Dispatch from Copenhagen: “Cap & trade” hits NGOs

One of the backstories of the climate summit is a bit ironic: Environmental groups and other non-governmental organizations (just about everyone other than official delegations and the press) are chafing about United Nations’ caps on the number of people allowed into the Bella Center, where the negotiations are taking place—and they are trading the rights to enter.

Some background: For years, environmental groups and other supporters of action on climate have been pushing the idea of cap and trade. Governments would set limits on greenhouse gas emissions (the cap). Companies then would have to have a permit, or allowance, for each ton of their emissions. The overall number of permits would be limited, with the cap declining over time, so that emissions would be reduced.

A company could reduce its own emissions, cutting back the number of permits it needs. Or it could buy permits from those who have made emissions reductions (the trading part)—or who have been granted more permits to start with.

Now, a small version of this cap and trade is playing out at the climate talks. More than 45,000 people have applied to attend the conference, three times more than the official capacity of the venue. As a result, starting on Tuesday, Dec. 15, the United Nations is imposing caps on the number of people allowed in, granting a limited number of permits to each NGO delegation. Some delegations are getting permits for less than half of their members—and they’re not happy about it. Some are making trades with others to get more of their people in.

When the heads of state arrive later in the week, the caps will be lowered, restricting entrance to only a small percentage of those registered to attend. Not surprisingly, groups that have travelled from around the world to attend the talks are upset about being shut out—especially when the decisions made by UN staff about how many people allowed in from each delegation seem arbitrary. If this is how a cap and trade emissions reduction system might work, then it’s easier to understand how people can be upset by it, says the head of one NGO delegation.

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