Day 5 at Copenhagen: “I Don’t Want to Say the Gentleman is Ignorant”

When assessing the progress of the climate negotiations in Copenhagen, remember: these talks are a game of geopolitical chicken with 192 players. All sides agree that emissions must be slashed and no country or region wants to sacrifice more than it has to. Rifts have emerged this week as various interest groups stake out their negotiating positions and size up the opposition.

The U.S. and China, the world’s two biggest carbon emitters, have been trading barbs all week. Today, China’s Vice Finance Minister blasted U.S. climate envoy Todd Stern for saying that the China shouldn’t expect any public climate aid from the U.S. and for denying that the U.S. owed a debt to the world for pumping so much carbon into the atmosphere.

“I don’t want to say the gentleman is ignorant,” Minister He Yafei told the press in Copenhagen. “I think he lacks common sense where he made such a comment vis-a-vis funds for China. Either lack of common sense or extremely irresponsible.”

Japan’s environment minister, Sakihito Ozawa, threatened today to back off Japan’s pledged emissions reductions if the Kyoto Protocol were extended without setting emission reduction goals for the United States and China.

This afternoon in Washington, Andrew Light, a climate policy expert at the Center for American Progress, analyzed the state of play at a seminar sponsored by the National Security Network.

Light explained that all the climate negotiators are trying to chart a path towards a common goal: stop and adapt. Their task is to hammer out a deal that will limit global warming to 2௦C, and help the world cope with the change. In order to meet this goal, the world must slash greenhouse emissions by 50% by 2050, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

Light noted that most of the carbon playing havoc with the atmosphere today came from the U.S. and other developed countries over many years of industrialization. It seems only fair, therefore, that wealthy developed nations should sacrifice first and most to fight climate change. But regardless of what’s fair, the IPCC science says that the world can not meet the 2௦C target unless the largest developing economies–China, India, South Africa, Brazil, Indonesia and Mexico–do their part.

Over the course of the week, developing countries, represented by the G77 negotiating bloc (which is frequently joined by China), sought to preserve the Kyoto principle that the developed world should take the lead on cutting emissions and that developing countries should be exempt from emissions controls.

Meanwhile, Light says there’s no chance that the U.S. will agree to emission controls unless, at minimum, China and India do the same.

There are some bright spots, though. Until two weeks ago, the White House had refused to allow U.S. climate negotiators to commit to emission reduction targets for 2020. The U.S. has pledged to meet the 2050 goal, but politically, a promise to accomplish something within the next 40 years is ephemeral. The real question is what governments are prepared to in the next decade. But after the U.S. put a 2020 number on the table, China released its own target the next day and India released its commitment shortly thereafter.

Whatever happens with fossil fuel emissions, deforestation must be stopped if the world hopes to meet the 2௦C target, according to experts with the The Global Canopy Programme, a science-based NGO based at Oxford University. The GCP help a press conference today on deforestation and the status of the ongoing REDD negotiations. REDD, short for Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation in Developing Countries, is an attempt to encourage developing countries to protect their forests. GCP experts said they were optimistic about the REDD talks.

Yesterday, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) released a new report on the acidification of the seas. Carbon emissions don’t just end up in the air. The oceans absorb about 25% of the carbon. As carbon levels rise, the seas become more acidic. Today, the oceans are 30% more acidic than they were at the dawn of the industrial era. If current trends continue, arctic seawater could start corroding corals and shellfish within the next decade. Acidification also threatens the plankton that produce half the world’s oxygen.

The long-awaited Kerry-Graham-Lieberman climate blueprint was released yesterday. The plan calls for a emissions reduction “in the range of 17%” vs 2005 levels by 2020. Now, all eyes are on President Obama who will be traveling to Copenhagen next week.