Developing country uprising, or tilting at windmills?

After starting the day with a meeting with Jim Tankersley of the Los Angeles Times where I advised him that not much would happen today so he should opt for the boat trip with Interior Secretary Ken Salazar to visit a Danish offshore windfarm, I remembered what makes the UN negotiation process so fascinating.  As so often happens in these negotiations, all the good feelings of the weeks leading up to the actual start of the long-awaited “Hopenhagen” negotiations (billboards and liquid crystal TV screens scream the new hopeful mantra of the global environmental community all over the city) slipped away.

First, Tuvalu chief negotiator Ian Fry pushed hard on the island nations’ proposal for a new treaty that would create a new set of emission reduction targets for leading developing countries.  Ian and his allies were requesting creation of a contact group to discuss their new proposal and report back to the Conference of Parties (COP).  Predictably, the OPEC countries joined by China and India objected, using the COP’s consensus requirements as a basis for blocking the request.  New COP chair Connie Hedegaard of Denmark reluctantly ruled that she could not create such a group in the face of objections and would hence proceed via chair “consultations”.  Ian and his many allies objected, threatening to dissolve the COP.  A collective gasp from the packed hall followed and we knew we were into the real game, much like how I sometimes felt as a small college football player who got blasted by a blocker on the opening kickoff of the season’s first game.  After some moments of nervous silence, the president announced the appointment of a staffer to come back with recommendations at 3:00 p.m. after the lunch break.  Since only a few minutes remained until the mandatory 1:00 p.m. lunch break, dissolution of the COP was averted, at least until another day.

After lunch, the action resumed with Chinese negotiator Li Gao jumping in to a discussion on the future of the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM), the Kyoto Protocol program which has created carbon dioxide emission reductions as a global commodity and driven several billion dollars worth of investments. Developed nations are anxious to transition from the project-by-project approach of the CDM to a system where all the plants in a given industry must be involved in the reduction program in a developing country in order to earn carbon credits. This is in contrast to today’s system where individual good actors get rewards, while those who continue to pollute are ignored.  It is known in the parlance as sectoral crediting.

Li Gao led the charge against this new approach and decried sectoral crediting as unacceptable and he extolled the virtues of continuing to rely on the current project-by-project CDM approach which has placed China in the lead with nearly 50% of the carbon credit sales in the first two years of its existence.  Li suggested that the new framework of providing up-front financing to developing countries who take policy actions affecting a broad set of polluting facilities could neatly coexist with the old one.  A clear non-starter for all the developed nations and a clear signal that much work lies ahead.

Colleagues from India and Brazil swiftly followed Li Gao’s lead, arguing that the new sectoral crediting regime has no legal place in the current United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change.  This did not come as a surprise to many, but its suddenness and the “line drawn in the sand” was a bit stunning.

All in a day’s work at the climate negotiations. The ebb and flow is breathtaking, but hopefully my reporter friend isn’t sad that he followed the wrong tide today by taking the boat offshore.