Geoff Lake, President of the Australian Local Government Association
I arrived in Copenhagen in time for day three of the COP15 talks at the end of last year. My role at Copenhagen was to represent the interests of Australian local government as part of Australia’s official delegation. The Premier of South Australia, Mike Rann, was there representing premiers and chief ministers and the Queensland climate change minister also attended. Minister for Climate Change, Penny Wong and the Prime Minister were the federal elected members in the delegation. The rest of Australia’s 114 strong delegation were senior officials – mainly from the federal level but also a small number from state government.
Copenhagen was a fascinating spectacle. There was much happening each day around the Bella Centre (the venue for the talks) and it was great to see the views of local government from around the world being fed into the negotiating agenda of many countries. There were about 20 people from Australian councils who were also in Copenhagen for the talks as part of the more than 30,000 strong army of observers. I met regularly with many of them to ensure that the Australian local government message was a consistent one.
ICLEI (the international network of local governments for sustainability) was pursuing the inclusion of a specific reference to local government in the ‘shared vision statement’ which was being negotiated by countries at the COP. Although the shared vision draft was shelved as the COP struggled to achieve consensus at its conclusion, countries generally saw and accepted a key role for local government and other sub national governments to play in adapting to the impacts of climate change in the future.
If you followed the media coverage from Copenhagen at the time, you will have a very good idea of how the negotiations progressed – i.e. it was a fluid and different to control beast. The elephant lurking in every room of the huge Bella Centre was the question over what emissions targets should be agreed to by nations, how this should differ between developed and developing countries and the level of financial support to be paid by rich countries to poor countries. These were the headline matters which were never far away no matter what technical minutia was being thrashed out between negotiators in one of the many rooms.
As a member of the Australian delegation, I was able to participate in the daily Australian delegation briefing meeting each morning. There were about 60 people involved in these discussions which took place each morning at 8.30am prior to the commencement of negotiating meetings. The business of the delegation was very efficiently organised and the various Australian Government officials were allocated across the myriad of meetings which took place simultaneously each day. The morning delegation meetings were a chance to report back on events from the previous day and also to highlight issues that may arise over the course of the coming day. I was also given the opportunity to provide feedback at these meetings.
The Australian delegation was led by Louise Hand who is Australia’s Ambassador for Climate Change. It was mainly comprised of officials from the various relevant Commonwealth departments (in particular – the Departments of Climate Change and the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade). Perhaps appropriately for a two week global discussion on climate change, a weather man from the Bureau of Meteorology was also present.
It is hard to describe exactly what it was like being in Copenhagen. The Bella Centre was a massive space and it had been extended for COP15 with huge temporary canvas structures. The peak morning arrival of participants (almost all by train) was orderly and generally efficient – although this changed in the second week as security was stepped up with the arrival of world leaders. The tight security and massive cloakroom was fast and the papers office similarly nimble in its ability to dispense thousands of documents in a short period.
There were various interest groups broadly recognised at COP15: business, farmers, indigenous people, local government, trade unions, young people and women. Each day there are approximately 100 side events scheduled which were open to all participants. Topics discussed at the side events traversed virtually all imaginable issues related to climate change and sustainability. They tended to be of varying quality, but most were informative and featured expert presenters who had invested significant time in preparing their presentations. There were also about 1000 trade exhibitors – mostly NGOs trumpeting their particular cause or countries boasting that they had been doing more than their fair share in combating climate change.
The whole experience resembled something similar to a music festival – with 20,000 or so people milling around, talking, eating at one of the various food vendors (which were generally over-priced and of fairly dismal quality), debating ideas or simply going along to one of many events which were going on throughout each day. Wireless internet was everywhere and there are almost as many laptops as there are people and mobile phones. NGO representatives scampered left and right trying to get their hands on that latest draft of some meeting just concluded or to lobby someone or other. Other participants would be checking their Facebook page or media websites from their home country to see how it all was being reported.
On Thursday of the first week, I passed a group of enthusiastic young climate activists who had bailed up Lord Christopher Monckton, a prominent climate change sceptic, and engaged him in a rigorous debate over climate science. Unknown to him, some plucky person had stuck a sticker on his back which proclaimed ‘I love climate change’.
Not surprisingly, sceptics like Lord Monckton were in short supply at Copenhagen. Participants were generally either passionate representatives of one of the thousands of NGOs, part of one of the various country negotiation teams or part of the army of journalists.
As a member of Australia’s delegation I got unrestricted access to all negotiating rooms and sessions. Negotiations were divided between the twin track proceedings of the ‘Conference of the Parties’ under the United Nations Convention on Climate Change and the ‘Meeting of the Parties’ under the Kyoto Protocol. When either track was not meeting in plenary, negotiations were separated into two respective ad hoc working groups and then these were broken down further into subsidiary bodies, contact groups and informal consultations. Negotiations typically extended well past the 8.00pm slated finishing time, with some sessions often still going after 2.00am.
Wandering in and out of these, one couldn’t but help admire the patient officials diligently debating the issues in dispute.
When meeting in plenary, a massive room was set up with the 193 lead country negotiators seated behind hundreds of tables. These sessions were chaired from the front table on the stage and delegates patiently waited for the call to make their contribution. Contributions were typically spoken slowly and with extreme deference to the chair. Brevity, thankfully, was almost always practiced.
Conveniently, countries organised themselves into blocs of like interests. Australia was part of the ‘Umbrella Group’ which it chaired and this group comprised non-EU developed countries such as the United States, Japan, Canada, New Zealand, Norway, and Russia. Through this leadership role, Australia was contributing well above its relative international size. Along with Denmark (which was similarly elevated by virtue of its role as host), the European Union, the United States, Brazil and China, Australia was one of the key players over the two weeks.
The outcome reached at Copenhagen has been widely reported in the world’s media and people will have drawn their own conclusions on what was, or was not, achieved. I am not as pessimistic about the outcome as many media commentators have been. I think getting world leaders to agree to limit global warming over coming years to two degrees and to a $100 billion per annum transfer to developing countries is significant. Obviously, there is still a long way to go in putting the necessary commitments in place to achieve such goals, but progress was definitely achieved and I am hopeful this momentum will continue into this year – in particular at COP16 in Mexico at the end of the year.
In terms of local government, what is clear is that we are a critical player in any approach by countries to tackle climate change. Many of the adaptation and mitigation strategies discussed at Copenhagen had relevance to local and state level governments and in this sense local government’s role was regularly touched upon. Obviously, the focus of the negotiations was at the international level between countries so specific aspects of the role of sub-national governments was more of an issue in framing each individual country’s particular position rather than part of the general plenary discussions. However, any emissions target which is adopted by a country will need the active championing, support and intellectual property of its local government if they are to have any chance of succeeding.