A rosy view persists in Copenhagen -- 'A lot can be achieved'

COPENHAGEN -- The job of Denmark's Connie Hedegaard, as chairwoman of the U.N. Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen in December, is to lead negotiators from some 190 countries toward a deal that would replace the Kyoto Protocol. With only three weeks before the conference begins, there is a crescendo of voices around the world declaring that her job is impossible.

Hedegaard disagrees. A former journalist who has a master's degree in literature and history, she is a skilled communicator who projects a determined confidence. She has been traveling all over the world telling anyone who would listen that a comprehensive deal in Copenhagen is not hopeless.

Born in 1960, Hedegaard has had a meteoric rise in every career she has chosen. In 1984, she became the youngest member of the Danish Parliament, winning election on the Conservative Party list. In 1990, she left politics to work as a journalist, only to become head of radio news at the Danish Broadcasting Corp. four years later.

In 2004, she was named environment minister, then, three years later, she became Denmark's first climate and energy minister, taking charge of the climate change negotiations. According to Danish media reports, she is in the running to become Europe's climate and energy commissioner, an appointment said to be favored by newly re-elected European Commission President José Manuel Barroso.

She frequently bicycles from her home in a tony suburb to her office downtown Copenhagen, where a special parking spot is reserved for her in the lobby of the climate ministry. "Often, I will take the bike to work, not just because of the climate but also because it cleanses the brain a bit."

Biggest losers in a treaty failure include American business

She will need a clear head for her job as a ringmaster in the environmental and political circus that is headed here. In a roundtable with foreign journalists in her office last week, she asserted that if countries don't agree to binding emissions cuts in Copenhagen in December, a deal will be less likely in 2010.


Among the biggest obstacles she sees to an agreement are the U.S. Senate's not passing a climate bill and disagreements within the European Union on financing climate aid to developing countries. Among the biggest losers if the Copenhagen summit fails to produce a binding agreement will be American businesses, Hedegaard said. Her discussion with reporters went like this:

Q: If we had an agreement in Copenhagen in December that said either that countries agree to keep warming to an average of 2 degrees Celsius or to cut emissions by 50 percent by 2050 but left mandatory cuts on a country-by-country basis to be decided later, would you see anything wrong with that?

A: The 2 degrees limit is almost common understanding now. It's a common bar we have more or less agreed upon. The 50 percent cut in 2050 is not totally agreed upon yet, but many of the major players would accept this, provided that developed countries took a cut in the order of 80 percent to 95 percent.

But I think we cannot just make an agreement where we deal with what will happen 40 years from now. We must also ensure that something happens short-term; that is why I'm working very hard to secure binding commitments for 2020. It's much too easy for the politicians of today to decide what will happen 41 years from now. We must ensure that there will be some immediate action following Copenhagen.

By setting the deadline for Copenhagen 2009, we have already achieved two things: Despite of the worst economic crisis in decades, climate change is still high on the agenda. You can't have two heads of state meeting now without discussing this issue as well as discussing it cross-sectorally in their own governments.

Some believe adaptation and technology is the easy part, so why don't we agree on that and leave the rest for later? But it's not that simple. Adaptation will require finance. Technology dissemination will also be incentivized much faster if you have binding reduction agreements. We must find the political response to all of these questions in Copenhagen.

Q: Why not get a political statement agreed on in December and leaving tougher details for later, as some, including the Indian Environment Minister, have suggested?

A: The moment we postpone the deadline, we take off the pressure for delivering in Copenhagen. The Americans will say May or June is too late because of midterm elections, and senators won't change their mind close to midterm elections. What will be different in March or April? How can we be sure that we can plan now? The world's attention could be taken away by something else. The situation in Afghanistan could be very difficult by next spring. Some economists argue that we only saw the first downturn in the global economy; maybe we're in for the next. It has taken years to build up this pressure and the common understanding; now it's the time to deliver.

'Expecting American leadership'

Q: If the U.S. Senate does not pass a climate bill in time for the Copenhagen summit, is there a danger that American negotiators will come here empty-handed and even if they agree to something it may later not be ratified by the Senate?

A: A big obstacle is to see how the American political system can deliver a solid mandate for the American delegation going to Copenhagen when it comes to reductions.

I look forward to President Obama receiving the Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo a few hundred kilometers from here on Dec. 10 for his huge contributions to multilateralism and for giving hope to the world. It's difficult to see at the same time an empty-handed American delegation sitting here in Copenhagen negotiating the last bits and parts of a global agreement.

A strong majority of the 192 countries involved here have similar domestic challenges as the United States: how to make their parliaments provide the strong mandate that their government delegation will act upon in Copenhagen. I know it's difficult, and I know the time constraint. But I also know from conversations with many American friends that a lot can be achieved in a few weeks, provided that the health care bill is dealt with in the not-too-distant future.

They must find out how to avoid coming empty-handed to Copenhagen. I see it this way: A lot of things are at stake for the American administration. A whole generation of young people worldwide has seen a new hope in the new American administration, and they are expecting American leadership. I believe that if you want to play this major role in the world as the United States is playing, then you must be able to deliver answers to the major challenges of our time.

Q: What will happen if the [ongoing] negotiations in Barcelona [Spain] don't produce better results than those in Bangkok?

A: If the negotiators in Barcelona do not produce more specific results than they did in Bangkok, they will also have to accept that we're really in for the politicians to do this work. It's up to them now to try to translate the political will to make the necessary decisions to a very clear paper after Barcelona. The momentum is so big that something will come out of Copenhagen. The involvement from ministers is as strong as ever, and they will expect their negotiators to be able to come up with a text that marks clear political choices.

Worldwide audience 'waiting for the politicians to deliver'

Q: If your dreams came true, what would a Copenhagen agreement contain?

A: What we want to achieve is a binding agreement that delivers on all the elements of the Bali action plan. The developed countries will have to come up with binding commitments as to how much they can reduce emissions. The developing countries, particularly the emerging economies, will have to come up with actions that they can deliver so that at a stage they can have a global peak year. "When will an economy like China peak its emissions?" is what everybody wants to know. Other elements are adaptation, technology, financing. These are interlinked.

It's crucial that we deliver something that doesn't bind just the present government in a country, but it binds the country. That it's likely that they are actually going to deliver what they pledge in Copenhagen and that we get substantial elements on adaptation, mitigation, technology and finance to have specific frameworks so that after that, there will only be details to be dealt with. It's very difficult, and there are many who are against this agenda or for a number of domestic reasons think that it could be delayed. But I believe that if the will is there, it's still doable.

I know from Danish politics that parties could have a huge fight, but if we really sit down, we can make progress in a few weeks' time even in very difficult areas. I think the same counts for international politics. We know what the difficulties are; they've been analyzed. And there's a huge civil society and business community out there just waiting for the politicians to deliver.

Time matters. It takes years to change the path we are on. For each year we hesitate and postpone, the consequences for the Maldives and others are getting more severe and the costs are getting higher, and the ways we will have to change our habits will be even more significant. If we start acting now, we can still within sensible tools change the path we are on.

A partial agreement 'will not fly'

Q: You and Danish Prime Minister Lars Løkke Rasmussen have said that a comprehensive deal needs the personal involvement of heads of state. When will you know which heads of state are coming to Copenhagen?

A: We won't know until relatively late. First, they'll have to see if there's something to do in Copenhagen or something to celebrate in Copenhagen.

It's not just about climate, it's also about energy, resources, wealth, growth, the relationship between north and south, security -- in other words, you have to have the involvement of heads of state to make the kind of decisions we need in Copenhagen.

Finance is a very huge obstacle right now. I hope that heads of states of Europe meeting in Brussels will come up with some fast-track financing. We also need finance plans from Japan, the U.S. and others by the G-20 meeting in November for finance ministers.

Q: Who stands to lose the most if there is no agreement?

A: I believe that the biggest loser if we don't get a binding political framework will be international business. China will be doing this, no matter what, for its own reasons. Those who would suffer the most if we don't get a framework that will give certainty for investments for the next many years will be Western companies, not least the American companies that hesitate and delay. We could just continue for years negotiating this and would have different systems in many countries, and for a global business, that would be very difficult to handle.

I argue to everybody I talk to that to have a partial agreement in Copenhagen will not fly. I think that more and more people have realized that the issues are interlinked. Politically, also, the issue is, why should the G-77 give up what they have today from Kyoto if they don't know that something substantial will be delivered instead? I know where the idea of the partial agreement originally came from, and I know that that country now says something different. [Hedegaard declined to name the country.]

Like what you see?

We thought you might.

Start a free trial now.

Get access to our comprehensive, daily coverage of energy and environmental politics and policy.



Latest Selected Headlines

More headlinesMore headlines

More headlinesMore headlines

More headlinesMore headlines

More headlinesMore headlines