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Since the Bali Action Plan was drawn up at the 13th Conference of the Parties (COP13) in 2007 all eyes have looked toward COP15 in Copenhagen as the place where the next major chapter in the global fight against climate change will be written.

But with the last meeting before COP15 just concluded in Barcelona, this, and many other elements of the Bali Action Plan are now deeply in question.

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In a formal address to the NGOs in attendance on Wednesday, Yvo De Boer, the Executive Secretary of the Climate Change Convention, announced that in his view it was no longer “physically possible” to reach a legally binding agreement by the end of December, and that such an agreement might not be reached until the end of 2010 in Mexico.

His address echoed comments made by Michael Zammit Cutajar, one of the UNFCCC chairs, in an NGO meeting on Tuesday, and remarks by the Danish Prime minister on Monday that a “political agreement” was the best outcome we could reasonably expect in the time remaining.

This has outraged the NGO community which has almost univocally called for a legally binding successor to the Kyoto Protocol at COP15, and runs counter to the stated desire of every country which is party to the climate change convention.

So what, then, is the source of the delay? For starters, the first working group under the Convention which deals with the Kyoto Protocol is well behind the Bali schedule in agreeing new targets for developed countries in a second commitment period from 2012, with developing countries calling for substantially greater ambition from the developed world.

Another rift has appeared, in the second working group under the Convention, which deals with Long Term Cooperative Action (LCA) across both developed and developing countries. In this context the developed countries have largely united in calling for the Climate Convention and the Kyoto Protocol to be merged into a single legal document and, following on from this, for the two-track negotiating process to be resolved into one. This doesn’t appear so controversial at first glance until we see that they hope for emerging economies to take on legally binding targets, or to escape from such binding commitments themselves.

Sandbag – alongside many other NGOs – supports the recommendations of the Fourth Assessment Report of the IPCC in calling for cuts of 25-40% from developed countries off their 1990 emissions by 2020. Anything less represents a shirking of their historical responsibilities. Sandbag has been active in pressuring Europe to lead in taking on such a target – our recent briefing paper demonstrates that unanticipated emissions reductions resulting from the recession now mean that Europe can achieve a 10% deeper emissions cut than originally tabled with equivalent effort.

But major emitters from the developing world have historical responsibilities of their own, and developing nations cite the IPCC selectively when they ignore its recommendations they restrict their collective emissions pathways below business-as-usual levels for 2020. The rhetoric that developed nations are trying to “kill” the Kyoto Protocol” is unhelpful here.

Much has changed since the Framework Convention and the Kyoto Protocol were established, and the Protocol, especially, is an imperfect document controlling too small a share of global emissions far too weakly, while remaining vulnerable to the problem of ‘hot air’ when parties like Russia overshoot their mitigation targets owing to exogenous economic circumstances. A streamlined treaty incorporating all major emitters, while respecting the principle of differentiated responsibility would be a major step forward.

Indeed, it is difficult to understand why the G77 nations which contribute least to climate change and are most threatened by it –especially AOSIS and the Small Island Developing States – would so vocally resist this proposal unless outside incentives and disincentives with China were in play.

These, then, are the major holdups delaying a comprehensive and legally binding agreement from being reached in 6 weeks time. While we still hope that a legal agreement can be reached in COP15, we’d rather a superior agreement was reached 6 months or even a year later, so long as holding arrangements for more ambitious Kyoto commitment periods are ensured as De Boer believes they will be.

It remains our view that a carbon budget for the largest emitters in the global electricity sector represents the best vehicle by which to begin achieving the IPCC emissions reductions recommended across both developed and developing nations. Emerging economies would stay safely outside of economy-wide caps, and could expect to reap substantial financial flows from sectoral trading with developed countries. To promote this position, Sandbag launched our suggested legal text for inclusion in a new treaty at Barcelona last week, with help from a group of Barcelona traceurs who staged a special One Giant Leap jam in the forecourt of the Barcelona Convention Centre for the occasion.

Clearly, though, there are many more obstacles to be cleared on the path to an adequate global deal. Increasingly, it appears that path will stretch beyond Copenhagen.