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Copenhagen Countdown: 45 days

Richard Black | 17:20 UK time, Friday, 23 October 2009

I don't think it's just my imagination; diplomatic moves and announcements and challenges on climate change really are coming thicker and faster now than at any time since it first became an issue of political note 20 years ago.

And no wonder, with the start of the UN climate summit just 45 days away, and various roads to Copenhagen taking routes through all kinds of capital cities and all kinds of fora.

So I thought it would be worth taking a little time at the end of each week as the potentially seminal UN summit approaches to take stock of what's happened and ponder where it might all lead.

Yvo de BoerWhat caught the imagination of many commentators this week were comments from UN climate convention executive secretary Yvo de Boer, to the effect that it is now "unrealistic" to expect a full treaty to be negotiated and agreed this year.

"A fully fledged new international treaty... I do not think that is going to happen," he told the Financial Times newspaper.

As he is constantly up close and personal with the main negotiators, Mr de Boer is just about as informed an observer as you can get.

But it's difficult to see why his comments have caused so much consternation among environment groups and political commentators given that government officials and informed observers have been saying the same thing privately (and sometimes publically) for months.

UK Climate Secretary Ed Miliband, speaking just before the Major Economies Forum (MEF) meeting that took place in London on Sunday and Monday, admitted as much.

But he believes something important can still be achieved if it includes three basic elements: numerical mitigation targets for developed nations, agreement (including on figures) on financial support for developing countries, and agreed expressions of "ambition" from the richer developing countries on how they are prepared to curb rising emissions.

For Mr de Boer, the essentials include targets for the rich, defined ambition for the developing world, and a firm timetable for tying up all the loose ends.

As he is also on record as emphasising the necessity of agreement on finances, the hymn-sheets are not demonstrably different.

The framework of a deal is achievable, they are really saying; but not every detail.

Although privately environmental groups might acknowledge that not everything can be done in time for Copenhagen, they're still bound to keep the pressure and expectations as high as they can - which is why WWF's Kim Carstensen condemned talk of not being able to reach a deal as "puzzling outbreak of diplomatic pussyfooting".

From both sides of the wealth divide came calls this week for more ambitious - and binding - proposals on finance for adaptation - money paid by the West to developing countries to help protect their economies and societies against climate impacts.

Connie Hedegaard, Denmark's environment minister and designated chair of the Copenhagen summit, urged the US, Japan and other developed countries to put some serious coin on the table.

And Kenya's Prime Minister Raila Odinga said adaptation money up front was a precondition for his country moving away from fossil fuels.

"We are prepared to forego the dirty way... but to do that we need assistance," he said.

The sting in the tail for Ms Hedegaard is that the EU has yet to agree what it is bringing to the table.

The European Commission has proposed allocating $2-15bn per year from the public purse; but EU finance ministers declined to endorse that at their council meeting this week.

Given the level of EU rhetoric on the subject, some observers contend it's a disgrace that the bloc has not yet decided what it's prepared to offer on this issue - and they believe it's something that could hold up a Copenhagen deal.

Two years ago, the bloc not in favour of a new global climate treaty was unequivocally led by George W Bush's US and John Howard's Australia.

Two elections later, they've both changed tack; but Canada, under Stephen Harper, is emerging as a country that while not explicitly a "Copenhagen-sceptic", is at least making cautionary noises about the desirability of a strong new treaty.

Canadian newspapers this week were quoting Environment Minister Jim Prentice as suggesting the country needed gentler targets than Europe, for example, because of its growing population and energy-intensive economy.

There is also clearly a view that the Alberta tar-sands operation ought to be allowed leeway to progress - something that green groups regard with the same affection that anti-fascist groups retain for Nick Griffin.

Mr Prentice is also quoted as saying that Canada won't finalise its carbon-cutting plans until the US situation becomes clear.

And how soon will that be?

John Kerry, co-sponsor of the climate bill that recently entered the US Senate, said he would try to set a definite timetable for the bill on Monday next.

But five committees have yet to consider it - and some senators vehemently opposed to the legislation, such as Republican James Inhofe, have vowed that they will take as long as they need to take - which, it's feasible to deduce, he interprets as some time well into next year.

Mr Kerry told Mr de Boer earlier this month that a Copenhagen deal was possible even if the Boxer-Kerry bill hasn't passed.

Would developing countries be convinced by a US position and US numbers when the Senate has not authorised them? One wonders...

We also saw this week an agreement between China and India to work together - on clean technology, on curbing emissions, and on the politics of the Copenhagen summit.

This is an important development in that it expressly binds the two Asian giants together in political harmony.

A year or so ago their stances appeared to be diverging, with China relatively open to a deal that constrained its emissions, and India determined to avoid anything that might impact its own economic growth.

Many Chinese officials believe its economic growth and its living conditions will be compromised by climate change - and it appears their arguments have found some favour in Indian ears.

Indian, Chinese and Indonesian action and pledges on energy efficiency and renewable energy brought praise from Mr Miliband at the MEF summit.

But equally clear was the determination of those and other developing nations attending the talks that finance has to be right as a precondition of any deal.

Well... as they say on the BBC's second and third most important media, radio and television; "that's all we've got time for this week".

But have I missed out any vital developments, or misconstrued any of the politics?

If you think I have, please post a comment. Keeping across it all may be too big a job for just one person.

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