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The Lows and Highs of a Day at COP15

Posted by John Sweeney on December 16, 2009 at 07:11 AM

It started as another day of inching along with the crowd seeking to register from around 9 a.m.. This time a further obstacle was presented to NGOs - a magic white pass issued on a quota basis which effectively eliminated entry for thousands of NGO observers who had surmounted the accreditation process successfully. In a scene which made us feel for an instant just a little like they must have felt at Auschwitz or Srebenica, NGOs were herded into a separate queue from the press, media and other observers. Those of us who had braved the 8 hours the previous day knew another similar day was ahead with no guarantee of success at the end. As with all queues, there are times you get your hopes up, only to be dashed. In this case around the 4-hour mark the VIPs began to arrive and the triage system was operationalised. NGOs were back at the bottom of the pile and the queue froze. It was turning into another eight hour queue day and for a time the heavy snowfall didn't help our spirits. The historic achievement of getting past the front gate, with the great co-operation of the Friends of the Earth's Molly Walsh was dashed as it became clear that there was a major logistics problem inside the building. Four hours later the cause of all the problems was apparent. 10-15 administrators were working flat out to register people, each one taking 5-10 minutes in total, or around 100 per hour passing through the system. Trouble was, around 45,000 people had apparently indicated they were coming to the conference and the bulk of these had obviously materialised for the second week. The system was now obviously hopelessly inadequate for the several thousand souls out in the snow. The United Nations got everything right except this crucial detail. 10 times as many administrators were needed at the registration desk and fewer security scanners. There are several good courses in Event Management at Irish universities which I could recommend!

The elusive accreditation will hang in my office as a mark of personal survival. Success was achieved at 6pm, unfortunately with a departure for the airport at 6.15 for a meeting the next day in Paris. So impressions of the Bella Centre are a bit provisional, to say the least. It is however clearly a massive event which everyone who is anyone in the climate change arena would love to attend. Mind you I did pass on Arnold Schwarzenegger!

Much of the negotiations over the past few days have centred on differences between the US and China, the big two polluters who account for about 40% of global emissions. The US is refusing to sign up to an agreement which is not verifiable, and China is refusing to allow inspection of its compliance with any deal. Interestingly, China is already signed up to the Framework Convention which has an elaborate inspection bureaucracy. These individuals have visited Ireland on more than one occasion and grilled our public servants on their compliance protocols. So, to some extent these squabbles attracting international media attention are perhaps shadow boxing, I believe. national delegations have rehearsed their arguments for this week over many years and delegations know exactly what the codewords and buzz words really mean. What is really happening is a stalling operation until the main protagonists arrive over the next couple of days. At this stage no negotiators are going to venture beyond their brief unless they have authority from above, and the leaders will in any event want to bask in the glory of any deal as its powerbrokers. They do have constituencies back home to worry about and already I have witnessed a demo by Australians against their coal industry and similar protests by Canadians and Indians against their respective government's policies. It is becoming clear though that with the big names present, this meeting will go to the wire, and probably beyond in overnight sessions.

While progress on emission deals have been slow, some areas have been marked by considerable narrowing of positions. Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and forest Degredation (REDD) may yet prove to be the most tangible output from the meeting. 20% of global emissions arise from these sources and agreement seems close regarding funds transfers to developing countries seeking to preserve assets such as rainforests and wetlands. The mechanics of this are complex and perhaps the most negative aspect is that developed countries may be allowed to count such savings as part of their own emission budget. Such offsets alas do not go to the heart of the emissions problem, namely the need for the developed world to change its ways fundamentally. Creative accounting may also limit the effectiveness of such a scheme.

Two downside risks are also now emerging. In the absence of a deal at the weekend there is a real risk of local frustrations turning violent in Copenhagen itself. A lot depends on timing here as many potential agitators may be returning home by Sunday. But some signs of unrest are already apparent in the 'hippie' enclave of Christiana. On a more global scale the spectre of a trade war has been raised and the possibility of tariffs being placed on products from countries not signing up to a deal (particularly China and India) is emerging. Some of this may be rhetoric on the part of the EU and US to push the agenda through, but the industrialised countries are certainly not disabusing anyone of their willingness to impose what they describe as 'border adjustments'. The Doha Round of the World Trade Organisation may yet be where the action in enforcing a post Kyoto deal resurfaces.

To end on a positive note, though. Public servants in Ireland have been subjected to an unfair dose of opprobrium in recent months from various quarters as part of a 'divide and conquer approach' to undermine partnership-based practices, recently given an environmental pillar at last. But let me say that, based on my own experiences here in Copenhagen, the Irish public service in full flight is an amazingly efficient machine to witness. As a result of my misfortunes coming to their attention they have swept into action and in a pincer movement involving the Department of the Environment, and Department of Foreign Affairs. they have routed the UN bureaucracy and obtained the addition of yours truly to the Irish delegation. It was great news and made the depredations of Monday and Tuesday worthwhile. A week which started on a low has now begun to improve and may yet turn out to be a historic week for planet earth.

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