The confrontation was a remarkable beginning to the negotiations process, as poorer and vulnerable nations made it abundantly clear that they will not be cowed and are not afraid to stand up to the big names the talks have been touting. In sum, those nations standing to be hit, and even wiped out, by climate change, have had enough of beating around the bush.
One spokesman, Sudanese diplomat Lumumba Di-Aping, laid out demands for a legally binding deal that is tougher than the Kyoto Protocol which expires in 2012 and which the summit was convened to replace.
Di-Aping said proposals made so far in Copenhagen to cut emissions of greenhouse gases were insufficient. Speaking on behalf of a 135-nation bloc of poorer countries, Di-Aping accused rich countries of trying to hoard economic resources for themselves.
“One could say that ‘the empire’ has been doing that since the 16th century,” Di-Aping told a news conference. “The new global resource is atmospheric space.”
In a direct appeal to US President Barack Obama, who arrives here next week, Di-Aping said: “We cannot save Africa and small island states without the participation of the US (…)Your country is not served by isolationism and exceptionalism.”
The Polynesian island nation of Tuvalu – whose population of 12,0000 could be underwater in 50 years emissions caps are not met – demanded, and got, a suspension of negotiations until the issue of reaching a binding protocol could be resolved.
The split within the developing country bloc is highly unusual, as it tends to speak with a united voice – though the division between haves and have-nots had been predicted to be one of the main early stumbling blocks in the negotiations.
Their demands that they leave Copenhagen with a legally binding agreement, however, ratchets up the stakes, as major world leaders, like Obama, and UN chief negotiator Yvo de Boer, weeks ago had thrown in the towel on reaching an actual treaty.
Developing countries such as Brazil and China say they shouldn’t have to limit their own economic growth because of past emissions by the USA and Europe. Meanwhile, richer nations argue that their greenhouse gas emissions have already started to come down, while most of the danger for future growth comes from poor nations that are just now industrializing.
US Environmental Protection Agency chief Lisa Jackson, who was in Copenhagen on Wednesday, told reporters that Obama is trying to “make up for lost time” in cutting emission levels. The EPA’s decision Monday to regulate greenhouse gasses could give the government another tool to bring carbon emissions down if Senate legislation fails, although Jackson said the two issues should be treated separately.
“This is not an either/or moment. This is a both/and moment,” she told more than 100 people who packed a US meeting room in Copenhagen’s Bella Center, where the negotiations are taking place.
Obama has proposed cutting U.S. greenhouse gas emissions by 17 percent by 2020 from the levels seen in 2005.
Todd Stern, a lead negotiator for the US delegation, also in Copenhagen on Wednesday, told reporters, “an agreement is there to be had if we do this right.”
However, Stern conceded that ambitions here have been downsized amid the global recession and political disputes. Instead of a binding global treaty, which was the summit’s official goal as recently as a month ago, Stern spoke of Copenhagen as a “first step” toward reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
This diplomatic approach, as evidenced by today’s boil-over, doesn’t cut it for the nations that stand to suffer the most – and in the near future.
Tuvalu’s chief negotiator, Ian Fry, made it clear his country was coming to Copenhagen to sign a legally binding deal, he told reporters.
After talks resumed in the afternoon after the break in negotiations, the Tuvalu delegation walked out when it appeared that the issue might be side-lined. Private discussions will now continue behind the scenes among a small group of concerned countries, the BBC reported.
“My prime minister and many other heads of state have the clear intention of coming to Copenhagen to sign on to a legally binding deal,” Fry told reporters.
“Tuvalu is one of the most vulnerable countries in the world to climate change, and our future rests on the outcome of this meeting.”
Fry’s call was backed by other members of the Association of Small Island States (AOSIS), including the Cook Islands, Barbados and Fiji, and by some poor African countries including Sierra Leone, Senegal and Cape Verde.
Several re-iterated the demand of small island developing states that the rise in the global average temperature be limited to 1.5 degrees Celsius, and greenhouse gas concentrations stabilised at 350 parts per million (ppm) rather than the 450ppm favoured by developed countries and some major developing nations.
China’s negotiator Su Wei told the conference that his country, and the other emerging economies, did care about the problems of small island states – but Jerome Esebei Temengil from Palau’s delegation gave a different view.
“We’re dying here, were drowning; and some of us know that they don’t really care, because we have to beg them. Actions speak louder than words. If they really do care, please have a little listen to us.”
he told BBC News.
“This is the first time we’ve seen the island nations make such a splash,” said Malini Mehra of the India-based Centre for Social Markets.
“The AOSIS call for a new protocol and the way it was denounced by Saudi Arabia, China, and India show that the G77 has now come asunder and the island nations are leading,” she the BBC.
“As they must – they have seized the high moral ground.”