Barcelona walk-outs don’t dampen optimism for Copenhagen

12 11 2009

A new climate treaty to replace the Kyoto Protocol seems unlikely. But despite the international antics that marked Copenhagen’s prelude in Barcelona, the mood remains hopeful that something will be accomplished when the international community comes together again this December.

“It’s a little bit too early to be too pessimistic,” said Dali Yang, a professor of Chinese politics at the University of Chicago.

Historically China and the U.S. have fallen on opposite sides of the industrialized-developing country dichotomy in the climate change debate. But as Obama prepares to visit Beijing this weekend, a tone of compromise is starting to infuse the discussion.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said Wednesday that the U.S. would support a global fund to help developing countries adapt to the cutbacks required to avert climate change – something the developing world has been advocating for years. President Obama announced two days earlier that he would attend the Copenhagen summit if he thought there was a good chance of reaching a deal, and if he thought his presence could make a difference.

Chinese President Hu Jintao has not yet said if he will attend the conference.  And China hasn’t budged on its insistence upon “common but differentiated responsibilities,” the idea that the industrialized world, as the more capable and culpable partner, should bear the brunt of emissions cutbacks.

China’s refusal to accept mandatory emissions reductions has irritated the U.S. But although the country has shied away from legally-binding commitments, it has had great success meeting its renewable energy targets. At 9 percent of total energy right now, the country is well on its way to meeting its target of 10 percent by 2010.

“The Chinese have shown some leadership in this case, because they came out saying they are going to make meaningful and substantial reductions,” Yang said. “The issue is, how much?”

For the U.S., he said, it’s a question of ramping up the process. It doesn’t help the United States’ credibility that its key piece of climate change legislation, the American Clean Energy Act, remains held up in the Senate.

And a new survey from, released Wednesday, revealed that the wider international community is fed up with both countries.

The 20-nation poll, which included developed and developing countries, found only 39 percent on average approved of the United States’ climate policy and 34 percent approved of China’s. Both countries received high marks from Africa. But China had more critics in Western Europe and more supporters in Southeast Asia. The U.S. also came under fire from Western Europe while one of its largest supporters was one of China’s largest critics: South Korea.

Ironically, the same poll found that 47 percent of Americans disapproved of their own climate change policy and only 45 percent approved of it.

At this point most of the world has given up on a finalized treaty to replace the Kyoto Protocol coming out of Copenhagen. Now they are hoping to create a “framework agreement” for a treaty to be finished later in 2010.

“I think there’s almost a need to save face, and so that’ll put pressure on having at least political agreement,” said Michele Betsill, a political scientist at Colorado State University.

Yvo de Boer, Executive Secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, shares this hope and voiced it at the end of the Barcelona summit last week.

He said Copenhagen’s success hinges on accomplishing four things. Industrialized countries need to be absolutely clear on their 2020 emissions cutbacks. Developing countries need to be absolutely clear on how much they will limit their emissions growth. The developing countries need money, and they need a new system to manage that money.

De Boer maintained his optimistic tone in spite of the fact that 50 African nations walked out of the summit and the Group of 77, the voice of 130 developing nations, threatened a similar walkout at Copenhagen. The boycotters of Barcelona had demanded that developed nations cut back their emissions by 40 percent by 2020 from 1990 levels.

“The devil’s in the details, and we’re just not there yet,” said Betsill. “There have been some pretty clear lines in the sand drawn.”




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