Climate ship plots course through the battering waves

Solar-powered boat Image copyright AFP
Image caption The 2015 climate deal seems a far horizon, and the Brussels meeting aims to revive momentum

The European Union hosts this week what could be one of the most significant meetings of the year on climate change.

Last December's UN climate summit, in the South African port of Durban, saw heated discussions on a proposal that governments should commit to agreeing a new comprehensive global emissions-limiting deal with some kind of legal force before 2015.

Reluctant nations found themselves up against a burgeoning coalition of principally small countries from the developed and developing worlds alike, which found common interest in tackling climate change as quickly as possible.

The rainbow coalition included the EU, the Least Developed Countries (LDCs), small islands vulnerable to impacts such as rising sea levels, and progressive Latin American countries such as Costa Rica.

The giant container ships steaming into and out of the Durban docks were matched stylistically by the delegations striding from conference room to conference room, their beetle brows and purposeful gaits testament to the precious cargo they might deliver.

And deliver they did, eventually, with governments committing to agree a new global deal by 2015 and have it in force by 2020, with every country included.

Image copyright PA
Image caption Arguments over aviation emissions are clouding the climate change skies

But it was just a promise; and promises have been broken before on the wheels of realpolitik.

Since Durban, real world issues have begun to bear down on those leading the charge towards that new global deal.

Recession continues to stalk the eurozone. And even though many European governments say green measures will not impoverish them further and may even make them richer, few are acting as though they believe it.

Opposition to the inclusion of international aviation within the EU Emission Trading Scheme (ETS) from countries such as China, the US and Russia has increased. As a result some European governments and senior EU officials fear a trade war could be triggered with nations that include eurozone creditors.

Meanwhile, environment ministers and officials from the smaller developing countries are increasingly engaged not with the UN climate process, but with preparations for June's Rio+20 summit.

And here they are finding that on issues such as overseas aid contributions, Europe is not always behaving as the friend it appeared to be in Durban.

That issue carries over into the climate change discussions, because here too the rich world has promised money - $100bn per year by 2020 - and if pledges are not being met in the arena of overseas aid, why should those developing countries believe pledges will be met in the climate context?

Just five months on, the Durban coalition is a little battered.

On Monday and Tuesday in Brussels, at least 30 of the coalition's key members will meet to re-state their Durban commitment and talk about some of the key steps they can take in the short term to give the 2015 process some momentum.

Image copyright AP
Image caption The next IPCC report is likely to make stronger forecasts on sea level rise than its predecessor

That's an urgent priority, as the first meeting of the working group on the new process (the Durban Platform) is just a couple of weeks away and the visions of various countries on how it should progress are very different.

They'll be talking about what needs to be done to ensure that an adequate proposal goes on the table at the next UN climate summit, in Qatar in December, for putting EU emission cuts (and possibly others too) under the Kyoto Protocol.

They'll need to discuss how the 2015 deal can bring all countries into a new agreement that will eventually regulate emissions from all countries, yet contains the principle of equity at its heart, allowing poor countries room to emit carbon as they develop.

They'll be trying to navigate the remaining hurdles to fully implementing new international schemes to bring financial support and clean technology from developed countries to their poorer counterparts.

And they'll discuss Rio+20 as well - not least because some of the proposals on the table there, such as a goal to double the global share of renewable energy by 2030 and moves to make agriculture more sustainable, would by themselves slow the rise of the world's greenhouse gas emissions.

Along the way, they'll be hoping to pick up a few countries such as Australia that didn't make it clear in Durban whether they belonged to the group pushing for the new deal or the one being pulled towards it reluctantly.

Ministers and officials will be coming to Brussels fresh from an informal two-day session at UN climate convention headquarters in Bonn, where they've heard United Nations Environment Programme chief scientist Joseph Alcamo outline a few key issues.

He told delegates that steps such as setting tighter rules on car emissions, regulating for energy efficient goods and building urban mass transit systems are already having an impact that can be measured.

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Image caption Martin Lidegaard and Connie Hedegaard speak the same European language of climate ambition

But he also said that without much faster uptake of such measures, the best estimate for the year 2100 would be a world that is on average 2.5-5C warmer than in pre-industrial times.

Governments have heard such messages plenty of times before, of course.

And they're likely to hear them louder than ever next year when the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) publishes the first instalment of its fifth Assessment Report, which is likely to forecast harsher impacts ahead on factors such as sea level rise than the previous edition.

The geopolitics are not auspicious for a massive, game-changing leap on climate change this year.

China is preparing for a change of leadership later this year, with President Hu Jintao and other senior figures set to step down. Presidential elections in the US and in France could usher in a major change of direction.

So the priority is to get things right on the deliverables. And the current Danish EU presidency offers a window to do that, with its energetic Climate Minister Martin Lidegaard working alongside his predecessor Connie Hedegaard, now EU Climate Commissioner, in a co-ordinated push.

South Africa's International Relations Minister Maite Nkoana-Mashabane, who chaired the Durban talks, said recently it was vital that "the gains made in Durban are not rolled back by being overwhelmed by the enormity of the problem and the task at hand".

Hence the importance of the Brussels meeting, small and select though it is, as an opportunity to re-focus and re-energise - to get the small things right, and establish a framework for the bigger political negotiations that lie ahead.