The last minute deal


 Friday was a long day in the Bella Centre in Copenhagen, a day more exhausting for some than for others. Particularly hollow eyed were a group of officials attached to the Copenhagen Commitment Circle. They had been up all night, negotiating hard, but in the freezing dawn of Friday morning, things did not look good.

The officials were the sherpas of the process: the men and women who prepare the ground for their political masters; in this case, they were tasked with arguing the paragraph by paragraph, line by line and comma by comma detail of a text that their political leaders hoped to put their names to before the day was over.  

The Copenhagen Commitment Circle had come into being earlier in the year at the invitation of the Danish government. It started as a group of high ambition countries that aimed to inject energy and direction into what had become a paralysingly slow and sprawling set of negotiations.  The group was open to any who wished to join. By December 6, when COP15 opened, China, the US, Ethiopia, the EU, Brazil, Mexico and India were among the 33 countries taking part.

Once the heads of government arrived in Copenhagen, late in the second week of what threatened to be a stalled conference, the group began to meet in a separate room. The door, said one participant, was always open. Inside, they worked save the COP from failure, and to produce a text that would belatedly bind the United States into a global climate regime.

 They met twice on Thursday evening, then tasked their sherpas with producing a text by the morning. After an intense all night session chaired by Denmark, in which China played a heavily obstructive role, they had agreed only two and a half paragraphs out of twelve. Time was running out.

The next day the group resumed its session as the leaders made speeches to the COP plenary session.  Many had been planned as speeches celebrating a deal. As it was, they were place holders for the tough talks going on behind the scenes, now with the participation of President Obama, but without China’s premier Wen Jiabao, who declined to participate in person.  He was lobbied in three intense bi-laterals by Britain’s prime minister Gordon Brown, in an effort to remove the blockage caused by disagreement between the US and China over how to verify China’s mitigation promises.

By late evening on Friday, the major disagreements in the political statement had been resolved. It was left to President Obama to reveal the details.  Bizarrely he chose to announce the result in a way that implied that a separate agreement had been reached between the US, India, China, South Africa and Brazil. He made no mention of the other 29 countries in the room, or of the next hurdle – how to introduce the text the group had separately endorsed into the COP, where it would require the endorsement of many countries that felt themselves excluded from the power holders table. 

There had been clear signals earlier on Friday that the acceptance by the COP plenary was far from guaranteed. IN a press conference in the afternoon, Venezuela’s president Hugo Chavez, flanked by the representatives of Cuba, Bolivia and Ecuador had loudly complained that the agenda had been hijacked by a small group of rich countries. (The group, in fact, included Ethiopia, India and China, not countries that would describe themselves as rich). Announcing that he would never accept such a deal, President Chavez left Copenhagen.  

Finally, when the plenary resumed on Saturday morning, the COP agreed to “take note” of the text. A conference that had threatened to break down under the sheer complexity of its multilateral ambition had come up with a last minute result, a political statement, short on details and with much still to be negotiated. .

An analysis of what that result means follows.