/ 21 November 2009

Climate crunch

Unless they end in promises, and a treaty within months, Ed Miliband believes the Copenhagen talks will be a disaster. But can the British energy secretary, in Denmark for a frantic round of pre-summit diplomacy, win the argument?

It’s breakfast time in the biggest of Copenhagen’s Scandic hotels. Over the obligatory croissants and coffee — and, for those who want it, an off-beam version of the English breakfast — 42 international delegations are preparing to go into a second day of talks. Phones tweet; hushed conversations within teams of negotiators form a low conversational hum.

Look closely, and some of the outlines of modern geopolitics are clear. This morning, the Chinese and Indian delegations are seated together, and locked in conversation. Elsewhere in the hotel, the UK’s representatives are doing their thing at an early ”EU coordination” meeting. In a corner of the restaurant, meanwhile, the US special envoy on climate change — an elusive, austere-looking man named Todd Stern — sits completely alone.

From 7 to 18 December, the Danish capital will fill up with an extra 20 000 people, there to play their part in what officialspeak calls the 15th Conference of the Parties (or Cop 15), but the rest of us know as the Copenhagen summit: the great global coming-together aimed at securing a much more ambitious successor to the Kyoto treaty, and thereby marking a turning point in the human race’s fight against climate change. This week’s event, organised by the Danish government under the title Pre-Cop Consultations, is much more low-key, though the guest list includes a huge array of energy and climate-change ministers, their aides and negotiating teams — called here to compare notes, have brief and not-so-brief ”bilaterals”, and somehow inject a slow-moving process with some political momentum.

Among them is Britain’s Ed Miliband, who will turn 40 six days after the summit closes, and has the road-worn air of man who has been travelling far too much. In the build up to December, he has been to China, Brazil, India, Mexico, South Africa and Bangladesh, as well as Poland, Russia, and France (before anyone asks, he and his team offset their flights).

On the flight from London, he underlines the gravity of Copenhagen by alluding to past summits, and describing it as ”Bretton Woods plus Yalta multiplied by Reykjavik”. In Scandic’s restaurant, where he sits for the interview, he comes up with an even more mind-boggling analogy: ”Imagine if you knew 189 people, and you got them all together and said, ‘Here’s how we want you to run a significant part of your lives in the next 30 or 40 years — and by the way, you have to unanimously agree that that’s how you want to do it.”’

Give or take sleep, and the closed-off proceedings in the main conference room, I shadow Miliband for around 40 hours. On his first morning here, I hear the stiffened small-talk at early-morning bilaterals, best illustrated by the opening exchange between him and his German counterpart Norbert Röttgen:

”Congratulations on your first presentation in the Parliament. I heard some reports that it was a triumph.”

”It was OK.”

”You’re being hailed as a great environmentalist, which is good for your first week in the job.”

”Second week.”

What really defines my time in Copenhagen, though, is a thrice-daily ritual whereby I collar Miliband as he emerges from the formal negotiations, and try — in vain, usually — to get a firm idea of where the conversation has been going. Usually, he wears a pretty much unreadable expression, though it doesn’t take any great effort to understand how much work — somewhat worryingly — has still be done. At the end of day 0ne, for example, I manage to extract a few brief words from 55-year-old Jairam Ramesh, India’s stoic minister of state for environment and forests, who audibly sighs, and will only tell me that ”there is still a long way to go”.

This week, the news media’s understanding of what Copenhagen might achieve has pinballed between pessimism and qualified hope. On Monday, headlines confirmed what most insiders knew, when Barack Obama served notice that a legally binding agreement at Copenhagen was now beyond reach, and he was signing up to the Danish government’s plan to exit 2009 with a ”politically binding” deal, and follow it with a full treaty in the very near future. By Tuesday, rather more optimistic coverage greeted America and China’s joint promise that December would see a ”comprehensive” agreement, though plenty of voices still counselled caution and doubt: as far as one Greenpeace spokesperson was concerned, the Sino-American declaration was vague enough to suggest the possibility of both ”a real ambitious climate rescue deal” and ”another meaningless declaration”.

There are two tracks to the build-up to Copenhagen. Politicians travel, and meet, and keep their eye on the stuff that will define the summit’s headlines. Meanwhile, negotiators who are devoting their entire working lives to the pre-summit process must regularly congregate in some of the world’s major cities, and try to push their way through the detail. Britain’s chief negotiator is Jan Thompson, an official on loan from the Foreign Office who, in red patent leather biker boots, looks like anything but. She and Pete Betts — a genial, straight-to-the-point kind of operator, who described himself as ”a career bureaucrat” — are known to Miliband as ”the two degrees”, a reference to the rise in average global temperatures that the world has now resolved to avoid. Miliband says he has long conversations with them at least once a week; on their second night in Denmark, they are still talking animatedly well past midnight.

There is, of course, no end of stuff to discuss. The negotiations’ key theme is an ongoing and complex face-off between developed and developing countries (needless to say, post-imperial baggage is unavoidable). For countries already panicked by the effects of climate change — most notably, the 43-strong Alliance Of Small Island States — the prospect of a potentially indefinite delay to a legal deal is evidently causing no end of fear. Such rising powers as China, India and Brazil are watched closely, but the story regularly comes back to the US, whose uncertain stance is partly down to its cagy exit from what Miliband calls ”20 wasted years”, and the delicacy of America’s political system: for a president to come to Europe and dish out commitments before the requisite legislation had passed the Senate would be risky, to say the least.

”What is the art of politics?” he wonders (like a lot of New Labour politicians of his generation, Miliband has a habit of asking himself questions). ”It’s to simplify, not complexify [sic]. Yes, this is complicated. But actually, in the end, it does boil down to some relatively simple things: how much you’re going to cut your emissions, how much finance you’re going to provide, what you’re going to do about deforestation, and what you’re going to about technology. I often think that when people say, ‘Oh, this is so complicated,’ it becomes an excuse. You get, ‘Oh, this is all too complicated — it’ll take another five years.”’

But how does he gauge success? ”Well, you go on trips, and you have a series of dreadful and depressing meetings where you think nothing is moving. And then you have a really good meeting when you can visualise a breakthrough … in Brazil, I said to the foreign minister, ‘Are you going to put 2020 numbers on the table for Copenhagen?’ And he said, ‘Yeah’. And we all looked at each other and said, ‘Well, they’ve never said that before.’ And you come out of the meeting and think, ‘That was a pretty significant moment.”’

After the first day’s talks, there’s a dinner at the Royal Danish Playhouse, which ends with a solo ballet performance titled The Egg. But before those delights, he has to go to a Danish TV studio, do British TV and radio spots, frets about how quickly he talks, and tries to face down scepticism at home.

The script he performs for Channel 4 News and BBC Radio is reiterated to me, with additions, later that night. Despite the uncertainty now hanging over any legally binding deal, Miliband says he wants a full enforceable treaty ”within months” of Copenhagen, and says that even the end of 2010 is too late. As one of his advisers frantically scribbles down her version of the conversation (the departmental MiniDisc recorder is kaput), he sets out a simple version of what first has to materialise in December: ”a set of commitments from developed and developing countries that can show emissions peaking by about 2020.”

He also talks endlessly about the importance of ”numbers”, by which he chiefly means pledges of specific cuts in emissions from all the major developed countries, and hardened commitments on the funding of ”adaptation and mitigation” — where richer countries spending billions on poorer countries’ defences against a radically altered climate, and the technology needed to curb their output of greenhouse gases.

Britain, via the EU, has already committed to cutting CO² emissions by 34% by 2020 on 1990 levels. EU governments have also promised €22-billion to €50-billion a year for the developing world as part of a proposed €110-billion global package, which, relative to claims that the total annual bill may be four times that, looks deeply disappointing. But right now that is not the main point: outside Europe, even if emissions targets are starting to come in, few developed countries have yet come up with figures for financial help for poorer ones — and in the case of the US, neither have been put on the table.

That fact alone makes one particular element of Miliband’s rhetoric remarkable. ”I’m willing to say to you, if we don’t get any numbers at Copenhagen, it’s a failure,” he says.

I tell him that strikes me as a rather high-stakes position. ”Yeah,” he says. ”But I don’t think it would be successful if we haven’t got numbers. What is it if we don’t have numbers?”

The thing is, I suggest, politicians don’t often say things like that. They tend to make a point of leaving wriggle room for themselves. ”No,” he says, sharply. ”We’re not leaving wriggle room. I recognise that fact. In the end, people are smart. They know when you’ve succeeded, and they know when you’ve failed. And I’ve known for many months that there’s no point in going out and claiming Copenhagen is a miraculous triumph if there’s no numbers.”

There are, inevitably, aspects of the UK’s policy and positioning that plenty of green voices do not like: a new enthusiasm for the uncertain technology known as ”clean coal”; enthusiasm for funding half of Europe’s post-Copenhagen commitment to the developing world via private-sector carbon trading; and the fact that the UK has so far only pledged £1-billion a year in direct climate-related funding for poorer countries.

But here is the most striking thing. On the couple of occasions that I talk to British officials it is hard to avoid the conclusion that, relative to scores of countries, the UK is on the right side of the argument, and pushing hard. They talk about Copenhagen in the kind of dramatic terms that one perhaps wouldn’t expect from civil servants. ”If we can make this work,” says a man from the Foreign Office, ”multilateralism has a future. If not, multilateralism goes pear-shaped. And that will affect all kinds of things: food security, water security, energy security.”

By early afternoon on the second day, a few delegations have started to peel away, and are preparing to return home. The hotel foyer is divided between an ever-increasing array of suitcases, the activities of a large number of Chinese journalists and ad hoc huddles of negotiators. Not long after 2pm, Miliband bids me goodbye and disappears into a bilateral with the Brazilians: his flight doesn’t leave until six, which gives time for talks, and more talks.

Hovering near the negotiations’ security barrier, I grab Kevin Conrad, the climate-change envoy from Papua New Guinea. Conrad, a climate-change star since 2007 when at the UN climate conference in Bali, he challenged the US: ”If you are not willing to lead then leave it to the rest of us, get out of the way,” looks urbane, preppy, but also visibly rattled. The previous afternoon, I had heard him vent his spleen to the British team as follows: ”What can we do to re-energise this thing? It just feels like it’s all going backwards.”

”I remain frustrated,” he tells me. ”How do I put this? There’s a calculated repositioning of aspirations, where it’s being agreed that we’re not going to anything that’s binding, we’re not gong to do anything substantive, and a lot of people blame everybody else for everything going too slow. And for a small island states like ours, that’s very disconcerting.” When would he like to see a legally-binding deal?

”We don’t know why that can’t happen now. And what gives us confidence that there won’t be more excuses in a year? Or a year later? We are relocating people as we speak because their islands are now inhabitable … This is growing. It’s not a theoretical problem.”

He adds: ”We want people to stick to the original objective — to come up with the substance of a global deal in Copenhagen. All the elements within the negotiations are moving forward, but we want those settled. We think politicians should come in and settle their differences, and close them off. What do we do? Do we just continue with the differences for another year?”

As if to make British hearts swell, however, when I ask him about his perception of Britain’s role in Copenhagen, he says :”The UK, in my view, is one of the strongest and most articulate advocates for getting something done.”

Having arrived back at home, I book in a call to a British official, which duly happens on Thursday afternoon, when they talk me through some of what was discussed: new moves from Brazil and South Korea, continued uncertainty about how progress on carbon emissions might be recorded, and whether Copenhagen’s outcome might be a matter of one text, or ”bits of text”. Their closing verdict on two days in the Danish capital may be entirely innocuous, though to certain ears, they will only underline what a nervous moment this is. ”No decisions,” says the voice at the other end of the line. ”But useful.” – guardian.co.uk