The Half-Time Report From Copenhagen


On Friday, after a week of the meetings in Copenhagen, the chairperson of each of the big subgroups at the negotiation released new draft negotiation texts.

As you’re probably aware, the COP15 discussions are divided into a number of smaller working groups, meeting to decide on issues ranging from finance to technology. The two biggest, called the two "tracks" of the negotiation, are the Ad-hoc Working Group on the Kyoto Protocol and the Ad-hoc Working Group on Long-term Cooperative Action (LCA).

The Kyoto track is focused on defining the second commitment period of the Kyoto Protocol and retains the spirit of the initial text, including the separation of countries into Annex 1 (those developed countries that must make emissions reductions) and non-Annex 1 (developing countries who don’t have a requirement to reduce their emissions).

The LCA was set up to try to create a new treaty separate to the Kyoto Protocol (which many developed countries argue has failed) that can have a broader scope than Kyoto and can include emission reduction targets for developing countries.

One of the most difficult aspects of the conference will be trying to merge these two tracks, especially since the G77 want to keep the Kyoto Protocol framework while the developed countries want to start over.

Based on their observations of the negotiations, the chairs of each of the negotiation tracks released draft texts which include the framework for a treaty but leave key decisions such as emissions reduction targets and the commitment period as a choice for countries to make as the negotiations develop.

Here’s an example, with the wording options written in the now-familiar square brackets: "Parties shall cooperate to avoid dangerous climate change, in keeping with the ultimate objective of the Convention, recognising [the broad scientific view]that the increase in global average temperature above pre-industrial levels ought not to exceed [2°C][1.5°C]."

It’s likely that if there’s a deal at Copenhagen it will contain at least some of what’s currently included in each of the texts so what follows is an analysis of some of the key issues in each of the drafts.

With the long-term cooperative action (LCA) track text, the main thing to note is that it’s pretty light on detail. It offers a range of options on emissions reductions and setting a ceiling on global temperature rise, but doesn’t include the other key elements required to achieve those targets such as finance and technology plans.

The emissions reduction options in the text range from 50–95 per cent (compared to 1990 levels), and distinguish between cuts of at least 75 to 95 per cent for developed countries on the one hand and 15 to 30 per cent for developing countries on the other, as compared to business as usual.

The reference to capping temperature rises at either 2 degrees or 1.5 degrees Celcius is ambitious, particularly since restricting temperature rise to 1.5 degrees will require the development of new technology to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

One surprising element of the text is the reference to developing countries achieving their targets primarily through domestic efforts. Predictably, the Australian delegation isn’t happy with that, as they were hoping to achieve their emissions reductions through the purchase of international offsets.

Meanwhile, the draft text put out by the chair of the Kyoto Protocol track is more interesting. It’s clear that negotiations in that track are moving along, although there are still a number of sticking points and wildly divergent options provided.

It calls on developed countries to reduce their emissions by 30–45 per cent by either 2018 or 2020. However the more interesting aspects of the texts aren’t the targets but the mechanisms surrounding them, such as the decisions relating to "land use, land-use change and forestry" (LULUCF) and the "clean development mechanism" (CDM).

LULUCF covers emissions and offsets from the forestry and land management sector. It is always closely watched because of the potential for loopholes that can allow countries to claim emission reductions that don’t actually exist.

And there definitely are loopholes in Friday’s draft text. One of the biggest issues is that a potential change to the definition of "forests" which would have distinguished native forests from plantation has been dropped, which means that native forests can be cleared and replaced with plantation without incurring any penalty under the system.

This is a problem because it’s known that native forests are better carbon sinks than plantations. (And yesterday the Ad Hoc Technical Expert Group of the Convention on Biological Diversity released a paper pointing out that very fact.)

The other major problem for the Kyoto negotiation track is what are referred to as "forward looking baselines" which are still in play. Essentially these allow countries to create an artificial baseline built on future projections of forest management, or logging. So if the logging undertaken was lower than predicted, it would be accounted for as an emission reduction. Hundreds of papers and submissions have been written about the problems with this approach, but it’s pretty clear that it is disconnected from the reality of emissions reductions.

The clean development mechanism is another crucial part of the Kyoto Protocol that allows industrialised countries to offset their emissions by investing in projects that supposedly reduce emissions in developing countries. Australia has been pushing hard to get carbon capture and storage included as part of the CDM (despite serious doubts that it will live up to the hopes that some are placing on it), and this effort seems to be paying off for the Australian delegation.

The possible options for carbon capture and storage as presented in the draft text include: making it eligible for the CDM; not making it eligible; or passing the responsibility for that decision onto the Subsidiary Body for Scientific and Technological Advice (a scientific advisory body under the UNFCCC). No one seems to want to take responsibility for this decision (the CDM executive board had initially handed over responsibility for it to COP), so the third option is probably the most likely. Meanwhile, the question of nuclear power is in the same position.

Over the weekend informal negotiations were held between countries trying to reach an agreement on whether to adopt the negotiating texts. The usual divisions have emerged between developed and developing countries, particularly regarding the Kyoto Protocol. India, the United States and the European Union have criticised both texts. For its part, Australia has consistently argued that developing countries must also make emissions reduction commitments, as without them it says that a meaningful agreement to reach a stabilisation of atmospheric carbon at 450 parts per million is impossible.

Yesterday the stakes were raised with countries threatening to suspend and walk away from the negotiations. The African Union threatened to disengage from the LCA negotiations entirely, on the basis that the Kyoto Protocol already existed as a successful legal framework and that there was no need to create a new one. In response, developing countries suspended discussions over the Kyoto Protocol, though they were later restarted.

To outsiders it can easily appear as though the negotiations have descended into chaos, particularly with hyped up claims of "mass walkouts". This kind of simplistic analysis ignores that the Kyoto Protocol was originally designed to be a rolling series of commitments to be re-evaluated and redrafted reflecting contemporary circumstances, and that these kind of tactics have been used before, even at this conference.

It is likely that, as the negotiations progress, that deals will be made and countries will moderate their positions. We have already seen this happen with the developed countries re-engaging with the Kyoto Protocol. There are rumours of developed countries upping their emission reduction targets in an attempt to lure the G77 back to the negotiating table, but as shown by the draft texts, the crux of any agreement does not lie in the targets but in the detail surrounding them.

The one thing we can be sure of is a lot of horse trading in the final days of the negotiations over issues like carbon capture and storage and forest management.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.