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William Powers: In the Thick of It

December 14, 2009

By **William Powers**

COPENHAGEN–Under the vaulting sloped-glass roof of Copenhagen’s Bella Center, the excitement is palpable. I’m here for the two-week long “COP 15,” or the Fifteenth Conference of the Parties of the UN Convention on Climate Change. The world’s environment ministers have arrived in advance of the historic gathering of 110 heads of state coming next week.

It’s been a rollercoaster ride so far. On Friday, spirits lifted after much uncertainty that any sort of deal could be struck, when a draft agreement that seemed to have some consensus finally circulated. It said that–using 1990 levels as a baseline–all countries together should reduce emissions from 50 to 95 percent by 2050, with rich countries cutting emissions from 25 to 40 percent by 2020.

But then at a ministerial meeting on Sunday, the United States dropped a bomb: it couldn’t commit to a legally binding target for emissions reductions because Congress hasn’t approved the proposal. Not surprisingly, Canada and other rich nations followed suit, saying essentially, “well, then we won’t either.”

“When that happened, the whole dialogue broke down,” said Papua New Guinea Minister Kevin Conrad, who was present. In rebuff, lesser-developed countries basically told the rich world to “sort out your problems internally and then you come back and talk to us about the things we can do.” Then they walked out, stopping negotiations for most of today.

By Monday, the conference chair, Danish Minister Connie Hedegaard, had managed to overcome the deadlock through some quick diplomacy. But the peace is fragile, and there’s an increasingly pessimistic sense among a number of country delegates and representatives from non-governmental organizations about the possibility of any significant deal being struck here.

The pessimism is understandable, given the vast differences in perspectives. For example, last week Washington scoffed at the idea that there exists a “climate debt” that industrialized countries owe to the world (an idea based on the inconvenient fact that wealthy nations have caused the vast majority of the current problem). But in a developing world press conference I just attended, cries were made for “twenty-four trillion dollars in reparations for climate change damages, as well as a radical reduction of emissions in the North.” Meanwhile, 1,200 protesters were taken into police custody over the weekend. Some of them held up signs that read, “Blah, Blah, Blah. Take Action!” referring to the perception that nothing of substance had come of last week’s negotiations.

Against this backdrop, the world’s leaders will soon arrive to try and hammer out the contentious bargaining issues like financing and exactly how deeply to cut emissions. It’s only going to get more interesting.

But beyond the current drama, there’s a more promising kind of buzz in Copenhagen this week: the world’s largest showcase of eco-ideas. With hundreds of side events–press conferences, activist stunts (as I write this, a protester dressed as a tree just sauntered by), and demos–one’s brain buzzes with excitement. As writer Charles Hanley put it, there are “people talking about coal mines and cow diets alike, holding forth on reef fishing and nuclear fission, pushing micro-insurance and space satellites, and seeking solutions in seaweed.” Some of the ideas sound so far-fetched as to be insane. Today, that is. But I recall being at “COP 3″ in Buenos Aires in 1998, and ideas that were crazy then seem almost pedestrian now.

Since the late 1990s, the world has entered the early stages of two energy revolutions. The first is an across-the-board shift toward energy efficient technologies. Take, for example, how incandescent bulbs are routinely being cast aside in favor of vastly more efficient compact florescent technology, which uses just a quarter of the electricity of the incandescents–and that these florescents may soon be made obsolete by the half-again more efficient light-emitting diodes (LEDs) now on the market.

The second energy revolution–from coal and oil to solar, wind, and geothermal–has also begun, something which was a pipe dream just over a decade back. As Lester Brown puts it in his new book, Plan B 4.0: “In the United States, new wind-generating capacity of 8,400 megawatts in 2008 dwarfed the 1,400 megawatts from coal. And worldwide, nuclear power generation went down in 2008 while wind electric generating capacity increased by 27,000 megawatts, enough to supply 8 million American homes.”

Still, it’s the very beginning of both energy revolutions. Whether they continue depends on the kinds of deals being struck in Copenhagen, because what happens here will send strong–or weak–signals to the market as to what kind of economy we’re about to create.

I agree with the latest science, which says that the level of carbon dioxide in our atmosphere must be reduced to 350 parts per million to halt the worst effects of global warming. But it will take a lot of creative ideas and citizen-generated political will to get there. And of course, it goes without saying that Obama and the other leaders who arrive here this week will have their fingers pressed upon the pulse of domestic political opinion. So in a very real sense, what happens here is up to you.

For more information, see William Powers’ brief radio interview on what developing countries want from Copenhagen.

This post is crossposted from The World Policy Blog

William Powers hails from Long Island, NY and has worked for over a decade in development aid and conservation in Latin America, Africa, Washington, D.C., and Native North America. From 2002 to 2004 he managed the community components of a project in the Bolivian Amazon that won a 2003 prize for environmental innovation from Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government. His essays and commentaries on global issues have appeared in the New York Times and the International Herald Tribune, and on National Public Radio. Mr. Powers has worked at the World Bank, and holds international relations degrees from Brown University and Georgetown’s School of Foreign Service. A 2004-2005 recipient of the Open Door Foundation for non-fiction, he is the author of the Liberia memoir Blue Clay People: Seasons on Africa’s Fragile Edge and the Bolivian memoir Whispering in the Giant’s Ear: A Frontline Chronicle from Bolivia’s War on Globalization.

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