Belfast Telegraph

Saturday 25 October 2014

Warming to their task

The Copenhagen climate change conference was thrown into chaos yesterday when its president resigned. Co Down woman Mary Walsh gives an observer's view of the summit

For anyone tempted to think that the issue of climate change is still the domain of eco-activists, two weeks in Copenhagen at the UN Climate Summit will prove you wrong.

Having just returned from this international extravaganza, it's clear that this is a topic right at the top of the international agenda. From politicians to businessmen, activists to artists, this was a broad church.

From the amount of media coverage the Copenhagen summit has attracted, you would be forgiven for thinking that this is the first such meeting that has taken place.

In fact, it's the 15th Conference of the Parties where the UN countries meet to discuss their commitments to greenhouse gas reduction and the impacts of international climate change.

But the reason this one is so significant is that the last international agreement on emissions reductions, the Kyoto Protocol, runs out in 2012, and if there's to be any chance of ratifying a successor agreement in time, Copenhagen was supposedly the last chance to do this.

This doesn't look likely. A definitive agreement will probably be concluded next year instead, but whatever is ultimately decided will have an effect on the lives of every person in Northern Ireland in some shape or form.

Newly agreed emissions targets will (eventually) be passed into law, in turn affecting businesses and individuals, having an impact on everything from how we heat our homes to the price of buying fresh flowers. The fact that pretty much everything we do these days relies to an extent on fossil fuels means that nothing day-to-day will be exempt from the decisions made at Copenhagen.

I had an invitation to attend the summit on behalf of the British Council, an organisation which has focused on developing international relationships between those working on climate-related issues.

My day job involves advising renewable energy companies, so the chance to attend something this significant was of huge interest to me. And as an observer, I had a unique opportunity to see the machinations of the UN behemoth at close quarters.

Arriving at the simply vast Bella Center on the southern outskirts of Copenhagen, you get a very real feeling that the world is here and that's not only because of the two-hour queue to pass security and register.

Security is understandably tight - the list of attendees for later meetings reads like a political Who's Who. I am questioned at length about why I have a padlock on my suitcase and whether I am planning on throwing it at anyone. I kid you not.

There is a buzz and an energy that is quite palpable as soon as you enter into the cavernous exhibition hall filled with various observer organisations and exhibitions attending from around the world.

Primarily observers are drawn from environmental non-governmental organisations (NGOs) such as Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth, but they are not alone. Business and industry are also represented, as delightfully named 'BINGOs', as are Trade Unions - 'TUNGOs' - international organisations and agencies, the list goes on.

As the days go on, the number of observers admitted to the Bella Center and the UN meetings is steadily decreasing as the parties doing the negotiating send in more and more representatives - Messrs Obama, Brown and Sarkozy bring their own advisors to supplement the ones already here. Senor Berlusconi may bring some additional security, as well.

So those observing during the first week took the opportunity to make their voices heard, knowing the second week may see them kept outside. In the early days there are regular forays of banner-wielding observers from the exhibition hall to the meeting rooms giving the assembled media something for the six o'clock news and some nice photo ops.

I, like many observers, had chosen to spend the days in the official meetings. I had never been to any form of UN negotiation before, but the formality and etiquette seemed strangely familiar. Submissions from nations are, in theory, supposed to be kept to three minutes or less (this doesn't happen) and simultaneous translation allows you to follow what's going on.

I am strangely gratified to see the great and the good raising their hands for permission to speak. There is a laboured sense of protocol and everything is terribly polite and reserved, broken only by some nicely unscripted outbursts. Particular mention must go to the Chinese delegation outburst I witnessed, complaining to the UN that their environmental minister hadn't made it past the security desk. Perhaps he had a padlock on his bag.

What does become apparent pretty quickly is that the real negotiations aren't happening in this forum. They are going on behind the scenes in the warren of delegate meeting rooms closed to anyone but government. The UN might invite the press and observers, but there are only some things that can be observed.

I get chatting to a Canadian delegate at a coffee point one morning who tells me she's barely slept since she arrived a week earlier. The behind-the-scenes meetings are going on long into the night.

For the world leaders arriving this week, some of them may be dismayed to find that their chance to address the assembled masses will come in the early hours of the morning. Such is the sheer volume of international leaders arriving that sessions will continue till a no-doubt caffeine-induced 2am.

On top of the plenary sessions, there are hundreds of simultaneous meetings going on in the Bella Center, some organised by UN agencies, others by governments, others by interested parties. There really is no shortage of things to do and see. The real difficulty comes from figuring out what's worth going to and what's best avoided.

Outside the official events in the Bella Center, Copenhagen is awash with climate related events. There's the Alternative Climate Forum (sceptics), the Peoples' Climate Forum (culture), Climate Spark (business) plus the much-publicised marches and protests in central Copenhagen over the weekend. There are estimates of 60,000 people in Copenhagen during this two-week period and only (only!) 34,000 having official UN passes.

The irony of the carbon emissions generated by getting everyone to this vast international extravaganza isn't lost on me. Many people in Europe travelled by ferry and train, but the vast number have flown into Copenhagen and most nations have brought hundreds of delegates and advisors. This is quite the international roadshow.

It's possible to think of the environmental impact of the event as an investment - if a long lasting agreement is reached in Copenhagen to reduce emissions, then the emissions used getting everyone there will have been worth it in the long run. Fair point. But only if an agreement is reached. As yet - especially given Connie Hedegaard's resignation yesterday - it's not entirely clear if that's going to be the case.

If this opportunity is not to be wasted, those attending for the rest of the week will need to keep their heads down and focus on the possible consequences of failing to reach an agreement.

With so many world leaders in Copenhagen, one has to assume none of them will want to be associated with a wasted opportunity. But until we find out what's been going on behind closed doors, we will have to wait and see.

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