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December 18th 2009 print

Tim Wilson

COP15: Day 11

It’s hard to stand between developing country governments and a pot of gold especially when the obligations that come with it will fall onto their successors.


Apparently the arrival of Gordon Brown, Robert Mugabe, Hugo Chavez and Kevin Rudd in the Danish capital wasn’t enough to seal a climate change deal and everyone is now waiting on Barak Obama to arrive and deliver. But the warning from US negotiators today was “No, he can’t” break any deadlock between countries because what’s on the table is as good as he’s able to get through the US Congress.

But then Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, arrived to declare “Yes, she can” by offering the US’s help to create a $100 billion-a-year climate adaptation for developing countries on the condition that they also seek emissions cuts. Developing countries now finally have the adaptation slush fund they want, but with strings they don’t want attached.

The test is now whether developing countries can now get past their childhood taunting games where the United States emits carbon, then India and China reciprocates, and when daddy Executive Secretary, Yvo de Boer, intervenes India and China claim “the US started it” as a means of absolving themselves of any wrongdoing.

But China’s view isn’t shared by all countries. The focus of the last scheduled day of the conference tomorrow is whether developing countries will hold together and take the US’s adaptation fund bait or whether the mounting criticism of India and China’s hardline negotiating position will break them apart. It’s not clear, but like separating a politician from tax dollars, it’s hard to stand between developing country governments and a pot of gold especially when the obligations that come with it will fall onto their successors.

Meanwhile Kevin Rudd has been trying to deal himself into the negotiations by pulling at heart-strings in a speech to the conference arguing for an agreement to make Canberra primary school girl “little Gracie” proud. It’s cute, but is more likely to sway the Australian public that many developing country governments who have, and in some cases let, thousands of little Gracies die each year from a lack of food because they’d rather protect the interests of their mates or use food money to line their Swiss bank accounts.

Speaking of Robert Mugabe his attendance is correctly causing a stink after his recent speech declaring the West responsible for any anthropogenic climate change. It is certainly a safe claim for him to make since his thinly veiled dictatorship has destroyed Zimbabwe’s economy ensuring they couldn’t emit greenhouse gases even if they wanted to.

And it may shock some readers, but today I agree with Deputy Greens Party leader, Christine Milne, when she said on Sky News yesterday that “There is a real risk here (in Copenhagen) that you will get a political agreement because world leaders are not coming here to go home with a loss of face and they will want some sort of photo opportunity”. And her criticism is spot on because a bad deal is actually worse than no deal at all.

A bad deal is likely to only be a puff political statement that all leaders can agree to. But the risk is also that it sets out the architecture for an agreement while pushing all of the unresolved issues to contact groups, reference groups or sub committees.

That’s a risk because it means issues start to be dealt with in isolation rather than being negotiated as part of a broader package where costs in one stream are offset by gains in other streams.

If a bad deal is struck it would be better for the meeting to fail because the risks of doing so are comparatively small, climate aside, and that is where discussions are now heading.

And before everyone loses perspective international negotiations regularly fail, and normally more than once. In fact most take at least five years to secure an insufficient agreement and longer for a semi-good one.

Take the Doha Round of trade negotiations that are stalled in their eighth year, and they’re about liberalising trade to increase economic gain. This round of climate change negotiations is only in its second year and is all about how we’re going to distribute economic pain.

A Copenhagen failure will be like getting an extension on a school assignment where everyone aims to get it done by the deadline, but work, or in this case the global economic crisis, and breaking up with your boyfriend, meaning insufficient political will, always seems to hit right at the part when you were about to put pen to paper.

Eventually you do get the assignment done, it just tends to be when you have more breathing space, or you just push off dealing with something else. And for punishment you get a little knock down in your final grade for being late or if climate change evangelists are to be believed a couple of more floods per year.

Tim Wilson is Director of the Climate and Trade Unit at the Institute of Public Affairs and is blogging from Copenhagen at www.sustainabledev.org

See Tim Wilson’s previous reports:

COP15: Opening Ceremony

COP15: Day 2

COP15: Day 3

COP15: Day 4

COP15: Day 5

COP15: Day 6

COP15: Day 7

COP15: Day 8

COP15: Day 9

COP15: Day 10