Cop out in Copenhagen

Generally negotiators at international events are well behaved – polite, diplomatic, unemotional. But some of them have been getting angry and upset in climate change negotiations in Copenhagen. Most of the frustration has been directed towards the rich countries that caused the problem; fifteen years after the signing of the climate change convention they have still not stabilised their emissions.

So during last week’s talks there were heated words, raised voices, walk outs, tears, suspended sessions and impassioned pleas by Pacific negotiators appealing to the conscience of the major polluters.

On one level, it is not surprising. There is a huge amount at stake. And progress has been glacial. After two years of negotiations since the Ministerial meeting in Bali, the most difficult issues remain unresolved. A major problem is that the rich nations, New Zealand included, have not come forward with the proposals that science demands in order to avoid climate catastrophe. No wonder there is frustration.

But the good news is that there has been enough progress to identify the main elements of an agreement – binding emissions cuts for rich countries, funding to support low carbon development, a slowdown of deforestation in developing countries, and funding for vulnerable people to protect themselves against climate change impacts. These were the elements included in a leaked draft of the final agreement, prepared by Denmark, chair of the conference.

To paraphrase Oscar Wilde, the few pieces that are now missing are the fundamentals – the political decisions that are essential if there is to be a global deal on climate change. Tuvalu took a courageous stand last week and raised some of these issues, a tiny island nation amongst the giants. They have acted as the moral conscience of the world, reminding delegates that the survival of their people, their lands, their culture and their nation is under threat. They have called for an open discussion on how to get a legally binding treaty from these negotiations.

For the millions of people around the world who are demanding a global deal from Copenhagen, a political agreement will not be good enough. We have all heard too many political promises that have sounded noble but never followed through to implementation. We need a legally binding global agreement.

How many world leaders will it take? This week, there will be 130 Heads of State in Copenhagen, an unprecedented assembly of the most powerful men and women in the world. They bear the weight of their people’s expectations. It is almost inconceivable that they will want to leave Copenhagen having failed to agree a binding treaty. Anything less will be rightly regarded as a cop out.

Our Prime Minister, John Key earned New Zealand its second ‘Fossil of the Day’ Award in a week, given to those countries that block progress. His statement that the New Zealand government would lower its target for emissions reductions if it does not get its own way in negotiations makes it clear that we have joined the coalition of the unwilling.

This means we would offer less than our announced range of 10-20% cuts in emissions by 2020, even though this is already far below the levels that the credible science is telling us is required to avoid dangerous impacts of climate change. There is no risk of New Zealand being a climate leader – with our current approach, we are not even a slow follower. We are the ones who are heading in the opposite direction. It is hard to reconcile our professed friendship for our Pacific neighbours with our narrow-minded, self interested approach to climate change.

Our government’s strategy seems founded on getting away with doing as little as possible. But we need to realise that others are moving towards a low carbon economy. The major developing countries are tabling pledges of substantial reductions below business as usual: Brazil agreed legislation to achieve energy intensity reductions of over 40%, joining South Africa (35%), Indonesia (26%) and China (40-45%). Even India, with per capita emissions of around one tenth of New Zealand’s and per capita GDP that is one twentieth of Americans, has a target to reduce energy intensity by 25% in 2020 from 2005 levels. Meanwhile 450 million people in India have to burn dung or firewood for energy. Poverty makes it far harder for these countries to act, yet they are pursuing a low carbon future while we continue to fossilise.

This week, world leaders will have the best opportunity for many years, perhaps decades, to avert a climate crisis. We need the New Zealand Prime Minister to go to Copenhagen saying ‘yes we can’ rather than ‘no we won’t’.

Article type: 
Press release