Are the Copenhagen climate talks failing?

December 15, 2009

COP15picIn the last few days it has seemed like the only thing everyone can agree on in Copenhagen is that time is running out.

The heads of state start arriving today and descend in full force on Thursday.

Negotiators say they don’t want their leaders arguing over the placement of a comma or a set of brackets, and so everything needs to be tied up by Friday morning.

That leaves just over two days, and more than 190 countries gathered in the conference hall can’t even settle on a draft text to argue over.

The parties seem to have divided into three factions – although officially it is rich vs poor, as developing countries say they are united.

In reality, developed countries responsible for most emissions currently in the atmosphere are facing down the major developing countries expected to produce the majority of emissions in coming decades.

Both want the other group to sign up for more ambitious targets – whether emissions cuts, funding for the poor, or verification of what they will do to curb production of greenhouse gasses in future.

On the sidelines are the small, poor nations that emit little but are expected to suffer most from the effects of a warmer world. They have the moral high ground, and the power to veto a deal, but in the dirty world of international politics, little else.

They say all the rest of the world is doing too little to change their behaviour.

It’s hard to be optimistic in the face of what looks like intractable positions and a looming deadline.

NGOs say they fear a watered-down “greenwash” deal that will be little more than an agreement that something must be done, at some point in the future – but will save face for the leaders arriving.

Some negotiators are a little more positive. One British official pointed out that it is always hard to tell how high-stakes summits will end because parties tend to keep their cards close to their chest right until the very end, so that is when any compromises might come.

That still leaves one question of course, according to Brazil’s climate change ambassador:

“When is the 25th hour? Is it tomorrow or is it Friday?” Sergio Serra wondered.

The world can only hope the negotiators waiting to pull out their cards get the timing right.

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