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COP15: Titanic nears the harbour

Richard Black | 13:51 UK time, Wednesday, 16 December 2009

"So, how are things going?"

The question comes in hourly from editors back in London, from friends, from other journalists around this huge, unwieldy conference.

The precise answer would vary from hour to hour, although an honest assessment would always include the words "I don't know".

Delegates in the conference hall at CopenhagenBut as we enter the high-level segment - the bit where ministers take up the reins from their professional negotiators - maybe it's time to attempt an assessment.

So how are things going?

People who've followed this process for years, people with the ears of important delegations, don't know; as one observed to me yesterday, "we are in uncharted territory".

What I think that means is that never before has there been a UN negotiation on issues with environmental, economic and legal implications conducted by heads of state and government.

Think of the complexity and the side-issues this negotiation drags in: overseas aid, economic development, colonialism old and new, legal rights to inspect other governments' actions, the breaking of historical promises on cutting carbon... and the reasons why European Commission negotiator Artur Runge-Metzger concluded that "in many cases we have exhausted the technical work, and it is time for a political choice to be made" become clear.

So that's what environment ministers now - and heads of state and government later - will have to do; to make those political choices.

But "making political choices" can easily turn into "making political deals". Many leaders are already here; and the deals, reportedly, are already being done.

I say "reportedly" because we journalists are working in even more of an information deficit than previously.

When two or three prime ministers have a conversation, the dribbles of detail emerge much more slowly and with far more spin than when the ordinary negotiators are involved.

So it is that last night came news of a proposal from Ethiopia - with support and encouragement from France and the UK - that they think could form the basis of a deal here.

Essentially, finance would be raised, rising up to $100bn per year by 2020 for the developing world from "innovative sources" - elements such as taxes on banking transactions and ship and aviation fuel, and levies on carbon trading.

The African group reportedly gave the Ethiopian negotiator a real roasting about this at their routine morning meeting, because the proposal gives ground on some of the African bloc's fundamental points - in particular, endorsing a temperature target of 2C when the vast majority of African nations want 1.5C.

Meles ZenawiBut the Ethiopian negotiator couldn't do anything about it, we're told, because it wasn't his deal - it was the deal of his president, Meles Zenawi, made on behalf of the African Union.

The document bears the strong scent of French fingers, in particular through its endorsement of the concept of a new super-UN environment organisation - a distinctly French initiative.

So other African negotiators may hate the idea, but they don't matter now; how African prime ministers and presidents see it is the only thing that matters.

What else is happening behind the scenes?

According to one Caribbean delegate I spoke with this morning - deals, deals and more deals.

In somewhat sombre mood, he explained that the most vulnerable countries should in principal stick to the positions they have adopted here - a temperature rise of no more than 1.5C, much more money for adaptation (based on the principle of historical responsibility for climate change) - but that most would crumble.

He offered me two examples of big countries (both in the developing world, incidentally) recently offering money to small island states tied to changing their position on climate change.

It's an Alice-in-Wonderland world. In the main plenary hall, delegates from big developing countries are demanding transparency and adherence to the texts that they have been negotiating here.

But in the private rooms, their own political lords and masters (and ladies and mistresses) are doing deals that ride roughshod over any notion of transparency.

"How's it going?"

According to Tuvalu's negotiator Ian Fry, not remotely as it should.

"I have the feeling that we are on the Titanic and sinking fast; but we can't launch any lifeboats because a member of the crew has decided we're not sinking and has decided to launch informal consultations."

Shipwreck or safe arrival? Bizarrely, just two days before governments are supposed to solve a problem that so many claim as a huge threat to the human race, the Titanic struggles of the negotiators are in danger of being swamped by the fast and loose launches of political expediency.


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