BBC BLOGS - Newsnight: Susan Watts

Archives for October 2009

Danish PM issues plea for leaders to attend Copenhagen talks

Susan Watts | 14:01 UK time, Thursday, 29 October 2009

With just six weeks to go until the United Nation's Copenhagen conference on climate change, Denmark's Prime Minister Lars Loekke Rasmussen has issued a direct plea to US President Barack Obama to attend the conference.

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Speaking to Newsnight he said:

"Without the presence of heads of state and governments we can't close a deal which can come into immediate effect and can be implemented immediately... It is a direct call to President Obama. But not only to him.

"This isn't just a question about the American position, I feel strong willingness from many leaders, and I have spoken to many in the last couple of weeks, that what we need now is to bring those bilateral talks into one meeting room."

And the shuttle diplomacy is beginning to intensify.

It turns out that the Danish capital itself was the venue for one set of pre-Copenhagen talks, earlier this week.

Newsnight listened in, as cross-party teams of legislators from 16 countries finalised two days of discussions.

The talks were hosted by GLOBE International , one of a number of organisations working to coerce the Copenhagen process into shape, outside of the mainstream political process.

It was a good chance to catch some of the key players.

Parliamentarians from Brazil, Japan, Mexico, the United States and South Africa were among those represented, but it was the Chinese delegation that attracted the most interest.

The team included the architect of China's climate legislation, Congressman Wang Guangtao.

He chairs the Environment & Resources Protection Committee of the National People's Congress, and wrote ground-breaking climate legislation passed in China only this August.

He is also very close to the small team that will eventually negotiate China's position at the Copenhagen Conference.

A global fund to help developing countries switch to low carbon growth and adapt to climate change is the key sticking point ahead of the UN conference.

Mr Wang did not want to talk about specific numbers, saying it was not just about the amount of money on offer, but recognition by rich countries of their responsibility for past emissions.

He also said developed countries must recognise China's obligation to bring millions of its own people out of poverty:

"China has 250 million people living in poverty. Eliminating poverty and problems of survival is something that the Chinese central government and government of all levels are working very hard on.

"While we are trying to solve a massive poverty problem, we also have to tackle climate change... We are being responsible in tackling climate change. China is definitely doing it best under these circumstances."

One goal for the GLOBE forum was that even if everything fails in December, national parliamentarians will at least be better prepared to push for action at home, and with a clearer idea of how far each country might go in international negotiations.

Denmark's Mr Rasmussen spoke at the forum. When we met him he was clearly still worried about the level of finance on offer to the developing world.

He put in a plea to European leaders meeting on Thursday and Friday to finalise their position.

They are said to be about to propose a global sum of around 100bn euros (£90bn) a year, as they prepare their position before meeting negotiators from the rest of the world in Barcelona next week at the last official session before the UN conference itself.

"Finance is the make or break element," Mr Rasmussen told me. "... the European Commission has proposed figures... I think it you look at the top figures proposed by the commission that's the amount we will need...

"I really think that Europe has had a leading role in these negotiations in the last two years, and in order to keep this leadership I simply call on European leaders to agree concrete figures next week."

Climate change - 'For many people the penny hasn't dropped'

Susan Watts | 16:17 UK time, Thursday, 22 October 2009

Newsnight got a mention this morning in Ed Miliband's speech at the Science Museum.

"We cannot let Copenhagen pass people by," he said at the launch of "Prove It", a temporary exhibit that brings together the evidence for climate change.

The energy and climate change secretary said one of his fears is that this will be "an item on Newsnight, and then people forget about it".

I'm sure he didn't mean that people forget about items on Newsnight... rather that he wants the issue to get a wider audience than our devoted viewers.

And that was the point of this morning's event. Both of the brothers Miliband, Ed and David, the foreign secretary, helped to launch the government's map of the possible effects of a global temperature rise of 4 degrees Celsius, compared to pre-industrial levels.

The chief scientist, professor Sir John Beddington, said the map (produced by the Met Office Hadley Centre) showed the disastrous effects of such a temperature rise.

He and Chris Rapley, director of the museum and former director of the British Antarctic Survey, stressed the need for people to understand the dangers of failure at the Copenhagen conference in December.

David Miliband said too many people still failed to grasp the scale and urgency of the problem. He said climate change was a foreign policy issue that will deepen Middle East tensions, trigger wars over water and food, and lead to unprecedented migration unless action is taken now.

"For too many people, not just in our own country but around the world, the penny hasn't yet dropped... that this climate change challenge is real and is happening now...The penny hasn't dropped too that Copenhagen is the chance to address on a global scale the climate change challenge. There isn't yet that sense of urgency and drive and animation about the Copenhagen conference."

Professor Myles Allen, a climate modeller from Oxford University, told me about his own contribution to the exhibition - a tonne of coal. His goal is to make people think about the accumulation of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. People have already burnt enough fossil fuels to have passed the half a trillion tonne mark.

Prof Allen says that if we are to avoid dangerous climate change then we must never burn the trillionth tonne. If Copenhagen succeeds, the museum will hold on to the "trillionth" tonne in perpetuity. If it fails, museum staff will - eventually - ceremoniously burn this trillionth tonne.

You can find out more, and keep track on the number of tonnes being released on the trillionth tonne "ticker". Prof Allen told me his children "freaked out" when they saw it. Not perhaps his intention, but a sobering message that he hopes will make people think positively about changing their lifestyles.

David Miliband said the stakes are high - affecting the future lives of millions of people. And for the political process too. If the multilateral system is unable to address climate change, then people will say it's a discredited system, he told reporters.

He hinted at the failure this week of EU finance ministers to agree a financial package to help developing countries to adapt to climate change and help prevent it.

And that's perhaps the biggest hurdle ahead, with another chance next week, in the lead up to the European Council meeting in Brussels.

"It will be relatively few people who decide...It will come down to the fundamental question - are leaders prepared to take the potential flak from their own countries from those who say 'we can't afford this'? That is essentially a political decision that requires vision over the long term."

Tackling the Chinese climate change conundrum

Susan Watts | 15:48 UK time, Tuesday, 13 October 2009

You had to be in Westminster early this on Tuesday morning to catch the latest thinking on the chances of a deal on climate change at December's Copenhagen Conference.

One key message is emerging - that the most likely outcome is a "framework", but with much of the all-important detail to be fleshed out in the first six months of 2010.

Tuesday's breakfast briefing was hosted by GLOBE International, one of a number of organisations working outside the mainstream political process to coerce the Copenhagen process into shape.

GLOBE was formed 20 years ago, after the Kyoto Protocol was rejected by the US Senate.

The idea was to get parliamentarians talking early by providing a place where policies can be tested, without using up the precious few formal negotiating days of such international summits.

Lord Michael Jay is vice-chair of GLOBE's Commission on Climate Change and Energy Security. He is well qualified to assess how pre-Copenhagen talks are developing as a former head of the Foreign Office, and G8 Sherpa for Tony Blair in 2005/6.

This morning he said that despite the fact that there is no agreement yet on any of Copenhagen's central themes, he does at least see no one country preparing to scupper a deal:

"I do get the sense that everybody wants there to be a deal. That's a pretty fundamental point... there's nobody sitting outside saying we don't care if there isn't an agreement."

Nevertheless, he'd like to see pressure on politicians mount in the next few weeks: "Heads of government focus when they know they have to be in the limelight."

The US-Chinese conversation is seen as crucial to a meaningful global agreement. It's an exaggeration to describe this as a G2 situation, but there's some expectation that President Barack Obama's trip to China next month could seal what is essentially a trade deal between the two countries.

If that goes well, Europe may feel that it has missed a chance to seal such a deal with China itself, and lost a chance to take the lead at Copenhagen.

Better communication with China - now the world's largest greenhouse gas emitter - is seen as vital.

Yet China is something of a conundrum.

In the summer it agreed significant new measures on climate change, but didn't go out of its way to tell the world about it. On the other hand, it seems the rest of the world may have over-interpreted China's position on the so-called 2 degree issue.

Leaders of the world's largest economies have accepted scientific advice that global temperature rises above pre-industrial levels ought not to exceed 2C, to avoid dangerous climate change.

But the Chinese position apparently got garbled in translation. They agreed only that this is what scientists say we should avoid. That's subtly different. And I'm told the reason for this is that the Chinese doubt it's possible for warming to stay below that figure.

Aside from the Chinese, there are other enigmatic players.

Russia is considered a real unknown. It stands to make some gains from climate change - with the possibility of melting permafrost releasing oil and gas reserves, and increasing agricultural productivity in Siberia.

It may not therefore look favourably at a global deal. Japan and India have both made recent, positive shifts, but the ability of the US to go to Copenhagen with a positive proposal still looks unlikely, given its bogged-down state of climate legislation.

And there is still the tricky business of tying down a financial promise by developed countries to help developing countries adapt to climate change.

Those close to the negotiating process concede that money on the scale that's being talked about - some $100bn a year - is not easy to come by these days.

But they describe this as "miniscule" when compared with banking bail outs, and crucial to making Copenhagen a success.

Optimism over 'slow burn' swine flu rate

Susan Watts | 18:13 UK time, Thursday, 8 October 2009

A quick update from the swine flu briefing earlier on Thursday - one of the most optimistic to date.

New cases are rising slowly enough that the government's chief doctor said he is hopeful of averting another peak altogether.

Sir Liam Donaldson, chief medical officer (CMO) for England, said the so-called second wave is "proving to be a slow-burn", with the possibility that it may peak at a lower level than previously feared.

"This is incredibly good news, because if this virus had another peak like the pandemic of 1968/70 (which had a second peak over Christmas and New Year 1970)...we might be able to avert that entirely," he said.

The aim is to achieve this through the use of vaccines, due to be rolled out before the end of this month.

Sir Liam said he would take "any breathing space we get", because this would "allow us to fight the disease, and save lives".

Some vaccine stocks are already sitting in UK warehouses, waiting to be sent out to GP practices.

Both the Baxter and GlaxoSmithKline versions have been granted a license for use.

The government's committee of vaccine experts met this afternoon to decide whether to extend the reach of the vaccine beyond frontline health workers and "at risk" groups.

The number of new cases in England last week is estimated to be around 18,000 compared with 14,000 in the previous week.

Numbers in Scotland - which appears to be a little ahead of England in the pattern of disease - are half what they were last week.

Health officials warned against interpreting this fall as a sign that Scottish cases have peaked.

Sir Liam repeated his description of swine flu: "The disease is not a killer, but it can kill."

And he said this was highlighted by the fact that numbers in intensive care are now at their highest for the last two months.

Of the 290 cases in hospital in England, 47 are in intensive care. But with fewer cases around, Sir Liam may find it harder to persuade people to take up his offer of a vaccine.

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