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Copenhagen, day five: Multiple bubbles, too many choices and one giant question mark

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I’ll be honest. I completely ignored the negotiations in Copenhagen on Friday. No kidding. I didn’t even pretend to care. Partly because not much appeared to be happening, at least not much outside of the usual political struggles that we’ve reported countless times over the past two years. But also because plenty of interesting talks are under way at any number of side events throughout the conference center. There are too many choices, in fact.

I focused my time on a fascinating series of talks related to emissions scenarios, how various commitments address the actual problem of global warming and how much money will be needed for which technologies (stay tuned). Seemed like a good idea, until I heard from a colleague that there was an equally fascinating series of talks on renewable energy, how to deploy it globally and what kinds of tools can be used to promote and assess progress in developing countries. Point being that at when you are here you simply have to make choices and accept the consequences.

One of the consequences of ignoring the negotiations process is that I was completely baffled when a regular source approached me at 7 p.m. and warned of impending doom. Impending doom would normally constitute a news story, but at these meetings it’s never entirely clear how to define “impending” or “doom.” It’s not that I doubted the provider of said information. Even the smallest and seemingly insignificant issues can – and often do – provoke international crises in political negotiations of this caliber. And the reasons cited in this particular case (emissions commitments, money, treaty architecture) were not minor. But it’s also easy to get caught up in the moment and lose perspective.

That said, I hereby acknowledge that I have no idea what is going to happen this coming week. I confess as much with a fair amount of confidence that nobody else does either. It’s one giant question mark. At one point I talked to an environmentalist who invoked the Holy Ghost to explain not one but two possible outcomes, neither of which necessarily satisfied all of his desires. All of which is to serve as my warning against reading too much into any one of the countless stories that come out of Copenhagen in the coming days. Journalists can provide context and frame questions, but it’s unlikely that any given story is going to provide reliable answers.

I pondered the link between experts and politicians as I bounced among talks throughout the day. Scientists and economists presented various modelling results, analyzing climate forcing, emissions reductions and technology investments, and every single one of them came to the same conclusion: current political commitments are significant but fall well short of the goal of limiting the average increase in temperature to 2 degrees, which is what most politicians say they want to do. A second theme also emerged: getting a proper start on that goal, particularly in the next decade, isn’t all that difficult and could be achieved at a net profit thanks largely to opportunities in energy efficiency.

But there are multiple bubbles in Copenhagen’s Bella Center, and ideas don’t necessarily transfer among them. I found myself alternating between optimism and deep pessimism, occasionally soothed by a cultivated sense of pragmatism and my usual dose of hope. In the event that the world moves too slowly now, or the systems politicians opt to deploy don’t quite work as designed, we could always make up the difference later. Sure, the task gets more difficult with each passing year, but this is “Hopenhagen,” as I am reminded every time I get on the metro.

I’m not sure where all of that leaves us. Full-time negotiators will kick things off to environment ministers this weekend, and environment ministers will have a couple of days to resolve sticky issues and set the stage for heads of state who arrive toward the end of next week. It’s safe to say that none of the big issues will get resolved before then, but heads of state can do anything they want as they they don’t have to report back to anybody (at least not until the next election, where applicable). All out collapse cannot be ruled out, to be sure, but it’s hard to imagine a situation where there is more pressure to get something done. The question on the minds of scientists I talked to was not necessarily whether there would be an agreement but whether that agreement would do what it needs to do.

Photo credit: WHTC

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