In The Field

Barcelona climate: Call it a wrap

Things are winding down here in Barcelona. The latest negotiating text is out, and everybody is waiting for the final plenary session.

Negotiators seem to have coalesced on what needs to come out of Copenhagen, as opposed to what many would like to see. The basic idea, covered in a bit more detail in my last post, is that leaders could sign an agreement providing decisions on the big issues, including emissions targets, financing, technology, adaptation and deforestation, and then come back early next year to get the details for a formal treaty in place. That might not sound like much, but it eliminates the sense of doubt that was clouding the talks earlier in the week.

There’s a bit of confusion in some places, particularly among greens and representatives from developing countries, about what that means, but most see it as a viable solution given that securing a complete, ratifiable treaty might not be possible. Indeed, despite what might be called an air of cautious optimism, the gap between rich and poor countries remains substantial and apparently unbridgeable.

This stark truth was on full display as the G77 group representing developing countries, the European Union and then the United States held back-to-back press conferences giving their assessment of where we stand. I’ll take a closer look at the implications of all this in next week’s issue, but here’s a quick summary: The G77 said it won’t support any agreement unless rich countries cut their emissions by at least 40 percent below 1990 levels by 2020; the EU said its offer to go up to 30 percent is already aggressive; and the US said its unofficial numbers, which appear in legislative proposals that would reduce emissions to just a few percent below 1990 levels, are both unlikely to change and in line with the science.

I say “apparently unbridgeable” because these are negotiations, and there is a sense that everybody wants a deal. I briefly cornered Alf Wills, a G77 leader from South Africa, to talk about the issue, and he acknowledged that developed countries could always try to bridge the divide with offers of things like money and technology. “That’s part of the negotiation,” he told me.

As it happens, negotiators working on technology transfer issues appear to have made some progress this week. They are converging on some institutional issues and the establishment of regional technology innovation centers that could help developing countries gear up for the future. Similarly, observers say talks over adaptation and deforestation are moving forward as well, although green groups still have some concerns about safeguards in the deforestation text. (See my post on Wednesday for details; they succeeded in restoring some language intended to prevent the conversion of natural forests to plantations, but say the language isn’t as strong as it should be).

That leaves mitigation and money, which are, admittedly, the biggest issues. Most tend to cite the United States’ inability to put a formal number on the table as the main sticking point, but US negotiator Jonathan Pershing slapped that idea down on Friday. He said everybody should have a good idea what the US number is, given that there is a narrow range in the legislation in Congress. Indeed, although no decision has been made, he said there’s no reason why the United States couldn’t sign a treaty in December. The question is whether there would be one to sign, he said, adding a quick jab at developing countries for, in his view, arguing against a single treaty that binds everybody to differing levels of commitments.

So, with all that as background, we’ll just have to wait and see what happens once leaders take the stage. UN climate chief Yvo de Boer said he’s been informed that some 40 heads of state are planning to attend Copenhagen in December, which should make things interesting.

Barring major fireworks in the final plenary, this will be my last post, but keep an eye out for our formal coverage in next week’s issue of the magazine.

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