Climate politics on the way to Copenhagen

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With stakes this high, no wonder climate politics have taken a real heating in the last few weeks.

We're in the run-up to the December UN climate summit in Copenhagen that will determine how the planet will weather the future, so don't expect things to settle down before the year ends. It's hard to know which way the wind blows with the whole world involved on so many levels of negotiating.

Last month it was the Major Economies Forum, the UN Climate Change Summit and the G20. And as we speak, a two-week negotiating meeting in Bangkok is just ending.

The science is clear about the consequences of missing this moment, but will the political willpower make it to the dotted line in time?

Reviews are mixed on the global process, though there's no doubt that the best that can be said of Canada's role is that it looks like Stephen Harper won't be showing up for the actual talks. This is as expected after our PM's performance last month in New York, where he chose to lunch with that city's Mayor Bloomberg rather than join 100 other world leaders at the UN.

"I take hope that Harper is not going to go," says Greenpeace executive director Bruce Cox. "Greenpeace wants every world leader, every decision-maker to be there -- but for Harper, yeah, don't go," he says.

Just back from 40 hours in a Fort McMurray jail, Cox is holding as tightly as he can to a sense of optimism, but under the circumstances -- Canada's tar sand emissions are slated to increase from the current 40 million annually to 140 million tonnes by 2020 -- it isn't easy.

"I have this bottom line that when push comes to shove the human species are survivalists," he says.

The good news, though, is that Canada's present gov is the last of the industrialized nations to remain a real climate slug and the only one in the world to have officially reneged on its Kyoto commitment. Climate Action Network director Graham Saul estimates that the U.S. is outspending Canada 14-to-one per capita on clean energy now that Barack Obama has replaced George Bush.

He points as well to a new, more progressive regime that has significantly shifted Japan's resistant approach. But was the UN Summit a failure nevertheless, with the Chinese playing the role of the new bad guys, as the media seemed to imply?

Actually, no, says Saul, who insists the glass is half full, not half empty. "The UN Summit was the biggest gathering of heads of state in human history to talk specifically about climate change," he says. "I haven't been able to figure out if it was China who put out the rumour that it was going to make a huge announcement or if it was someone else who put out the rumour. But to some degree, China is actually doing more than any other country in the world, yet the story became 'China let the world down,'" he says.

"It is always darkest before the dawn," says Saul. "We are in full negotiating mode. Everyone is holding the cards pretty close to their chest."

"In North America, they create this sense of overall failure. In reality, it isn't a failure. Through Kyoto we are already capping emissions in every country in the world except the U.S. and Canada."

So how did the unfulfilled expectation that China would make a big specific statement arise? My hint from the trenches is to carefully watch how climate coverage is played over the next two months, because it's so easy for "news" stories to base themselves on constructed expectations. Then the unsurprising can be reported with all the drama of failure.

Just such a controversy is circling the fact that, given the health care debate, the climate bill is unlikely to make it through the U.S. Senate before Copenhagen.

Some in the eco blogosphere are saying that's been obvious for months and wondering how it became "news." Environmental Defence's Matt Price says the fact that the Senate won't pass a climate bill before Copenhagen "has lowered the bar."

Price says this is an unfortunate point in history, with the U.S. piggybank also "so weak."

"A lot of countries are taking it as a sign that the biggest player isn't going to show up able to negotiate, and that takes the pressure off to make a deal. A lot of people are starting to say this will be a stepping stone rather than a final marker."

Clare Demerse of the Pembina Institute agrees that "the countries are not where they need to be with only two months to Copenhagen."

But, she says, "that doesn't mean people won't get there in a crazy last-minute rush. As we all know, deadlines drive people. Some developing countries have interesting ideas but need to see real dollars on the table."

This is where the talks need to go, but Dale Marshall of the David Suzuki Foundation, who is in Bangkok right now, says it isn't going well. And Canadian knuckleheads are slowing the process down.

"The lack of trust between developing countries and industrialized countries continues," he says. "Mostly because industrialized countries have still not come forward with concrete proposals on how (and how much) they will deliver financing for developing countries to curb emissions and adapt to climate change."

Canada, says Marshall, has the weakest proposed target and has yet to accept responsibility for not even trying to reach its Kyoto commitments. "We are the only country blocking the use of 1990 as the reference year from which emission reductions are measured. So we're wasting time on this when we should be discussing the overall target for rich countries and how to parcel that out between countries."

It's so ironic that Harper is pretending the economy is somehow separate from what's going on in Copenhagen, when the next climate treaty will actually be the foundational piece that will govern global economic development through this century.

The new carbon regime will redirect the flow of hundreds of billions annually. And business will benefit by getting on with it sooner rather than later.

"I get the impression talking to businesspeople that they still want clarity from Copenhagen," writes Yvo de Boer, executive secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change.

"If you're making investments now, for example in the energy sector, in power plants that are going to be around for the next 30 to 50 years, you can't really afford to keep waiting and waiting for governments to say where they're going."

Inadvertently echoing the sentiment, tar sands developer Total CEO Jean-Michel Gires revealed in a Q&A in the Globe business pages this week that he already budgets $40 a tonne to buy emission credits when he costs out future tar sands projects.

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