December 17, 2009 7:41 pm

Marathon runners start final sprint

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Bronze statues by sculptor Jens Galschiot©Getty

Old guard: bronze statues by sculptor Jens Galschiot stand outside the Copenhagen conference centre

Negotiators and ministers at the Copenhagen climate change talks failed in their key aim on Thursday – to have a deal on greenhouse gas emissions ready for their heads of state and government to sign, as the majority arrived on Thursday night.

The chances of a historic agreement on climate change – the first that would be agreed among all countries – remained “in the balance”, said Ed Miliband, the UK’s climate secretary.

Friday marks the final sprint of a marathon that has carried on for nearly two decades. Many times, such as at the 1997 conference in Japan that produced the Kyoto protocol, countries have looked close to agreeing, only to be thwarted at the last minute. In the case of Kyoto, it was the US’s failure to ratify that ensured there would be no global commitment.

With little over 24 hours to go, some of the key elements have fallen into place. But everything has to be agreed before a deal can be signed. Leaders still have much tough negotiating to do.

As has been made starkly clear by the squabbling of the last 11 days, often pitching developed nations against their developing counterparts, many things could still derail a deal. At the heart of the divisions lies the great power clash between China and the US. But small developing countries are also throwing their weight around and threatening to refuse to sign up, although big powers might try to proceed without them.

The US did boost the prospects of a deal on Thursday by finally agreeing in public to contribute to a long-term offer of $100bn financial assistance to developing countries to help them cope with the effects of climate change.

But Washington, in common with other developed nations, has not yet said how much it would contribute towards this goal.

Japan also promised $15bn over the next three years in “fast-start” financing to developing countries, which brings developed countries close to the $10bn a year poor countries are demanding.

A critical outstanding issue is whether China will agree to have its emissions curbs monitored at an international level.

“If there is not even a commitment to pursue transparency, that’s kind of a dealbreaker for us,” Hillary Clinton, US secretary of state, said.

China said it was committed to transparency but did not give details. Leaders from the European Union met on Thursday night to talk over whether the bloc should raise its offer of cutting emissions by 20 per cent by 2020 to the higher end of its discussed range, of 30 per cent. This will be a key element of any deal.

One potential compromise being mooted is a move to a 25 per cent reduction.

Stefania Prestigiacomo, Italy’s environment minister, raised the prospect that the negotiations could continue into next year.

An EU official said China would also have to increase its offer, of reducing its emissions per unit of gross domestic product by 40 to 45 per cent by 2020, to a reduction of more than 50 per cent.

Another sticking point is the Kyoto protocol, which has turned from being regarded as a cornerstone of climate policy by many developed country signatories into being a millstone round the neck of the talks.

Since the US has failed to ratify the treaty, creating an unwieldy situation where negotiations have had to proceed along two tracks: one to extend the Kyoto protocol beyond 2012, when the main provisions of the pact expire, and another to agree a new framework that would include the US.

Developing countries support the Kyoto protocol, which imposes supposedly binding commitments on developed countries but not on developing ones, including China, the world’s biggest emitter. They have often raised fears that the Kyoto track of the process was being abandoned, to be replaced by the newer process, known as Long-term Co-operative Actions, which includes the US.

The focus on the legal formalities of the talks has exasperated developed countries. Yukio Hatoyama, prime minister of Japan, told the Financial Times it was more important to set out a new agreement that, unlike the Kyoto treaty, would include all of the world’s big emitters.

If a political declaration is signed at Copenhagen, that is far from the end of the story. Next year, countries will have to meet again many times in order to draft a legally binding treaty containing any commitments agreed there. That process, too, will be fraught.

“Some people think that you can just take [any Copenhagen declaration], polish it and turn it into a legally binding treaty. That is not the case,” one senior official told the FT.
Reporting by Fiona Harvey, Ed Crooks and Andrew Ward in Copenhagen

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