If there was one moment when the near-moribund climate-change negotiations began to revive, it was yesterday at 12:30 p.m. in Copenhagen.
That's when the leaders of the two countries at the centre of the impasse - U.S. President Barack Obama and Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao - retreated to a room in the Bella Center, the airport-size convention hall that has played host to the near round-the-clock climate negotiations since Dec. 7.
That meeting could have gone either way. As it turned out, it was successful enough to trigger a rapid-fire series of other meetings that produced an agreement among four key countries - the United States, China, India and South Africa. While some countries were not immediately on side, the basic outline of a new climate-change agreement known as the Copenhagen Accord had taken shape. Canada later supported the accord, as did Germany, France and Britain.
The accord was condemned as vacuous and disappointing by many environmental groups. But a few groups, including the Sierra Club, and some of the most cynical climate-change negotiators, admitted it was better than nothing. They said it seemed to contain enough ingredients on the sticking points - climate-change mitigation, financing and transparency - to construct a broader, more detailed and legally binding agreement some time down the road.
"We feel confident that we're moving in the direction of a significant accord," Mr. Obama said late last night in Copenhagen.
Before going into the meeting with Mr. Wen, the U.S. President delivered a hard-hitting speech to some 120 heads of state and government. Its goal was to ram the negotiations forward; nothing less than the potentially catastrophic warming of the planet was at stake. "While the reality of climate change is not in doubt," Mr. Obama said, "our ability to take collective action hangs in the balance."
When the two men emerged after 55 minutes, White House officials told American reporters that Mr. Obama and Mr. Wen had enjoyed a "constructive" discussion that "made progress" on three crucial issues: greenhouse-gas-emission reductions, verifications of emissions output, and funding to fight climate change.
Still, there was work to be done before a breakthrough could be claimed. The European Union Environment Minister told reporters that United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon had asked the leaders to stay put until a deal was reached. "I cannot imagine 120 leaders going back to their countries with empty hands," Stavros Dimas said.
By late afternoon in Copenhagen, there were tantalizing rumours, though still no official word of progress. At 7 p.m., Mr. Obama and Mr. Wen, this time joined by the leaders of Brazil and India, were back behind closed doors. Mr. Obama and some of his team were late.
"Mr. Premier, are you ready to see me? Are you ready?" Mr. Obama said as he strode into the room.
The Chinese Premier was already at the table, along with U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who the day before, had tried to break the logjam with the lure of a $100-billion (U.S.) fund to help the developing world adjust to the effects of climate change. The catch was transparency: Fund support would be withdrawn unless the developing countries, notably China, allowed independent verification of their emissions.
Also in the room were National Security Adviser General James Jones, National Security Council chief of staff Denis McDonough and White House spokesman Robert Gibbs. According to the press allowed into the room for the requisite "photo spray," the Secret Service kicked the press out after a spasm of pushing and shoving "roughed up" Mr. Gibbs and Mr. McDonough.
While tensions were high, the series of meetings moved the agenda forward.
As midnight approached, a White House official said the United States, India, China and South Africa had reached a "meaningful agreement." The deal, said the official, "was not sufficient to combat the threat of climate change, but it's an important first step."
The outcome of the Copenhagen talks is a three-page document called the Copenhagen Accord. It is a broad political framework, not a binding international treaty like the Kyoto Protocol (which remains in place), and it leaves a lot of work unfinished. It also needs approval from the majority of the nations gathered here.
The developed countries' reduction commitments for 2020 are absent from the document (to come in February), as is any wording on the development of carbon markets and the deadline to turn the accord into a legally binding international treaty.
The accord says countries are to "enhance our long-term co-operative action to combat climate change" to keep the planet's average temperature increase below two degrees Celsius. Higher temperatures would have potentially catastrophic results, including the melting of the polar ice caps, rising sea levels and wholesale species eradication.
Developing countries had earlier agreed to take action to mitigate greenhouse-gas emissions. But they rejected calls by the developed world, notably the United States and Canada, to allow independent verification of their emissions.
A compromise was reached. The developing countries agreed that any efforts funded by the developed world should face scrutiny to ensure there is no gap between reported and actual emissions.
"Today's agreement takes the first important steps toward true transparency and accountability in an international climate agreement," said Fred Krupp, president of the Environmental Defence Fund.
The verification issue, it appears, is where China bridged the gap with the Americans. Since China intends to take no climate-change money from the rich countries, it will not have to open its emissions to independent oversight. China considers outside scrutiny an intolerable intrusion on its sovereignty.
Other than the conditional verification of emissions, the highlight of the accord was its spending commitments. Rich countries agreed to raise $30-billion (U.S.) over three years starting in 2010 to fund climate-change mitigation and adaptation measures in the developing world. The text said the rich countries "set a goal of mobilizing jointly" $100-billion (U.S.) a year by 2020.
Mr. Obama acknowledged the accord was a "foundation" only.
Still, he said, the Copenhagen summit marked a breakthrough. "For the first time in history, all of the major economies have come together to take action [on global warming]" he said.
The impacts of a global rise in temperatures