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SMELLIE SNIFFS THE BREEZE: Taking our Lumps

SMELLIE SNIFFS THE BREEZE: Taking our Pineapple Lumps at Copenhagen

By Pattrick Smellie

Dec. 18 (BusinessWire) - Watching the Copenhagen climate change summit from Wellington today brings to mind the Pineapple Lumps ad where the Kiwi turns up late, hits the button, and is delighted to receive a toothsome booby prize while other countries make off with the riches.

From the outside, the global summit looks like a bit of a lottery. For a start, media coverage is universally pessimistic, albeit you'd expect that. Failure at Copenhagen would be a huge story, but an even bigger story would be the drama of a breakthrough success. It's no accident that building up the prospect of failure is a journalistic instinct: it's the ultimate two-way bet where the fence-sitter can never lose.

There are, of course, factors clouding this complacent view that all will be well with the global commitment to curb climate change. For a local audience, the most alarming signals are coming from Climate Change Negotiations Minister Tim Groser, who says he's "appalled" by the process.

"It's like a whole bunch of countries are miscalculating here and thinking that the pressure of these world leaders is going to drive us towards a second Kyoto protocol, and it's not. We have a real problem on our hands," he told Fairfax's reporter in Copenhagen, David Williams, overnight.

"I just cannot see how you can get sufficient convergence inside a meeting room of 1000 people," said Groser. "I've never seen it in a trade arena. [I'd] love to be proven wrong, but I'd say no chance."

Groser is congenitally given to quotable utterances, and it's important to recognise that "no deal at Copenhagen" means different things to different people. No one has expected a signed and sealed post-Kyoto agreement for months. What is still expected, however, is a politically and morally binding commitment to solid enough targets for a new climate deal to be nutted out over the next year - or more, if it takes that long.

If Groser is saying, however, that even a political agreement is impossible, then there really is trouble, but it would be a brave pundit to declare so close to midnight that the talks will collapse.

As he put it in a thoughtful speech in London just ahead of Copenhagen, Groser said: "I have spent 30 years negotiating international economic agreements. Most of them, contrary to popular opinion, and after massive political frustration and delays, do end up getting done - never perfectly of course, but usually in the right direction.

"But this is never achieved in one step and seldom in conformity with agreed 'road maps' or timelines to which solemn Brownie oaths have been earlier pledged. A successful negotiation is always done incrementally by building up convergence and consensus first at the general, then increasingly specific, levels of detail."

That's still what seems to be happening in Denmark today, and it's worth bearing in mind that the Kyoto Protocol negotiations in 1997 went to the wire amid predictions of impending doom, only to produce an outcome that stuck.

That is still surely the most likely outcome at Copenhagen. As Green Party elder stateswoman Jeanette Fitzsimons told Radio New Zealand from the Danish capital this morning, the fact that U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton didn't unveil a new American emissions target when she arrived this week can be read as a positive.

Her president, Barack Obama, only arrives in Copenhagen on Friday, the last scheduled day of the conference, and it's inconceivable that he won't have an ace in the hole. Sure, he has problems getting climate change legislation through the Congress and Senate, but if need be, he can bypass the legislature by using the Environmental Protection Authority's ruling that greenhouse gas emissions are a pollutant requiring clean-up under existing legislation.

Likewise, China has cards up its sleeve. The Middle Kingdom is second only to the U.S. in greenhouse gas emissions production and is dead serious about the threat both within its borders and globally of failing to tackle climate change.

So, for all the reports of protest, deadlock, and grandstanding by small, low-lying nations like Tuvalu and the Maldives, which could disappear when sea levels rise as the world climate warms, a summit as big as Copenhagen isn't over till it's over.

Neither the U.S. nor China is so foolish as to want to be blamed for failure at Copenhagen.

What New Zealand must hope for is that, in the determination to get a deal, target emission reductions are not so large as to be economically crippling. The European Union has upped its offer for GHG emissions to between 30% and 45% by 2020, a level which Prime Minister John Key warned is completely unachievable for New Zealand unless food production and farming are scaled right back.

With half the country's emissions coming from methane and nitrous oxide created by ruminant farm animals, and with no scientific fix to that likely in the next short while, there is far more at stake for New Zealand than the pressure to contribute more funds to the adaptation fund for developing economies.

The only thing anyone can be sure about is that there will be plenty of other countries with their own unique circumstances, all striving to be part of the solution while constructing the sub-clause that eases their own contribution.

By Monday, we'll probably know the answers to much of the speculation above. In the meantime, put money on a successful outcome, and get ready to read the fine print.

In the meantime, Merry Christmas and Happy New Year. Smellie Sniffs the Breeze will return on January 8.

(BusinessWire)

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