Notes from The Inside:  Report from the UN Climate Change Conference, Copenhagen


My trip as part of the Sierra Club delegation at Copenhagen is covered in the Santa Fe New Mexican  and Public News Service. Click on the Sierra Club's website or the Rio Grande Chapter's website for updates on the December 7-19 conference.  And photos and videos I took during the conference and around the city are at


Tuesday December 8 2009

I arrive at Bella Center around noon ground zero for climate change action and get a pass an hour later. I speak to people from Oman, Sweden, UK, Nepal, Nicaragua, and even the USA.  The bazaar that is set up among the "Civil Society" representatives is the most energetic part of the Bella Center, with mini actions by groups like Greenpeace to entertain. Good thing, for after 4 flights and little sleep the UN Subsidiary Body for Implementation session was a real snoozer. 

The US Government is present big time. David Sandalow, DOE Assistant Secretary for Policy and International Affairs, offers a litany of actions taken in the past ten months that is an impressive start.  One person asked why not more money for family planning, since each $7 invested save 1 ton of CO2, versus costing $24 for wind.   More efficient cook stoves touted as the flavor of the month, to wean folks off wood or kerosene.  

A presentation by the Swedish delegation tout both Stockholm, named 2010 Green Capital due to its Climate Positive Development Program, and Malmo, just across the spit from Copenhagen and transformed from a graying industrial dive to a green oasis. Indeed, one-half of all solar in Sweden is in Malmo, in very big, prominent rooftop locations, and 40% bike to work or school. I make a mental note to tour Malmo at the end of the week.

Hundreds of American NGO reps gather at the end of the day to hear from head negotiator Jonathan Pershing and EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson.  Ms. Jackson gets a standing ovation for EPA's declaration of CO2 as a human health hazard; she’s quite touched.  The session is closed to the press and no specifics can be shared.  Suffice to say that, at this stage of the talks and with over 110 heads of state coming next week, expectations are high for meaningful outcomes.  Yet substantial differences remain.

One intriguing development is how to create a mechanism for meaningfully send funds, technologies, and other resources to developing countries to mitigate and adapt. The institutional framework is not there yet to ensure that it's money well spent.

How Congress perceives the EPA action as a stand alone product or a prod remains to be seen. NGO reps expressed a preference for both regulatory and incentive based approaches. Other questions concern how to phase out fossil fuel subsidies, compliance to a strong enforcement mechanism, the latest Danish text that seemingly promotes inequity, and the consequences of lack of congressional action.

 Wednesday, December 9

The day begins by sitting in on the French explanation of how its local and regional governments had made climate reduction commitments.  But while I can read and speak the language passably, hearing it is another story. So I segue from France to Brazil, where Rio de Janeiro has made a hefty pledge to reduce emissions, based on a Bright Green Initiative it has begun in collaboration with IBM. Since 70% of the world will live in cities by 2050 and 67% of all carbon demand is city driven, low carbon models are huge. Brazil is partnering with South Africa in a relationship, to share ideas and embark on similar challenges, such as cutting out shipping all the way to Rotterdam every time it sends chickens to S. Africa, and leaving a cut for internet service in London.

EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson spoke at the US pavilion, touting the $80 billion in stimulus funds for clean energy, the largest investment in US history.  She cited the 100's of GW in offshore wind potential. The new action she took Monday, just before getting on the plane, will require best available technology for single point emitters. She said that we desperately need legislation to complement the forthcoming EPA regulations.  "We acknowledge our responsibility and that we must make up for lost time."  If Obama is a rock star,  Jackson is our diva!

I attend a most interesting session on the need for modernized cook stoves, relied on by 3 billion people using solid fuels -- wood, charcoal, and biomass. But the VOCs cause 1 million deaths per year of women and children.  Gasifiers and other new stove greatly reduce emissions and especially the soot blamed for melting half of glaciers in the Himalayas and up to half of the Arctic ice retreat.  To get better tech, don't expect, inspect.  Carbon credits can be used to pay for the stoves. BP, Shell, Philips and Siemens are all coming out with new stoves, so you know this is big business; they all know 6 - 800 million homes can use the new stoves and help save the planet. But ironically cleaning the atmosphere of soot will accelerate warming.  The hope is that GHG from stoves can be cut 30% in 30 years, buying us time to get to a low carbon world.

The Danish hosts give a great panel presentation on building energy efficiency.  This action alone can deliver a large part of the needed savings, which is why panelists seek its mention in the climate change agreement.  But to date it is an area that is perceived as too costly, when in fact building energy efficiency is relatively cheap and quick.   The UK is adopting for 2013 a passive house standard, which cuts energy use 90%.  A 2010 IEA report will offer 25 recommendations on how to cut building energy use by 25%; its bottom line is that building energy use can be cut 75% without immense costs. In a nod to the power of good examples, the new British code was inspired by the BedZed development. Also mentioned were the Vauban homes in Freiburg Germany that are in effect power plants disguised as living quarters: they produce more energy than used by the residents. Frankfort is setting a 90% reduction for renovation of existing homes, one of those holy grails.  Singapore has advanced ways to naturally cool buildings, using staircases and outside apartments greening for cooling air currents. We need to ban bad products while incentivizing god ones.  Joining the panel is World Wildlife Federation's chief delegate Kim Carstensen.  Beyond the legal text,  COP-15 must address problems for people and nature with solutions, so to protect the polar bear means WWF promoting the enactment of building energy use solutions.

Sierra Club is a member of the Climate Action Network.  Its message du jour is that Obama must earn his peace prize next week here. Options for this conference: Kyoto as is, a new protocol or implementing agreement; a new protocol and no Kyoto; or a stalemate.  Many nations feel the US is trying to undermine commitments by keeping Kyoto.  Canada, Australia and Japan want out of the Kyoto commitments, while developing nations want it in and will only agree on a substitute if it includes binding agreements similar to Kyoto.  The US proposes an implementing agreement or operational accord, which is quite different than Kyoto.  The nightly Sierra Club briefing include our hyperactive student coalition, who is putting in 20-hour days getting up to date and weighing in during private meetings with Ms. Jackson, for instance.  Fred Heutte from our delegation note how the world's nations by and large are way below what has been committed to developing nations' mitigation and adaptation needs, a major sore spot for the latter.  The US is arguing over a measly billion dollars for the third world while throwing a trillion at the banks.

Watch out for the Saudis or Russians trying to hijack a deal next week. Core nations want a deal but so far have not trusted each other enough to reach it. Then there is a failure of ambition: 2 degrees is not seen as feasible, and political conditions while ripe leave not enough time to iron out all differences in carbon budgets, midterm targets, the level and type of technologies, and how to balance early actions with the long term.  Some type of deal is certain.  "We are doomed to success." It is unclear if the deal will be ambitious enough, ensure equity, and all will have a right to develop.   In sum, COP-15 is just the start, followed by a final text by mid 2010 then a rulemaking process.  Stay tuned for Mexico in 2010, South African in2011, somewhere in Asia in 2012....

I hear Worldwatch President Chris Flavin talk at a downtown nightclub (hosting such confabs during the talks) on the role of progressive voices in American industry to show how we can go beyond 17% emission reductions. Powerful voices from the innovators in business and American states can set a race to the top, to counteract congressional voices to settle for the least common denominator.   Dinosaurs will fall quickly. While UN negotiations are 10 years behind, the political pressure, enthusiasm and commitment on display in Copenhagen may motivate them to actually get most of the way here and the rest of way in Mexico in 2010.  

Thursday December 10

China is looking to have it both ways.  It wants to stay with developing nations and the benefits for not being accountable but it is pleased to be courted by the US bilaterally as such a powerful player,  though the center stage is still new to China. The UN plenary session is a case in point. The island nation of Tuvalu, which has come out swinging in an aggressive effort to stave off extinction by drowning, proposes to immediately establish a meaningful adaptation fund while reducing emissions 45% from 1990 levels. Australia, New Zealand and Japan make the case for a single unified approach to replace the Kyoto protocol, which does not apply to the U.S, China, and the developing countries. Granada, Bolivia, Ethiopia, Barbados and others voice support for Tuvalu’s proposal.  Brazil on behalf of 35 other nations seek a 40% reduction.  China then got up to support the Brazil resolution, so the previous unanimous stance by developing nations splits toward a third level of nations on the cusp of developed status. India supports China and Brazil, saying it’s willing to spend as much time as needed to complete this task. Bangladesh meanwhile has put much confidence in Kyoto and wants to continue it, making it more effective and getting others to join. Nigeria, in supporting Brazil:  “we have history to make here.”

Session with the US delegation:  We have a second confab with US negotiator wunderkind Jonathan Sterling.  Not much new from his stance, though he gives the company line of how much America is doing this year and is committed to doing.  All true, though one wonders if it is enough in the face of the physics.  Behind the scenes word is there is not a lot of traction.  Attempts to meet with EPA by other countries are being blocked.  Lots of riding herd.  There is sense by some that much progress would be made if EPA could meet with other countries, especially on accounting issues.

I attend various side sessions in addition to the main negotiation meeting.  At the US Center, Interior Sec. Salazar spoke about an impressive 5300 MW of renewables to be built on public lands by 2011. A Copenhagen agreement and congressional legislation can propel us toward a clean energy economy, and both will happen.  He also spoke glowingly about the huge amount of carbon sequestered by public lands and trees as well as the potential for CCS in general.

Lunchtime growls steer me to the European Union pavilion for a discussion on financing mechanisms.  Over a free meal I hear how Russia can cut its energy use 41%, a potential 1.1 gigaton cut. The more ambitious is the conference agreement, the more will investments flow to do the job. Renewables have really taken off in Europe since 2007, and more will be emplaced if if bridge financing, low returns on investment, and lack of equity can be addressed.  One solution is to bundle long-term financing with immediate technical assistance – market analysis, energy audits, training, awareness raising – coupled with strategically placed grants.  In many venues we must put clean energy on the agenda and help clients invest accordingly.  Elements of  EU’s Sustainable Energy Initiative: risk absorption, targeted incentives, TA, rewards for reduced emissions.  Key:  how to convert climate challenges into an energy efficiency portfolio that a company’s CFO will care about.  Spain bought 25 mm euros in Poland for biogas, biomass and wind projects, leveraging another 100 mm euros.  The Lithuanian environment minister spoke glowingly of the Kyoto-inspired emissions trading program, the Environment Investment Fund, which provides a framework of grants, soft loans and capital investments that leverages private investments.


A session at the US pavilion on US-India cooperation.  India has the potential to save 32 – 42 GW by 2017, cutting 250-350 MM tons of CO2 and $6 – 8 B in coal/gas imports. Of its 1 billion lightbulbs, 600 million are CFLs and the remaining are targeted for replacement.  Other energy efficiency efforts result in 623MW saved in 2007, 1481 MW in 2008, and 1350MW in first six months of 2009.


Angela from US Climate Action Network (CAN) tells the Sierra Club observers about  the CAN nomination du jour of a fossil award for a country not pulling its weight.  The Committee of Parties, or COP, she says, is an inside, arcane game. While it’s great the US wants to do the right thing, it really reflects the work of states and cities, and the rest of the world wants to know why it’s taken the US so long. This shows that what plays internationally does not play at home, and vice versa. Each comes to Copenhagen with a slightly different priority, reflecting how climate change has grown as an issue and is part of many other issues. This is also reflected in the breadth of groups present here – overwhelming. It all makes the dynamic exciting as well as challenging.  CAN International wants Obama to put on the table what’s needed regardless of Congress.  This reflects most countries’ attitude that the US has a major historic responsibility for why we are at 390ppm, but to call it a climate debt is insensitive to congressional sentiment.  Styles of campaigning vary: inside track-savvy lobbyists are sometimes hurt by activists bashing on the outside.


Session on transportation features the Bridging the Gap Initiative, to integrate transportation into the climate change negotiations and subsequent agreements. Michael Replogle, who co-founded with me the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy 25 years ago, offered ten principles for sustainable transportation: 1, start with the pedestrian; 2, connect suburban and urban centers with high quality transit; 3, link bicycling to transit with continuous networks and secure parking at intermodal centers; 4, market incentives to switch costs of driving from fixed to variable, inducing less driving with less ownership; 5, design complete streets that serve all users and modes; 6, manage motor vehicle speeds, to lessen pedestrian and cyclists’ risks; 7, offer innovations such as real time ridesharing; 8, provide people-oriented public spaces; 9, plan, regulate, finance and operate real estate and transport options; and 10, re-engineer freight movement. The S. Korean ambassador notes that most emissions in large Asian cities are from vehicles and they have doubled its motor fleet, mainly motorcycles, in the last 4 years.  Mitigation in transportation has huge potential, using policies such as congestion pricing. The model of building more roads for more cars, as done in S. Korea, is self defeating. The French ambassador at the session commented that Paris does not allow offices built anywhere except next to a metro stop and no parking garage can be built for that office building.  The Costa Rican ambassador says his nation’s 2021 goal of carbon neutrality hinges on transportation:  “we’ve hit a wall” in figuring out what to do. All fuel is imported for its road-based system built at the advice of multilateral lending banks. The car is a status symbol used to deliver the message of identity. The government seeks to increase public transit ridership from 8% to 90%.  The session ended with mention of Munich, Tokyo and Vienna as cities with both high car ownership and high quality transit systems.

Speaking of transit, on the metro that night, I meet a delegate from South Africa eager to hear about renewable energy possibilities.  South Africa has done much to promote efficient lighting but still gets most of its electricity from coal.  I try to inspire with New Mexico examples of solar and wind projects.

 Friday December 11

Over 30,000 people are here at the largest and most complicated international process ever. The chaos of agenda setting is on display, reminding me of Congress or the state legislature in the heat of legislative battle before the dust settles, the clock strikes noon, and order emerges.


Trig Tally of the U.S. delegation briefs the Sierra Club contingent. The American position is to get legislation passed through Congress, if for no other reasons than to reduce the negotiation uncertainty. In other words, it’s hard for the US team to act without the law in place. If the American people were more engaged instead of distracted by health care, recession, football, whatever, the US delegation would step up. Obama can lead but only so far. The pending legislation is more comprehensive than any other nation except New Zealand, as we pledge reduction not just for 2020 but 2025, 2030 and 2050. Our job is to convince skeptical Senators that this is a reasonable process.


There are no formal negotiations going on. This is a good sign, as the crucial informal ones are occurring, hopefully blending together the discussions into one text that can be mulled over and ultimately agreed upon by the heads of state.


Session on inducing private funds by public investments.  We cannot solve the climate issue without both funding sources.  The private sector needs a persistent signal with rules they can rely on. The carbon market depends entirely on regulations, as an invention of the state.  We need to figure out how to reward states like Costa Rica, S. Korea and Mexico who have pledged to go carbon neutral but are not wealthy enough like Norway to do it on their own.  A major expansion of funding pledged is needed out of Copenhagen, as Kyoto based mechanisms only get us 30% of the way. If the US passes legislation dictating lower emissions, all other nations will follow.   Final message:  we must invest in both physical and ecological assets to build in resilience for adaptation.


Session on Danish development assistance for places like Bangladesh and Ghana already beset by climate disruptions ranging from drought to flooding.  Old saying:  it’s very expensive to be poor.  Climate proofing and development assistance should go hand in hand. And development aid is wasted if climate screening/acting not part of the assistance.


Session with Commerce Secretary Gary Locke is most inspiring.  He is the first Commerce secretary to say we have a moral obligation to act on climate change. He said Pres. Obama has done more than any president in history in his first ten months in office.  But many in the US perceive peril in the transition to a low carbon economy, and that climate change is distant to those who are jobless.  But it is not acceptable to ignore what will be bad for business and our children alike.  We must rethink how to produce and use energy, as the cost of fossil fuel use is ferociously high, he said.  We must retool for a carbon constrained world, a new model of economic growth.  To make the transition, we can learn from others like the Danes. It’s five times cheaper to invest in energy efficiency. Obama proposes to eliminate subsidies to fossil fuels, as it’s a disservice to clean energy to reward the status quo.  To those who fear change, we’ve heard the economic Armageddon arguments when acid rain regulations were put in place. We need to make difficult choices now or impossible choices later.


Session on information technology is an eye opener.  That sector is responsible for 2% of CO2 emissions, equivalent to the airline industry. Every second:  2 new blogs are created; 4 cell phones are bought; 1200 views on You Tube; 11,000 songs are shared; and 2 million emails are sent. One billion laptops will be bought in the next five years.  Lots to do to move the industry for more efficient use of energy.


Session on cycling in Copenhagen was led naturally by its mayor. The city’s mission, to be an eco metropolis, will mean being the world’s best bicycling city, the green/blue capital, and the climate policy center.  35% of residents see themselves as using the fastest and most flexible form of transportation, which happens to be the bike. The city spends $30/resident/year on bike infrastructure, with 5,000 parking stands placed in 2008 alone. By 2015, 90% of residents will be able to walk 15 minutes to a park, 5 by bike, in spaces with litter removed every 8 hours. 2025 goal: carbon neutral, with cars running on wind generated electricity.


Session with G-77’s John Nash with the NGOs. A full crowd hear him say how critical we were to keeping developed countries in check. 1.5o C and 350 ppm crucial.  A deal that cannot save God, nature and humanity is not a deal worth having. If we go to 2 degrees overall, Africa will go to 3.5, “certain death.” Islands will be gone. We need to radically cut emissions now, 65% by 2020, 80% 2030 and over 100% by 2050.  Assistance package of 4 - $500 billion, with $150 billion now, is needed, and it can come from the $283 billion unallocated SDR’s sitting around in multilateral banks. This amount is cheap as wars go and less than pocketed by London bankers in 2009. Since China has more poor than in all of Africa, help is needed with tech transfer to help its poor gain their natural right to development.  Nash, while proud of his fellow African Obama, wants him to join Kyoto, refuse a 2 degree deal, help pay for the climate change deal in a Marshal Plan approach. “He has a moral obligation to do what he can.” Climate change is 100 times more important than health care.  “Our task is tough but so is life.”


Session on China youth movement and innovations is foiled by a less than robust live feed and Chinese speechifying. The Chinese energy intensity target of 45% if only exceeded by South Africa.  It already has 12.2 GW of wind, with 70GW more in the works. Entrepreneurs are using saltwater to grow crops, and coal waste to make bricks.  One in ten homes already have solar hot water systems, and 26 million biogas units were funded ($60 mm) by the World Bank. Its 1235 tons of CO2 during the Olympics were offset via projects in Uganda.

Saturday December 12

My last report from inside the Bella Center, as 80,000 people stream toward the center from downtown in a 7 km march.  The big crush to get in this morning was due to tighter security, allowing in only one half those with credentials. So next week those still here will have to rotate attendance.


Session:  “What Can We Do When Things Get Out of Hand:  Extreme Mitigation/Adaptation Scenarios”. The odds are temperatures climbing above 3 degrees C are better than 50-50, as reality overtakes projections. This means: Arctic free of ice; West Antarctic sheet disintegrates; vast amounts of methane are released from tundra and oceans, thus adding another 10 degrees C; Greenland melts, raising seas 5 – 7 meters.  Four response options: 1, drastic emission reductions of 4%/year; 2, remove CO2 with reforestation, ocean fertilization, aquatic carbon capture, biochar, and air options; 3, solar radiation management, and 4, adaptation with use of either sea salt or SO2 injection.   We must start now to remove CO2 and prepare for emergency cooling techniques when the climate becomes unacceptable.


Session on weather patterns in China:  2007 warmest on record.  Projected to increase .6 – 1 degree C by 2030 and 2-3% more H2O; 1.2 – 2 and 2-5% by 2050; and 2.2 – 4.2 C and 6 – 14% by 2100. Typhoon intensity expected to strengthen, and heat waves only going up.  Southern and western China is seeing flooding trends.  All the major crops of wheat, rice and corn, only irrigated wheat will hold its production levels.  Sharp drop in groundwater already occurring will exacerbate water supplies with a 50% drop in glaciers expected by 2050.  Other than that, Mrs. Lincoln, how was the play.


An emotional speech today from Tuvalu, the star of the show so far, who cried as he thought of how Tuvalu’s survival is at risk.  He said the world is waiting for the US Senate to act and that Obama needs to clinch the deal when he arrives.


As darkness falls around 4pm and thousands of people march toward the conference, my time inside the Bella Center ends with a spirited candlelight rally of some 40 people. Mary Robinson, former president of Ireland, rouses folks with the sense of responsibility each of us to move toward a real solution to this real crisis.  Bill McKibbon, founder of, talks of the power of grassroots actions and then introduces Bishop Desmond Tutu.  I saw him 25 years ago when he won the Nobel Peace Prize, and he has not lost his touch for fiery calls to action.  “When we marched on Johannesburg, and apartheid fell. When they marched on Berlin, the wall fell.  We march in Copenhagen, and we are going to get a real deal. We oldies have made something of a mess of the world. Look in the eyes of your grandchildren.  Climate change is already a serious crisis today.  We can do something about it, but if we don’t, hoo hoo! There is no world we can move to.  This younger generation won’t have a decent world. We have only one world. If we mess it up… And if the rich think they will escape, ha ha. We either sink or swim together. We have one world and we want to leave a beautiful world for the young. We oldies want to leave you a beautiful world. And it is a matter of morality, or justice.  If you are responsible for most of the mess, then you are responsible for getting rid of most of that mess.  That’s justice. People are now suffering, so you wonderful rich people must remember you are responsible for any adjustment.  We, too who are poor want to become rich. Billions for adjustment needed, for now we are unable to afford alternative fuels. Be nice and pay up... The world expects a real deal. “


Leaving the Bella Center I catch the end of the large rally.  I speak to two young Portuguese on the metro.  They flew here from Lisbon and London to meet up and march on behalf of Caritas, the Catholic relief organization. Another group on the train are from Hamburg, who came here and will return courtesy of all-night bus rides.  I meet up with the Sierra Club delegation for dinner; they tell of meeting similarly interested and committed marchers.


For the next 36 hours inspiration come from outside, not inside:  tour of a Malmo Sweden redevelopment; the green business expo of the latest in clean energy products and inspirational speeches by Alex Steffen, DOE Secretary Chu, IPCC President Pachauri (two Nobel laureates in 3o minutes);  a soiree featuring Secretary Chu and climate conference chair Yvo de Leo;  and the streets of this wonderful city. I want to especially note the display in Copenhagen’s waterfront area of a photo exhibit, “100 Places to Remember Before They Disappear.”  Check out the website for some amazing photos and some surprising candidates for the list.

Postscript: as far as the results of the conference, I leave that up to you to decide.  Sierra Club Executive Director Carl Pope’s take on it at the conference conclusion, “Yes it the End of the Beginning,” is worth a look.   And I find Joseph Romm’s missives invariably on the mark, at Climate Progress.  Suffice to say,  the struggle continues.  It's truly a privilege to witness the climate change conference.  Thanks to Will Pape, the Rio Grande Chapter of the Sierra Club, my in laws Sydney and Isobel, and my wife Ellen for making it possible.

-Ken Hughes