Tracking Copenhagen

As I write this, the 15th Conference of the Parties has reached Day 3, and I am home in Sidney. By the time you read this, I will be in Copenhagen in the last stretch of a critical conference on the future of our biosphere and humanity. By December 18 (or if it runs late, December 19), we will know the outcome.

There is always a certain amount of last minute media coverage about such events, but very little context setting. The fact is that Canada and virtually every other nation on earth signed and ratified the Framework Convention in 1992. It committed the world to reductions in greenhouse gases such that their build up in the atmosphere would be halted before they could become ‘dangerous.’ After seventeen years of further meetings and negotiations (including the 1997 meeting in Kyoto and the protocol produced there) we are rapidly approaching the danger zone. We are already experiencing the loss of millions of square kilometres of Arctic ice, the retreat of glaciers around the world, persistent drought in much of the world, unprecedented shifts in rainfall patterns and sea level rise.

There are many excuses and reasons for the failure to act over the last two decades. Some nations, mostly within the European Union, have achieved serious reductions. They have done so with improvements in their economy.

Germany is rapidly taking over the world market as provider of solar, wind and other green economy technologies, creating hundreds of thousands of new jobs. China is catching up, this year investing $600 billion in green technologies. Sweden has de-coupled carbon reductions from economic growth, growing its economy while cutting greenhouse gases. Yet, globally we have only taken baby steps toward the goal of avoiding dangerous levels of greenhouse gases.

The prospects for Copenhagen look better now than they did one month ago. We may owe Stephen Harper and his government a debt of gratitude. Harper’s pronouncement after the APEC summit that the negotiations were doomed to failure may have been the catalyst for a number of significant rescue attempts.

Significantly, French President Nicolas Sarkozy and Brazilian President Lula teamed up to make a compelling appeal to industrialized and developing nations to take on meaningful targets. Brazil committed to over 30% reductions in GHG below 1990 levels by 2020 through arresting deforestation. Lula noted, however, that to make this target, Brazil needed financial assistance from the industrialized world.

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon took the unusual step of attending the Commonwealth summit to plead for movement, singling out Canada as an impediment to progress. So too did low-lying island Commonwealth nations target Canada, with some suggesting we should be expelled from the Commonwealth. Even Her Majesty the Queen took aim at Canada. With the news that both President Obama and President Hu of China would attend the climate talks, our Prime Minister finally caved and agreed to join the over 100 leaders already committed to attend. The commitment of Obama and Hu increased hope that an agreement was possible.

However, these first few days have not gone well. Day 2 saw the revelation of a secret draft text from the US, UK and Denmark, proposing to sideline the concerns of the developing world, scrap the Kyoto Framework and move forward in a fashion that breaks faith with the poorest on the planet. This leaked text has led to a mood of distrust and anger within the negotiations. I am going to share a fragment of an email from a colleague already in Copenhagen. I am keeping his identity confidential, only noting that he is on a government delegation.

The issues on the table are very complicated—technically, economically, equitably and morally and politically. The Parties are far apart on the text—mitigation, adaptation, finance, tech transfer—all are part of the package and depend on each other—this is more like the Doha round and the WTO than climate! But unlike the trade talks there is a disaster clock ticking…

The mood is ugly, distrustful. The Danish police and security service are scared stiff. They raided some NGO residences today and confiscated lots of stuff they said could be used for civil disobedience.

I am normally a calm guy and not prone to anxiety but this place has me jumping. Next Thursday and Friday will be wild and unpredictable with over 100 heads of government speaking. There are 40,000 people on the attendees list. There are 5,000 journalists here. The Bela Centre capacity where the COP is being held is 15,000. The COP is chaired by the Danish Environment Minister. She and the Prime Minister cannot stand each other and do not talk (so it is widely twittered). The responsibility for bringing all this together rests with the Danes. Some optimists say that the G2 will come next week (Obama and Hu) and strike a deal that everybody can take it or leave it. But this is not a Yes or No deal; it is endlessly nuanced. Even if they embrace each other and everybody cheers all the critical details will remain to be worked out…let alone ratified and implemented. I cannot believe there is anything like this on earth—it is heroic in a way but mostly it is frightening!

So as I leave for Copenhagen, we have a clear description. The moment is perilous. We stand between heroism and disaster. You need not sit back and wait. Please continue to keep up the pressure. Post comments on news media comment websites and blogs, write to the newspapers and phone the Prime Minister’s Office (613-992-4211). To stay up to date on the negotiations, sign up for daily reports from the Earth Negotiations Bulletin, These are pithy, no-nonsense reports prepared through a non- government ENB team of graduate students working within the International Institute for Sustainable Development. For activist news check out the site or international Friends of the Earth. To keep abreast of the science Salt Spring Island’s own Dorothy Cutting maintains a great site, And I will be reporting daily on the site.

Realistically, what are the options for the outcome in Copenhagen? A successful agreement will mean that the world stops the growth in greenhouse gases so that they peak no later than 2015 and begin their decline from there. Overshooting 2015 could commit the world to a catastrophic runaway climate crisis.

Failure in Copenhagen could look like two things: the decision of all leaders to call it a failure and admit they fell short. This is less likely than the more dangerous form of failure: a happy photo op of world leaders smiling and calling their failure a ‘good first step.’ We are now seventeen years past ‘good first steps.’ The citizens of this world, our children and grandchildren will thank us only for embracing real success.

Elizabeth E. May is the leader of the Green Party of Canada, candidate in Saanich Gulf Islands and Officer of the Order of Canada.