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Copenhagen: Obama fails to deliver

An atmosphere of pessimism engulfed the Bella Centre in Copenhagen on Friday when United States President Barack Obama failed to deliver on expectations that he would kick into gear the stalling climate-change negotiations and deliver a strong, ambitious political agreement.

But his speech, delivered about two hours after he arrived in the Danish capital, disappointed observers and contained nothing significantly new that would help to reach an agreement.

Instead Obama largely echoed US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s remarks on Thursday, which were described by key NGOs as weak. She promised $100-billion to developing nations by 2020, but with some serious strings attached.

Obama on Friday also came under fire for not mentioning those small island states that might lose their livelihoods because of the rise in sea levels.

”Obama has said nothing to save the Copenhagen conference from failure,” said Raman Mehta, ActionAid’s climate-change expert in Asia.

”The US is the one major player yet to move. Developing countries have come here to negotiate in good faith, but feel they have been cheated, and it looks like they will leave empty-handed.”

But hope still shines through the grey clouds in Copenhagen, as there are a few hours left until the deadline. It is also understood that the United Nations is considering extending the conference into the weekend.

Before his speech, Obama had been meeting with world leaders, where it is understood that he urged them to make ambitious commitments.

The US president’s speech started off promising enough, with talk of action.

”I believe we can act boldly, and decisively, in the face of a common threat. That’s why I come here today. Not to talk, but to act,” he said.

However, he went on to repeat the US’s proposal to cut its emissions 17% by 2020 from a 2005 baseline, and 80% by 2050.

The proposal has come under fire for not going nearly far enough — and also for setting 2005 as a baseline and not 1990, which is being used by the rest of the world in measuring emissions.

Using a 1990 baseline level would mean the US’s proposal would amount to a cut of about 5% by 2020, as opposed to a proposal by the European Union to cut its emissions by 30%.

Science dictates that rich countries should cut their emissions from 1990 levels by 40% in 2020 to prevent a two degree Celsius rise in temperature, which could lead to widespread weather disasters on the planet.

”I’m confident that America will fulfil the commitments that we have made: cutting our emissions in the range of 17% by 2020, and by more than 80% by 2050 in line with final legislation,” Obama said.

He also insisted that emissions should be verifiable, something developing countries have been trying to avoid because it would push them too close to accepting caps on their emissions at this point and interfere with their sovereignty.

”We must have a mechanism to review whether we are keeping our commitments, and exchange this information in a transparent manner. These measures need not be intrusive or infringe upon sovereignty,” he said.

Obama said without such accountability any agreement would be empty words on a page.

The US president said the world was running short on time.

”And at this point the question is whether we will move forward together, or split apart. Whether we prefer posturing to action,” he said.

”I’m sure that many consider this an imperfect framework that I just described. No country will get everything that it wants.”

Of developing countries that want aid with no strings attached, and no obligations with respect to transparency, Obama said: ”They think that the most advanced nations should pay a higher price. I understand that.”

He also said some rich nations believe that developing countries either cannot absorb this assistance or they will not be held accountable effectively, and that the world’s fastest-growing emitters should bear a greater share of the burden.

Obama called on nations to embrace a new treaty ”and continue to refine it and build upon its foundation”, the Kyoto Protocol, but he failed to say how he could make this happen by getting the US to come to the party.

”We can choose delay, falling back into the same divisions that have stood in the way of action for years,” he said.

”And we will be back having the same stale arguments month after month, year after year, perhaps decade after decade, all while the danger of climate change grows until it is irreversible.”

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Yolandi Groenewald
Yolandi Groenewald
Yolandi Groenewald is a South African environmental reporter, particularly experienced in the investigative field. After 10 years at the Mail & Guardian, she signed on with City Press in 2011. Her investigative environmental features have been recognised with numerous national journalism awards. Her coverage revolves around climate change politics, land reform, polluting mines, and environmental health. The world’s journey to find a deal to address climate change has shaped her career to a great degree. Yolandi attended her first climate change conference in Montreal in 2005. In the last decade, she has been present at seven of the COP’s, including the all-important COP15 in Copenhagen in 2009. South Africa’s own addiction to coal in the midst of these talks has featured prominently in her reports.

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