Report from Copenhagen: Tuvalu & Wilderness

Delegates arrived at the climate negotiations in Copenhagen expecting talks to focus around a few key players. In particular, expectations were that China and the United States, the two largest emitters of greenhouse gases around the world, would be in the spotlight. These two large and powerful countries, neither of which are currently bound by any emissions reductions commitments, and both of which must be part of a new agreement if we have any hope of avoiding dangerous climate change, were being watched very closely by all present. And then, Tuvalu stole the spotlight.

Funafuti atoll, Tuvalu

Tuvalu is a small island nation in the South Pacific. No part of Tuvalu is more than 4 meters above sea level. For Tuvalu there is nothing remote or theoretical about climate change. Rising sea levels aren’t something they can adapt to – it’s something that simply wipes the country out. And so, exasperated by the horrifyingly slow pace of negotiations in Copenhagen, Tuvalu decided to take matters into its own hands.

One of the key questions before negotiators in Copenhagen is the “legal form” of the outcome. Will an entirely new climate agreement be generated, or will the existing Kyoto Protocol simply be extended?

This legal form issue has far reaching implications because large developing countries, such as China and India, have no obligations to reduce their emissions under the Kyoto Protocol. Developed countries want a new agreement specifically because they want to see India and China included; they argue (correctly) that solving climate change isn’t possible without them.

China and India are willing to make emissions reductions, but don’t want to be legally bound to do so – at least not until industrialized countries make deep emissions cuts of their own and provide the funding necessary for developing countries to deal with climate change. They argue (also correctly) that the US is not bound in any way to reduce emissions because it hasn’t even bothered to ratify the Kyoto Protocol, and Canada, which did ratify Kyoto, made a mockery of its obligations (Canada is supposed to be 6% below 1990 emissions levels by 2012 but is currently 29% above). As a result, they are waiting for leadership and financial commitment from industrialized countries.

Until now, neither side has been willing to back down in this elaborate game of chicken, and with the clock ticking away in Copenhagen and no one blinking, Tuvalu decided it couldn’t wait any more. It forced the “legal form” issue into the open by making a proposal for a new climate treaty that would encompass everyone, while at the same time preserving much of the structure from Kyoto. Then it courageously insisted that its proposal be officially considered. Because Tuvalu’s proposal suited neither side, proceedings in the plenary sessions of the two “tracks” of the negotiations ground to a halt. Technical deliberations in working groups and subsidiary bodies continued, and eventually Tuvalu allowed the plenaries to restart. But Tuvalu is still insisting that its proposal be considered, a ticking time bomb in these negotiations which could bring about a total collapse of the talks.

What does this have to do with forests and wilderness? While Tuvalu was making desperate pleas for progress in the plenary sessions, work was ongoing on a deal to provide funding to developing countries for protecting their tropical forests. The terms of that deal are not complete, but the language on tropical conservation (under the REDD+ mechanism) looks promising. Much work remains, and many questions are yet unanswered, but there is real enthusiasm that protecting tropical forests could be one of the positive outcomes of Copenhagen.

At the same time, everyone is keenly aware that the impasse between developed and developing countries has not yet been resolved. And it has escaped no one’s notice that Obama has made encouraging comments on tropical forest conservation from Oslo. Will conservation of forests become a bargaining chip as a result of its new-found political significance, and if so, will it be bargained away or hopelessly watered down in the interests of a larger deal?

For now, nobody knows. On Saturday negotiators agreed that they had done all they could and had not been able to resolve their differences . It is now up to the ministers who are rushing to Copenhagen for the second week of the talks to try to salvage the negotiations and preserve the deal on tropical forests and wilderness. If they don’t succeed, it will be up to the heads of State a few days later to do their best.

The planet desperately needs the world community to reach an agreement, and forests, both in developed countries and developing countries must be part of the deal. We cannot avert dangerous climate change without protecting the planet’s remaining wilderness areas.

WILD has been doing its part as a voice for wilderness in Copenhagen. The Mensaje de Merida, launched at WILD9, has been sent to dozens of government Parties, and WILD has been holding meetings with government delegates all week to review the Mensaje. WILD’s partners at the Ecosystems Climate Alliance and Conservation International, both of whom were well represented at WILD9 have been very instrumental in helping us get this statement in front of government officials. NGOs viewing the Mensaje in Copenhagen are also adding their names as sponsors.

In a hard-nosed, high-stakes, and often deeply cynical negotiation process in Copenhagen, maybe some negotiators will seek a little inspiration from the wilderness. As they are saying here in Copenhagen – there is no plan(et) B.

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