(2014-12-10)With three days to go until the Lima climate conference is officially scheduled to end, talks aimed at developing a global agreement to cut greenhouse gas emissions appear stuck in slow motion.
At 9pm on Tuesday the strand of negotiations over the commitments required from countries for any deal closed for the day.
“We are going home, you can stay for informal talks if you wish,” said Kishan Kumarsingh, a Trinidad and Tobago official who is one of the co-chairs tasked with steering this process.
At that, delegates sitting around a huge table in an air-conditioned tent the size of a football pitch started to stand up and leave the arena.
Very few seemed keen to stay.
The marquee they are working in has the look of a wedding venue, with four long tables accommodating over 190 countries facing each other.
That’s where the comparisons end. There’s little festive joy here.
Looming over them on the meeting room’s four big screens was the scale of the task facing this conference. It displayed a small part of an 18-page Microsoft Word document.
But you could see what page they had reached after eight days of the Lima meeting. Number two.
Envoys had made it to the point where this document gets interesting. The bit which will roughly detail what types of commitment countries should make to any UN climate deal.
These, to excuse the jargon, are known as Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs), and will include among other things the emission cuts countries say they will target.
The world’s major economies are expected to present these by March 2015. The only problem is there’s a row here over what else, apart from carbon cuts, should do in.
Poorer and vulnerable countries want financial assurances here, and details on how they aim to adapt to changing weather patterns.
Developed nations are happy with the emission cuts, and say the other aspects can come later, when countries come to develop a global deal that is scheduled to be signed in Paris next December.
Earlier in the evening, amid increasing tension, a US representative said the “INDCs are getting out of hand… this was supposed to be about mitigation.”
Small island state negotiators disagreed. Strongly.
Instead of distilling a negotiating text, it just seems to be getting bigger. It’s now being worked through by countries line by line.
Once an option is suggested it can be added to the word document, in brackets if there is no consensus.
Brackets mean trouble and more debate. Every delegate in the tent knows that adding language is the easiest way to slow talks to a crawl.
That’s a problem the ministers who have flown in will have to resolve. The fact that many of these politicians do not understand the details makes this problematic.
If the negotiations continue at their current pace of two pages a day, they won’t finish until Friday December 18. A little too close to Christmas.
One veteran negotiator from a developed country RTCC spoke to said the idea on-screen drafting could resolve differences was a “myth”.
Manuel Pulgar Vidal, the president of these talks, suggested he could be ready to step in earlier in the day.
“Let me tell you I am ready to take the necessary decisions to ensure you can intensify your work and have outcomes this week,” he said ominously.
That may mean some all night sessions for weary national teams. It could also mean some creative thinking by participating countries.
But at an EU briefing with reporters earlier on Tuesday, those solutions seemed hard to spot.
Brussels feels it has gone beyond the call of duty with its 2030 emissions pact. So does Washington with its 2025 target.
It’s hard to see who else has the political inclination to step up from the developed world – certainly not Australia, Canada or Japan.
Now the Green Climate Fund has been offered US$10 billion many of these countries feel they have done their bit on the finance front.
Never mind that economists say trillions are required to help developing countries invest in green energy systems and prepare for the worst effects of climate change.
Empty, shallow creatures
That silence allows critics of rich countries and this process space to thrive.
In a 25-minute speech, around 22 minutes longer than scheduled, Bolivia’s Evo Morales accused developed countries of being greedy, liars and thieves.
“Developed countries do not want to increase the ambition of their emission cuts…if developed countries had established actions called for by the convention we would not be at the stage listening to their apocalyptic forecasts,’ he said.
“But there are countries that do not want to reduce emissions domestically or do anything to help developing countries.”
He was joined by Tuvalu president Ratu Epeli Nailatikau, who said he couldn’t sleep at night because he worried about his country’s future so much.
“There is no place for denial. It’s time to ignore the climate deniers driven by the fossil fuel industry,” he said.
“It’s time to ignore leaders who deny climate change. They are empty shallow creatures, they only see the face of dollars.”
That urgency may resonate outside this heavily fortified venue, but inside it’s almost non-existent.
The players are so used to diplomatic hardball they barely seem to recognise how ridiculous it can look to outsiders.
Another veteran of 20 conferences looked at me increduously when I remarked how slow these discussions were. This was actually quite relaxed and encouraging, they said.
Today thousands of activists will parade through the streets of Lima demanding change, urgency and political leadership.
Will they pleas make it through the thin plastic walls of the wedding marquee? Unlikely. They face brackets if they do.
But like it or loathe it, it’s the only game in town if the world wants to slow carbon emissions and address climate change, and in the next 72 hours something will have to give.