It had been a long, hot night in Bali, a few weeks before last Christmas, and talks on a new climate deal had dragged past the scheduled finish, through the small hours and well into the morning.
The fate of the world remained in the balance. Faced with grim predictions from the world’s scientists, environment ministers from 192 countries were trying to agree how to tackle global warming. The deadline to agree on the so-called Bali roadmap had come and gone, and rumors were rife that saving the planet would have to be suspended to allow cleaners to ready the rooms for a pre-booked event later that day.
Exhausted campaigners, officials and journalists waited for news like expectant fathers as delegates — with guilty looks and mumbling apologies — began stumbling into taxis for flights home.
Then, inside the cavernous hotel auditorium hosting the negotiations, something extraordinary happened. Faced with angry accusations from the Chinese that he was allowing parallel discussions outside the room, Yvo de Boer, the UN’s top climate official, broke down in tears and had to be helped from the platform. A ripple of supportive applause swelled to a standing ovation — a rare moment of unity that appeared to nudge the talks back on track. A few hours later, the world’s politicians were able to agree and head home.
De Boer takes center stage again this week as the UN climate talks resume in Poznan, Poland. The meeting is likely to provide fewer fireworks. The Bali talks launched negotiations on a new climate treaty, and aimed for them to be completed by this time next year, when the UN climate circus rolls into Copenhagen. Poznan, the halfway point of that process, will probably see countries tread water, with the real action likely to begin in the second half of next year.
“This is not an exciting meeting in the way Bali was,” de Boer says. “But we really haven’t got an awful lot of time left to agree what comes next. It is important that countries in Copenhagen reach a political agreement that is a response to what the science tells us needs to be done.”
Some progress is still possible at Poznan — countries could agree on how to free hundreds of millions of dollars of funding to help poorer countries cope with the effects of climate change. There could also be movement on a scheme to pay tropical countries to protect forests.
The negotiations that will climax in Copenhagen are the first attempt to reach a meaningful international agreement on climate change since the Kyoto Protocol in 1997, the first phase of which expires in 2012. Analysts say a new agreement is needed by the end of next year for it to enter into force in 2012, to give countries a couple of years to ratify the new treaty.
Anything other than a seamless succession from Kyoto could spell disaster for emerging carbon markets — seen as a crucial mechanism to cut future carbon emissions. The involvement of the US and China — the two biggest carbon emitters — is fundamental.
As one European official put it: “The new climate agreement is a deal between the US and China. The rest of us are there for lubrication.”
US president-elect Barack Obama has said the US will “engage vigorously” in talks on a Copenhagen deal and “help lead the world toward a new era of global cooperation on climate change.”
The US signed Kyoto, but then-president Bill Clinton never submitted it for ratification to a hostile Senate, which made it clear it would oppose, on economic grounds, any deal that did not set binding targets for the developing world — code for China.