The holy grail of environmental idealism


Copenhagen has two claims to fame at the moment: it's Europe's best city for live jazz and, by the way, there is an environmental summit going on there aimed at saving humanity.

OK, OK, the latter will remain in the ascendant though this week. But despite the ubiquitous "save the planet" and "climate justice" banners hoisted by a sea of energetic protesters, the real question is whether, come next weekend, the gigging musicians at the JazzHouse Vognporten will have reason to welcome the holiday season in a bracing uptempo, or will be commiserating with the departed greens by favoring minor harmonies in 12- bar blues.

Sacrifice is for the other guy

A summit designed to save the planet is heady stuff and the sense of occasion in Copenhagen is palpable. But you don't have to scratch very deep before the gold plate on the environmental show of unity reveals the base metal upon which it is bonded. Float the proposition that it is this generation's responsibility to define a process to save the planet, and you will be greeted with rousing approbation. Float the idea that effective measures to make that process a reality outweigh whatever sacrifices they might imply, and you're likely to feel the airy breeze of one hand clapping . . . or slapping. Welcome to the real world, where the holy grail of environmental idealism runs head-on into a cocktail of cold, hard economics mixed with partisan politics.

That it took less than a week before the cracks began to show came as no surprise. Danish police arrested hundreds of angry protesters last Saturday, the day that a first draft of an end-of-summit agreement was released. The underwhelming document, bereft of specifics, elicited the enthusiasm of no one and served only to show how much remains to be done.

Be aware that there are four quintessential power bases that drive these negotiations: the United States, Europe, China and the developing world. The divergence of their respective positions is less than encouraging. The U. S. is proposing carbon reductions of about 17 per cent by the year 2020, while France is pushing the European delegation to champion a figure of 30 per cent. The Chinese refuse to discuss absolute reductions, backing instead their concept of "carbon intensity," a relative measure that would link reductions to levels of GDP.

To put these numbers into perspective, the recommendations from the 2007 Bali summit, intended to prepare the playing field for Copenhagen, called for worldwide absolute emissions reductions of 40 per cent by 2020. That the starting spread for negotiations comes in at a figure significantly lower than the predefined objective, speaks for itself.

For its part, the developing world refuses to discuss specific reductions at all, arguing that its participation in effective emissions reductions must be linked to economic aid from the developing world. Their argument? They are on the front line to suffer from global warming and can't progress economically and pay their way to lower carbon emissions at the same time.

It all comes down to the bottom line . . .

This is a rare point on which there appears to be universal agreement. That is, until discussion turns to the specifics of how much aid is necessary and, when that is determined, under what kind of process and in what form it will be administered and distributed.

The one exception is the European Union. The European Council met in Brussels last week and pledged just over 7 billion (US$10 billion) to help poor countries meet their environmental obligations, that sum to be spread over the next three years, with 60 per cent of the cost to be underwritten by France, Germany and the United Kingdom. The problem here is that three years is little more than a stopgap measure that takes them up to 2012, the date of expiration for the Kyoto treaty that the Copenhagen treaty is meant to replace. . . . and power

It is never said out loud, but the real problem with the process in Copenhagen is that of mutual trust. For all the talk of saving the planet, it appears that any of the parties would prefer putting the environment in peril rather than getting rolled by the others and losing economic advantage. Add to this the plight of the United States, where any terms the Obama administration agrees to will require the approval of a Congress that wouldn't hesitate to drag its feet before passing a resolution wishing Santa Claus a safe trip on December 24, and it's easy to understand why cockeyed optimists are an endangered species.

Is the situation hopeless? It all comes down to your expectations. If you're in Copenhagen expecting a sweeping, worldwide, long-term agreement on emissions that is fully financed, verifiable and enforceable, your time will be better spent sampling the aquavit and the vibes in the jazz clubs. But if you're OK with a pragmatic outcome that modestly pushes the envelope from the Kyoto accords and takes up where it left off, you just might be able to squeak through.

One thing is certain: at the closing, the summit's final communiqué will declare it a success, the dawn of a new environmental age. Happily, there is a reliable test for whether those declarations are based upon substance, or are just an exercise in hype.

Look for the specifics and look for the teeth. Are the agreed standards on emissions and emissions reductions stated in figures and in clear language, devoid of weasel words? And most important, is there a provision for the inevitable case when a country strays from the straight and narrow and fails to meet its commitments? Do the others have a means of imposing stinging sanctions until it gets back into line?

If the answer to those questions is positive, the jazzmen might have a reason to play uptempo. But don't bet your environmentally friendly house on it yet.

Robert Gallagher is European correspondent for Troy Media.