"The fate of my country rests in your hands"

Today's highs and lows at the UN climate change summit in Copenhagen

Talks have stalled in Copenhagen today, after the G77 nations pulled out of the debate to "avoid a train wreck at the end of the week". Jeremy Hobbs, executive director of Oxfam International, who works with the G77 nations, said: "Australia and Japan are crying foul while blocking movement on legally binding emissions reductions for rich countries. This tit-for-tat approach is no way to deal with the climate crisis."

The conflict is over the difficult issue of mitigation, the financing of emission reductions, and green development in developing countries. Developed countries are stalling in putting a figure on the table.

World leaders have started to roll in to Copenhagen today and the heightened tempo of the agreements is obvious outside the Bella Centre, where accredited negotiators, press and observers are facing four-hour queues to get in. The organisers of the summit have issued 35,000 passes for a centre with a maximum capacity of 15,000: not exactly a pillar of Danish efficiency.

As negotiations heat up, one of the main concerns among NGOs today focuses on the transparency of negotiations. Yesterday, a group of 48 country representatives met outside the conference. The meeting, known as the Green Room, was hosted by the COP presidency. Pablo Solón, Bolivian ambassador to the UN, said: "We are asking for a transparent, democratic, and inclusive process. It seems negotiators are living in the Matrix, while the real negotiation is taking place in the 'Green Room', in small stealth dinners with selective guests." There is a real sense of uncertainty among smaller nations. The threat of walkouts is constant and promises to provide continued drama during the week.

Yesterday, the Tuvalu delegate Ian Fry made an emotional speech to the conference, outlining the powerlessness that smaller states are beginning to feel. He addressed the summit president, Connie Hedegaard: "I am a humble and insignificant member of the government of Tuvalu . . . I woke this morning and I was crying, and that's not easy for a grown man to admit. The fate of my country rests in your hands."

However, contrary to my earlier post, it's not all doom and gloom inside the centre. One of the most positive outcomes that this conference is set to achieve is in forest protection and reforestation, known as REDD. I talked to delegates from Gabon last night, who represent a country that is 80 per cent forested land and has the lowest rate of deforestation in the world. They were very positive about outcomes for a treaty to protect forests and forest communities.

Yesterday the REDD lobby succeeded in getting the signature of the governor of Amazonia and environmental economist Nicholas Stern as well as hundreds of others. Leaders are expected to use REDD to buy themselves time and carbon credit. But opposition to the movement comes from the Congo Basin and Papau New Guinea, which argue that developed nations will not commit to binding land-use regulation.

 

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The rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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