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Jeffrey Simpson

Copenhagen climate-change talks will produce only disappointment Add to ...

The Rubik's cube of international negotiations opens in six weeks in Copenhagen. Anyone who had hoped for a comprehensive world deal on lowering greenhouse-gas emissions and therefore reducing the threats from climate change will be disappointed.

Something might emerge from Copenhagen, but it won't be a binding international treaty. Competing interests within and among countries are enormous, the domestic pressures against serious measures are great (including in Canada), the guises and disguises countries are deploying to avoid action are varied and effective, and the finger-pointing is ubiquitous. And, in fairness, the issues are complex, the costs of action are high (as are those, long-term, of inaction) and the uncertainties about what precisely will work, and how, are considerable.

Far offstage, a shrill chorus of climate-change deniers keeps up its noise, but no government in the world takes note of them, to their furious consternation.

Obviously, the recession has focused attention on here-and-now economic issues worldwide, so long-term climate-change measures have understandably faded as a priority. It's remarkable that most members of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, including now the United States, still take the issue seriously, whereas delay would have been so much easier politically.

However, wide gaps exist between taking the issue seriously and taking serious action. The Copenhagen talks, while falling short of a comprehensive international treaty, will nonetheless determine if a framework can be agreed upon, to be filled in at later meetings, or if the gaps are too large to be bridged any time soon.

Put another way, Copenhagen might at least produce forward movement, or climate-change talks could become like those for a new world trade agreement: stalled and deadlocked. The simplest way of approaching these negotiations is to slot countries into developed and developing, and then assume that all countries in each group think roughly the same. If only matters were that simple.

Among developing countries, western and northern European Union countries, Australia, New Zealand, Norway and Japan are nominally anxious for the fastest reductions in emissions. They have committed to the most aggressive targets for greenhouse-gas cuts.

Canada and the U.S., by contrast, favour much more modest goals: a 20-per-cent reduction by 2020 from a 2006 starting point for Canada.

Nobody yet knows where the Americans' bottom line lies, because it is extremely unlikely an energy and emissions bill will have emerged from Congress before or during the Copenhagen negotiations. So whatever U.S. negotiators say in Denmark will be taken with a grain of salt by other delegations.

As for Canada, its record on reducing emissions is recognized internationally to have disgraced the country's good name. It broke all its promises at Kyoto. Domestic emissions continue to rise. What is known about the Harper government's intentions has the world believing that, once again, Canada will talk a much better game than it delivers.

One very tricky bit for the government involves buying credits for greenhouse-gas reductions from developing countries. Since no one believes that Ottawa's own plan will achieve the stated 20-per-cent reduction, the target will need to be met by buying credits - something the government once railed against.

Speaking of developing countries, they, too, are all over the map, with some such as Mexico preaching serious action, Brazil focusing on less deforestation, China promising to reduce the increase of its emissions (now, over all, the largest in the world), India pledging next to nothing serious, but every country agreeing that the developed world should transfer tens of billions of dollars to poorer countries.

It is to dream. The developing countries seem to have dropped the idea that developed countries should hand over their patents on clean technologies, but they still insist on the massive transfers of funds.

Most of the developed countries, for their part, seem to have stopped insisting that developing countries such as China and India eventually adopt binding reductions in absolute terms, something they have resisted doing. Does this include Canada, however, since the Harper government has always declared reduction commitments by China and India to be a deal-breaker?

We'll see if any movement occurs when U.S. President Barack Obama visits China next month. If the United States and China can somehow saw off a bilateral arrangement, there's hope for Copenhagen being better than a mild failure. If not, lower your expectations.

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