the annual COPs, these delegates attend smaller meetings several times a year. Last month they met for five days in Barcelona at the final UN climate talks before Copenhagen. They spent a week in Bangkok in October. In recent years, the circus has also been to Buenos Aires, Marrakesh, Milan, Montreal, Nairobi and Bali.
Spending so much time away from home gives delegates plenty of opportunity to continue their discussions in a more intimate manner outside the conference hall. This is known in COP circles as carbon dating. Bill Hare, an Australian climate scientist and COP veteran, met his wife, one of the German Government’s climate change negotiators, at the Kyoto summit in 1997. “I’m aware of several other couples who met at these climate meetings. It’s not surprising given how much time we spend together,” Hare says. “People refer to us as the dinosaurs because we have been attending the talks for so long.”
The sense of attending a travelling circus is heightened by the various costumes worn by activists seeking publicity. In Barcelona, a group of aliens wandered around the conference centre asking delegates to “take me to your leader”. They were trying to highlight the absence of world leaders from the talks and the doubts over whether President Obama would be in Copenhagen. Meanwhile, Bolivian peasants in ponchos and black bowler hats strolled around aimlessly because their President had decided that “real people” should attend the talks on his behalf.
The main change that Hare has noticed in the past decade is the gradual disappearance of organisations that are sceptical about man-made climate change. They used to set up stall alongside environmental groups in the exhibition spaces outside conference halls. Now that space is monopolised by the green lobby, which also controls most of the fringe events.
There was almost no debate at the Barcelona conference about the causes of climate change or how quickly temperatures would rise. The delegates spent the whole time arguing over how to share the burden of dealing with the problem.
Even the delegation from the US, a country which has spent two decades dodging any commitment to cut emissions, joined in the chorus of calls for global action to save the planet. The Americans’ chief negotiator is a climate scientist, Dr Jonathan Pershing, who has dedicated himself for more than a decade to saving the world from global warming.
Only 36 per cent of Americans believe that human activity is causing climate change, according to a Pew Research Centre survey in October. But despite this and polls in other countries showing high degrees of scepticism, no one at the conference displayed any doubt that man-made climate change was a real and present danger.
There were no questions about the science of climate change at any of the dozens of press conferences in Barcelona. Nor were the negotiators called upon to justify their proposals for draconian emissions cuts or staggering sums of “climate finance” for poor countries. Any question that sounded even vaguely sceptical was greeted with looks of contempt from both the platform and audience.
Even the activists get an easy ride. In the wake of an announcement by two young climate activists that they were starting an indefinite hunger strike, I was criticised by other journalists for asking how we could be sure that this wasn’t just another publicity stunt and whether they could prove that they really would be drinking only water.
The UN security guards were remarkably tolerant of the daily stunts pulled by activists. They allowed Greenpeace to park two big lorries outside the conference centre and create a fake storm by spraying water and thousands of leaves at arriving delegates. The irony was that Greenpeace diverted attention from the real evidence of global warming: it was 21C in early November and the leaves were still on the trees as autumn had yet to arrive in Catalonia.
The role of environmental groups at these events extends far beyond a few demonstrations. They work very closely with the 130 developing countries that are members of the so-called Group of 77, advising them on their negotiating positions and even providing personal assistants to help with paperwork and errands.
This goes a little way towards ameliorating the serious mismatch between the armies of negotiators from the rich countries and the tiny teams from the poorest nations. The US had 60 people in Barcelona and will send more than 100 to Copenhagen. In contrast, each developing country can send two delegates at the UN’s expense. They are given an economy-class flight and €219 a day for accommodation, food and local travel.
The Gambia, where the average income is less than £1 a day, had a team of three in Barcelona after itself funding one delegate. Ousman Jarju, its lead negotiator, is also head of the country’s water supply and had to deal with problems back home as soon as the day’s negotiations were over. The US and European teams had no other responsibilities and headed off to nice restaurants.
One key episode in Barcelona illustrates how Copenhagen will not really be about carbon but about money. The African group of nations walked out of Barcelona in protest at the paltry level of emissions cuts being offered by developed countries. However, they soon lost their nerve and returned after realising that they could lose billions in aid by delaying a deal.
When developing countries demand that rich countries cut their emissions by at least 40 per cent on 1990 levels by 2020, what they are really doing is raising the stakes in the poker game over the size of the aid budget. The EU has proposed a global fund of €100 billion a year to help developing countries to adapt to climate change and pursue low-carbon growth. The developing countries want much more than that and are deeply suspicious of the EU’s proposal that at least half the money should come from the private sector.
Their language is increasingly strident: polite appeals for charitable donations from the West have been replaced by aggressive demands for compensation for the damage done by our high-carbon lifestyles. The aggression often turns to anger when negotiators from developing countries are asked to spell out what they are willing to do to reduce the rate of growth of their emissions. Asked about this in Barcelona, Lumumba Stanislaus Di-Aping, spokesman for the Group of 77, railed against the West: “It is unfair for developed countries to ask the poorest and most vulnerable countries to subsidise their standards of living.”
Developing countries take every opportunity to point out that the West is responsible for the vast majority of the man-made CO2 in the atmosphere. They are less keen to discuss projections showing that they will account for 90 per cent of the future growth in emissions.
The concept of “common but differentiated responsibilities” lies at the heart of the Copenhagen negotiations. This is a coded way of saying that only developed countries are expected to cut their CO2. China, India and other developing countries can go on increasing their emissions as long as these grow at less than the “business-as-usual” rate.
With the planet-saving efforts of 190 countries being measured in two such different ways, there is boundless opportunity for accusations that some are not pulling their weight. When the circus rolls out of Copenhagen on December 18, the only certainty is that the big top will soon be re-erected in another city.