Senior officials and negotiators are increasingly gloomy about the prospects for a global warming deal next month, with the British government admitting there is now no chance of a legally binding treaty.
Speaking as officials gather in Barcelona tomorrow for a final round of negotiations, Rajendra Pachauri, head of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, said: “I gave all the world’s leaders a very grim view of what the science tells us and that is what should be motivating us all, but I’m afraid I don’t see too much evidence of that at the current stage.
“Science has been moved aside and the space has been filled up with political myopia with every country now trying to protect its own narrow short-term interests. They are afraid to have negotiations go any further because they would have to compromise on those interests.”
British officials say the negotiations have been progressing too slowly, and the best Copenhagen can achieve is a “politically binding” agreement. But they insist this does not represent a lowering of ambition for the talks, and say a political deal would still be a major achievement.
“Nobody thinks we will get a full treaty,” said a spokesman for the Department of Energy and Climate Change. “Copenhagen must deliver a comprehensive politically binding agreement … This must cover all the major issues including binding economy-wide emissions reductions from developed countries, significant action from developing countries to slow their emissions growth, and finance. Only this can deliver a legally binding treaty which puts the world on a trajectory to a maximum global average temperature increase of two degrees and provides a fair deal for developing countries.”
In an apparent effort to lower expectations ahead of Copenhagen, billed by Gordon Brown as the world’s last chance to prevent “catastrophic” climate change, senior figures are playing down the chances of producing a binding treaty.
Yvo de Boer, the UN’s most senior climate official, said last week: “It is physically impossible, under any scenario, to complete every detail of a treaty in Copenhagen.” He added: “It is absolutely clear that Copenhagen must deliver a strong political agreement and nail down the essentials.”
Lars Løkke Rasmussen, prime minister of Denmark, said: “We do not think it will be possible to decide all the finer details for a legally binding regime.”
Hanne Bjurstroem, Norwegian cabinet minister and chief climate negotiator, told Reuters: “I don’t believe we will get a full, ratifiable, legally binding agreement from Copenhagen.”
De Boer pointed out that the 1997 Kyoto protocol, the world’s existing treaty on greenhouse gas emissions, took several years to finalise and to come into force.
Pachauri said although negotiations had not moved far and many leaders are playing down expectations, he has not given up on an agreement. “My feeling is leaders don’t want to be left with the responsibility for any possible failures so they are hedging their bets. They are downplaying expectations because if we don’t get an agreement that reaches people’s expectation, there will be a lot of finger-pointing,” he said.
On current trends, he warned global temperatures are on course to reach the high end of the IPCC forecast of 6.4C by 2100 with dire consequences for social stability, food production and health.
The Nobel prize winner co-ordinated 1,250 of the world’s leading scientists and 2,500 reviewers to draw up an IPCC report in 2007 that asserted climate change was a fact and all but certainly caused by carbon emissions from human activity. He said: “It is a fact that unfortunately negotiations haven’t moved very far, but that is not a major indicator of lack of progress because this is the way negotiations go. Often these things fall into place two minutes before the midnight hour. I am cautiously optimistic.”
Pachauri said that a six-month or one-year delay in the search for a deal was not the worst outcome. “This is certainly not desirable, but if it meant a stronger agreement that addressed the seriousness of the problem, it may not be that bad.”