Thursday, 31 December 2009

Carbon routes to Copenhagen – and beyond

Reflections as an observer of the missed chances at COP15.

Glenn Campbell on BBC Newsnight tried to belittle any part Scots participants might play in Copenhagen ahead of the UN Climate Change Summit. I retorted that if it brought the biggest polluters the USA, China, India and Brazil to the table that would be a first. I also pointed out that Scotland’s world leading targets gave us every incentive to develop our huge renewable energy potential without delay despite Scotland’s pitch at Copenhagen being sidelined by UK Labour for petty parochial reasons.

Scottish media coverage took the same disparaging tone of the Scottish government presence. Sour comments in the press followed the pledge by Green co-leader MSP Patrick Harvie to pay out of pocket extra costs to take the train the Danish capital. In the event he was accompanied by Graeme Cook, chief environment researcher for SPICe at Holyrood. I was a late sub for my colleague Shirley Anne Somerville. So Cathy Peattie and I along with our Transport, Infrastructure and Climate Change TICC committee clerk Alastair Macfie used more CO2 to fly on Sunday 13 December from Edinburgh to Amsterdam thence to Copenhagen as that was ‘cheaper’. Of course a direct flight would have saved some more GHG emissions. In the time it took to gain parliamentary approval sleepers on trains were booked up requiring an overnight stop in Cologne for Patrick and Graeme. Also Cathie and I did have the party whips awaiting our return unlike Patrick.

The transport system in Denmark is a joy. A 20 minute journey by comfortable electric trains runs every 25 minutes between Copenhagen airport and Malmö in Sweden where our hotel was booked. The UN had block-booked five night stays for all accommodation. We could only stay three, but the Parliament still had to pay for five!

Monday 14 December

Malmö centre is a haven of pedestrian and cycle friendly old streets with old Swedish gothic kirks next to swish shops. Bicycle parking is huge. The rail station packed with frequent trains hugely well used in this university town.

On retracing our rail trip to Ǿrestad and one Metro stop to the Bella Centre the scale of our problems emerged seen from high above the surrounding streets. Near stationary crowds queued all day in the hope of accreditation. It soon emerged that the queue for entry to the UN summit premises was even longer! We took our place and stuck it for 20 freezing minutes while engaging with would-be observers. Graeme Cook decided to queue on.

Richard Dixon of WWF Scotland approached us and described the near impossibility of access. We decided to walk back to Ǿrestad and cut our losses by Metro to Islands Brygge where the Scottish Low Carbon Mission events were held in a bright and cheery gallery complex or Koncersal named after a living Danish artist Mogens Dahl.

Friends asked me before we left Edinburgh what we might hope to achieve. In my view whatever international contacts I could make in Copenhagen would strengthen understanding of Scotland’s world-leading climate busting law. In tandem I would seek as much direct communication with activists from other lands to cement ways to cooperate whatever the outcome of the UN summit talks.

The Scottish Mission Day proved an inspiration. We rubbed shoulders and ideas with dozens of British Council climate champions from a slew of countries, with the Edinburgh University Climate Masters, students from a another dozen lands. Stand out moments included these student speakers’ abilities and enthusiasm. Each of them dispelled our ifs and buts. Above all Mary Robinson, former Irish President and UN human rights commissioner cut to the quick.

The painstaking document building of the past two years had just been trashed in the Bella Centre. Her theme of climate justice: engaging wider society was heart rending. Some 39 references to gender issues had been painfully negotiated into the first draft. After all 70% of small farmers in developing countries are women. How could they cope if Africa is allowed to fry? Prof Alan Miller chairing the session apologized that no other women appeared on the panel!

At the snack lunch and pre-dinner reception I talked with a young Uzbek climate champion Guzal Sultankhodjayeva. Her mission was education with a sustainable edge. A Swedish professional Kaj Wôgdahl works in climate-proofing buildings and he shared some thoughts on the complacency of the Swedish government. It could consult the Scots Government to refresh its targets. I made domestic contacts too and considered it profitable start. A key stunt [according to The Guardian later in the week] was the 20-20 Malt Whisky brought from Scotland. At 42° proof it neatly set out our reduction target. Also present wearing a kilt was Michael Marra of Stop Climate Change Chaos Scotland. We were both determined to highlight the Scottish ambitions as visually as possible.

During the evening reception a frozen Graeme Cook arrived after seven frustrating food and drink-free hours in the queue to get in touching distance of accreditation. He determined to get up at 5 next morning and try again. Indeed he was to succeed. Patrick did the same later in the day and he too got his burgundy lanyard and yellow Non-Governmental pass.

Tuesday 15 December

Alastair, Cathie and I visited the Klima Forum in downtown København. Patrick and Graeme had been there two days before as they arrived ahead of us. I was peeved at missing José Bové the French anti GM activist. They complained there was no French translation that night. Hopefully I could have got the gist.

We hoped to enter auditorium for the Climate Leaders Summit 2009 as sub-national governments around the world made their pitch to aid a global climate deal through highlighting their own work. Scotland, Ontario, North Rhine-Westphalia, Victoria, São Paulo, Quebec and California were on the bill. All we heard from Scots media was that Gov Schwarzenegger had pulled out and snubbed Alex Salmond. The event was chaired by Helen Clark, former New Zealand premier and UN Development Administrator. Bulky brochures from ‘The Office of Tony Blair’ littered the press area.... However these governments are world leaders and the official UN agreements in future will follow their lead. Check their website:

Around twenty demonstrators were ejected by a big police presence just before we arrived. Otherwise security was relaxed. We watched a couple of speeches on monitors and chatted to BBC Scotland radio journalist David Miller who tried throughout the week to reflect what was actually being discussed at the UN Summit and in satellite meetings. We then wandered through the people’s summit stalls and events. The green, blue, orange and purple halls beckoned. Resisting the wiles of the orange hall I found gold dust among the NGO displays in the purple hall.

There I spied a huge poster with a picture of two dozen combine harvesters reaping, or raping the broad pampas lands; captioned ‘Chemical no-till agriculture can never be a carbon sink! – Change the System – not the Climate – Rural Reflection Group of Argentina. Rapidly I had found out that they were the contacts used by GM Freeze. I met Jorge Eduardo Rulli and Stella Maris Semino. Pictures were taken and a quick exchange of mutual understanding gained. What a chance to set up a meeting between the NFUS and these concerned farmers from Argentina whose land is trashed to grow GM soya that feeds our pigs at home. I blogged my intentions for such an encounter that same lunchtime in a Danish version of Costa Coffee.

News that Graeme had got accredited cheered us. We still awaited Patrick’s progress but ‘radio silence’ continued. He had apologised in advance for missing our planned meetings with Dansk Cyklist Forbund DCF and the City of Copenhagen traffic department. Our TICC committee enquiry on healthy travel was much enhanced by the NGO and Council officers we met. Lise Bjørg Pedersen the DCF political officer outlined the campaigns that had boosted cycling facilities and attitudes to reach the 37% of journeys to work and school in the city by bike.

Niels Tørsløv director of the traffic department of the city council’s technical and environmental administration revealed how over seventy years the cycling city had evolved. Wet snow was falling as we walked to these meetings but he assured us that an average 80% of normal cycle journeys were taken in winter conditions. The city cleared snow and ice from cycle lanes ahead of the roads!

The Scottish five were re-united at nearby Sam’s Bar with news that Patrick had also gained entry to the Bella Centre under our Global NGO grouping [Global Legislators for a Balanced Environment]. We had to skip the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association reception and he and I headed for an inaugural meeting of the Climate Parliament in an old seaman’s bar in Christianshavn.

Parliamentarians from Iceland to India, Italia to Escocia shared ideas about a huge network of energy grids across Europe and other world regions. Our host was LibDem MEP Graham Watson and his team. Among those I met were the Liberal deputy mayor of Ixelles in Brussels, a Norwegian Conservative MP and the illusive Rafael our GLOBE phone contact in the pyrrhic accreditation process at the UN summit. I had the longest discussion with Italian MEP Vittorio Prodi from Bologna. His great hope was to harness solar energy from the Sahara and pipe electricity to southern Europe. In return he wants biomass to green the former bread basket of the Roman Empire in Tunisia and Algeria.

Over a typical Danish dinner of fish courses and meat we debated in a small wood lined room whose walls were covered in photo mementos of Danish sail training cadets who hold regular reunions on the premises.

All too soon we departed with two female Flemish and Swedish MPs for Malmö. I had a hair’s breadth chase to catch the 11.48pm train as Patrick chatted to the guard as I bought a ticket. Had we all been accredited, travel passes would have been received.

Wednesday 15 December

We all agreed that no early morning heroics were in order. We all checked out and headed to Copenhagen. Patrick and Graeme, who was leaving by sleeper that night aimed for the Bella Centre again. I returned to the Klima Forum. After lunch we headed to the airport to take the aerial sausage machine back to Edinburgh. Earlier Alastair met Patrick and Graeme photographing the Little Mermaid – unable to gain access to the Bella Centre.

Politically it became clear that the summit was in deep crisis. Those of us who did not gain access to the hallowed UN summit knew as much as those who were accredited. Watching TV in the Danish capital pictures of small demos corralled by increasingly tetchy riot police gave a depressing confirmation that global gatherings follow a pattern no matter how well-intentioned the negotiators.


As the ‘Copenhagen Accord’ was cobbled together all the hopes of 40,000 folk from across the planet who had converged on Copenhagen were severely dashed. The UN plenary session that crashed the gavel on a stitch up between the USA, China, India, South Africa and Brazil gained grudging, dog-tired assent from the EU and others.

The Bella Centre could only hold 10,000, a number that was reduced for observers to 90 on Friday 18 December. The frustrations of activists were palpable and totally justified. President Obama, as the FT pointed out on Wednesday 15 is US president, not world leader. The opaque refusal of China to accept targets never mind verification of emission reductions has been highlighted. However villages, towns, regions and countries across the globe are set to show the way.

From Scotland’s perspective the EU targets of 30% reductions by 2020 must be adhered to. Our green renewables revolution can transform our economy and can provide a platform for exporting technologies as well as power. Our contacts with like-minded legislators and activists must underpin a legally binding World Climate Change Treaty as soon in 2010 as practicable, most likely in Mexico next December.

There can be no back sliding to accommodate the benighted attitudes found among US legislators and employers who see only unnecessary cost in a shift from ‘business as usual’. Yet the BBC Scotland poll 61% of respondents agreed or tended to agree that they believe their behaviour and everyday lifestyle contributes to climate change.

That gives encouragement to stick to our SNP Government position. With unanimity the Scottish Parliament passed our world leading climate law. By signing a partnership with the President of the Maldives Alex Salmond indicated that Scotland intends to work at home and with those abroad for whom climate change is a life or death matter.

There’s much to do to make a start. But the haunting words of Louisiana ‘swamp rocker’ Tony Joe White linger in my mind after the Copenhagen climate trip. His 1991 album contained the title track that concludes:

Who’s going to tell the children?
How the rivers used to flow crystal blue
We keep leaving scars on mother earth
And move in closer to the truth.

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