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A bad time for climate talks

Richard Black | 16:10 UK time, Thursday, 11 December 2008

POZNAN, POLAND: In politics, as in many other walks of life, timing is everything.

Exhibition at UN climate conferenceArguably, the UN climate conference here has come about two months too early; and instead of a conference of decisions, it is turning into one of "what ifs".

What if European Union countries don't finalise, or weaken, their energy and climate package during their meeting in Brussels, which runs simultaneously with the two days of ministerial-level discussions here?

What if the EU had been able to say at this meeting how it would fund developing countries wanting to switch to a "green economy", instead of pledging to roll its proposals out in January?

What if Barack Obama's incoming US administration supplied the US delegates here, rather than the outgoing George Bush administration?

The goal agreed by 189 governments in Bali last year is to reach a new global accord on climate change by the end of next year, when Copenhagen plays host to the UN conference.

The Poznan meeting is supposed to mark the transition from a "year of ideas" to a "year of negotiation"; but how can people know what they're negotiating if all the ideas aren't in yet?

It's not often I bring out my laurels and burnish them; but I do remember predicting this timing problem two years ago, as I chatted with Phil Clapp of the Pew Environment Group, one of the most knowledgeable people on the politics of climate change I have ever met, under the awnings of the UN pavilion in Nairobi.

Phil's absence here - he died of pneumonia several months ago - leaves a big hole in the lives of journalists, activists and politicians who profited from his wisdom and enjoyed his company.

He's the kind of person the public hardly ever sees, but who helps those of us with less natural wisdom to make sense of it all - which in turn, I think, helps you by making our reporting more accurate and more insightful.

Listening to a succession of important delegates from presidents, prime ministers and UN dignitaries saying how much they were looking forward to working with Mr Obama's administration, I asked myself another "what if" question; what would Phil make of it all?

I think he would have pointed out the US realities; that even a president-elect who is pretty unequivocal about his aim of tackling climate change will have many other issues on his plate.

I think he would have emphasised that developing countries don't only want the US, the EU and the rest of the developed world to promise to cut their emissions; they want to know what money the West will put in, how that money will be raised and managed, what clean technologies will be transferred on what terms, how forests will be protected, and what restrictions they would be expected to place on their emissions; all this will need to be clear before they will sign any deal.

John Kerry, who is to chair the powerful US Senate Foreign Relations committee, told reporters here that the timescale would not slip - that there must be a deal in Copenhagen.

It is ambitious, to say the least; and the Pew Group is among those cautioning that if a deal is done in a year's time, it may not include firm numerical targets for cutting emissions.

To understand the political realities of something like that - an agreement on cutting emissions without targets on how much - Phil is exactly the sort of person I would have needed to approach.

If the Obama administration is serious about making significant reductions in its own greenhouse gas emissions and in leading the rest of the world to a low-carbon future, one senses it is going to have to get those questions asked, and answered, very quickly.

The fact that it couldn't do so before this year's UN conference, though, may turn out to be a significant factor when the show rolls on to Copenhagen - as may the fact that the EU arrived here with one hand tied and the other behind its back.


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