The darkest hour

I made CAN’s briefing this morning despite being up till 3am. Not sure whether this is due to jetlag or excitement, but either way it’s working out pretty well – definitely getting the most out of my time here.

Today is the Kyoto protocol’s 10th anniversary and the front page of the daily conference programme lists four events to mark the occasion, from a Greenpeace celebration complete with “giant birthday cake” to a “poolside party” at dusk.

Yet there was not much of a party atmosphere at the CAN briefing.

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“It seems like it [Australia] is doing everything it can to block progress,” said Stephen Campbell from Greenpeace Australia and Asia Pacific.

“Japan, Australia, Canada and the US are trying to transform what is an anniversary into a funeral,” agreed Marcelo Furtado from Greenpeace Brazil. Ambitions to cut developed country emissions by 25-40 per cent by 2020 are “being picked apart now and may end up on the trash heap at the end of the week.”

And this, stressed Mr Furtado, as the Intergovernmental panel on climate change (IPCC) was yeterday receiving its Nobel Peace Prize with Al Gore for making these very recommendations. 

“If you don’t know where you are headed, every road will get you there,” warned Alden Meyer of the US-based Union of Concerned Scientists, “the stakes are too high for this kind of political game playing.”

Today’s gloomy prognosis stands in stark contrast to the upbeat assessment NGOs issued only a day ago to mark the halfway point in the talks.

Yet there is a ray of hope. In his experience of these UN talks, said Mr Meyer, the darkest hour is always just before the ministers arrive. Luckily, there is also a saying that the darkest hour is just before dawn.

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Relief at half-time… or not

I intended to arrive on time for NGO Climate action network‘s daily 10am briefing, which today would give an update on how they feel things stand halfway through the conference.

Instead I stood outside in glorious hot sunshine – or hideous sweltering heat depending on your viewpoint – waiting to register. This took an hour and several delegates looked like they might dissolve altogether before making it in.

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Once inside, it was not the manic circus I had expected, but rather a bustling affair interspersed with coffee drinkers, email checkers and readers. There is a lot going on though.

Everyone claims to be happy with how the talks are progressing. CAN’s daily conference write up calls a draft text setting out principles for a roadmap to a post-2012 agreement a “solid start”. WWF speaks of “satisfactory progress”.

The EU claims “strong support” for many of its points and the US says talks have been “constructive”. China has been roundly praised for its open and flexible approach.

But not all is resolved yet. There remains a fundamental divide for example on what level of ambition should be included in the roadmap.

A draft text currently under discussion calls for 25-40 per cent emission reductions for developed countries by 2020, relative to 1990. It also says global emissions must peak within the next 10-15 years and be cut by “well over” half by 2050, relative to 2000.

But Harlan Watson, lead negotiator for the US on climate change, told reporters on Monday afternoon that Americans wanted no numbers of any sort in a roadmap text.  

“This might prejudge the outcomes [of negotiations over the next two years],” he said.

The US supports the launch of formal negotiations to conclude a post-2012 climate agreement by 2009, Dr Watson continued, and it is these that should set a “long-term, shared emissions reduction goal”. Specific numbers cannot be set in Bali, he argued, because of the limited negotiating time.

Dr Watson also refused to confirm the US would commit to binding targets in a Bali roadmap even if these were left unspecified. Japan is said to be supporting the Americans, despite proposing the very same halving of emissions by 2050 earlier this year.

The US position stands in stark contrast to that of the EU and UNFCCC chief Yvo de Boer. “It’s essential we walk away with a clear idea of where this process is going to take us,” Mr de Boer told reporters earlier the same day.

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He said long-term targets were essential to drive investment in clean energy technologies. But Dr Watson questioned whether specific numbers were necessary when the policy direction is already clear.

However intractable these differences may seem, there are forces at work pushing for consensus. On the EU’s side, there is an awareness that not setting forth a clear 2-year agenda at Bali could open the door to other fora, like the US-led major emitters group, seizing the initiative.

Conversely, sources say US opposition to the carbon market is not as resolute as it appears. Tomorrow, officials will finalise their draft texts to hand over to ministers on Wednesday. That’s when the real negotiations begin.

On a lighter note, it’s the Kyoto protocol’s 10th birthday tomorrow and a birthday cake will duly be rolled out. I shall of course be on hand to provide you with in-depth coverage.