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Copenhagen Climate Deal Hinged On 1 Sentence
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Copenhagen Climate Deal Hinged On 1 Sentence

Environment

Copenhagen Climate Deal Hinged On 1 Sentence

Copenhagen Climate Deal Hinged On 1 Sentence
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The climate change deal negotiated late Friday night in Copenhagen almost didn't happen. And for some, it's still too little, too late. The deal was brokered in the final hours of the conference. And it all hinged on one particular sentence.

GUY RAZ, host:

We're back with ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Guy Raz.

And one of the great things about radio is you can't see the ridiculous snow gear I'm wearing, which is not, I should add, an NPR branded parka because we don't make them.

I'm standing on a street here in downtown Washington, D.C., in the midst of a blizzard of historic proportions. By the end of today, our nation's capital will be blanketed with quite possibly the biggest snowfall since 1922. And it's effectively shut down the city.

Now, a day like today sometimes makes you wonder about things like global warming. But this past decade was the hottest on record, and that's one of the reasons why negotiators at the Copenhagen climate conference have been so determined to get some kind of international agreement in place.

Well, last night, the U.S. and four other countries: Brazil, India, South Africa and China, finally agreed on a plan to start reducing their carbon emissions.

NPR's David Kestenbaum is in Copenhagen and he reports that this was really a last-minute decision.

DAVID KESTENBAUM: When President Obama arrived in Copenhagen, he was visibly frustrated. Usually, heads of state like to arrive after a deal has been brokered, then they can take the stage and make glowing pronouncements.

But when the president arrived, a huge rift remained between the United States and fast-growing countries like China. One issue they could not agree on. Many countries had made pledges to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, but the U.S. wanted these pledges in writing as part of the agreement. And President Obama said there had to be a way to know whether countries were living up to those commitments.

President BARACK OBAMA: Without such accountability, any agreement would be empty words on a page. I don't know how you have an international agreement where we all are not sharing information and ensuring that we are meeting our commitments. That doesn't make sense.

KESTENBAUM: Here's the story of what happened next, according to a senior White House official. On Friday evening here at the conference center, White House staff was preparing for one final try. President Obama would meet one-on-one with Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao and separately with a group that included some of the fastest-growing economies: Brazil, India and South Africa.

But Brazil did not want to come if India was not coming and the Chinese staff were at the airport apparently ready to leave. It's unclear if this was a negotiating strategy, but the leaders of the five countries eventually sat down and talked, and they began to work out an agreement. With a larger group of countries, they produced a three-page document.

How did they resolve that central issue of how to verify countries' pledges? This came down to one sentence in the document. In the hallways here, I ran into Ned Helm, president of the Center for Clean Air Policy, who has followed these negotiations for years.

Mr. NED HELM (President, Center for Clean Air Policy): And this is what they got fixed in the final deal.

KESTENBAUM: So read me the line that took them so long to figure out how to write it.

Mr. HELM: All right. Non-Annex I Parties will communicate information on the implementation of their actions through national communications, with provisions for international consultations and analysis under clearly defined guidelines that will ensure that national sovereignty is respected.

And that whole last part of that sentence - that long phrase is the key battleground.

KESTENBAUM: The language is a kind of compromise. Doesn't say pledges will be verified, doesn't use the V word. It says pledges will be, well, that long sentence.

Mr. HELM: And this creates a consultation process. So you send in your annual report of what you've done; all the plants in the country, how many emissions they've produced, et cetera, and you say, here, I said my target was minus 45 percent. How close did I come? Here's my story. And then it's put before a consultative process where you're asked a lot of questions.

Well, you know, the cement plants, these don't look like you really did what you say. You said you'd shut down 40 to 45. Did you do it? Show us that.

KESTENBAUM: Right. Are you surprised it took so long to basically write that sentence?

Mr. HELM: Not really. I mean, part of this - you know, it's language. I mean, we have a big advantage. It's always in English. And for all these other countries, it's tough. You know, I wouldn't want to negotiate. I speak French. I wouldn't want to negotiate a contract in French. And that's what we're dealing with. So there's a lot of stuff here that is very important and people read where, you know, they don't use words the same way, you know?

KESTENBAUM: Ned Helm says the amazing thing to him here is that the heads of government just sat down and hammered something out.

Mr. HELM: We were stuck in the mud with the negotiators. They really were stuck in the mud. And we brought in the presidents and they pulled the truck out of the mud, and that's not - normally, this kind of deal, the presidents come in and they bless the offering. They couldn't bless the offering. They had to make the offering here. They had to negotiate.

I mean, it's amazing that this provision, I'm told, President Obama and Premier Wen Jiabao negotiated themselves, the two of them, you know? Can you believe there were - that's what I was told. I don't know if it's an apocryphal story, but that's what we were told.

KESTENBAUM: It's clear from these past two weeks, the countries of the world are still not so good at this global government thing. But maybe we're getting a little better.

David Kestenbaum, NPR News, Copenhagen.

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