With all the big political issues still to be resolved, delegates and observers are predicting that an agreement will not emerge until early on Saturday morning. Filling the vacuum before then, the conference centre is overflowing with rumours, hypotheses and pre-emptive recriminations over the likely outcome.
Japan is emerging as a possible key to agreement, with the EU possibly ready to agree to greater Japanese use of the Kyoto flexibility mechanisms than other industrialised countries if it will drop its insistence on including forestry and land-use sinks as means of achieving protocol emission targets.
Both the EU's demand for industrialised countries to meet no more than 50% of their commitments through flexible mechanisms (emissions trading, joint implementation and the clean development mechanism [CDM]) and its resistance to including sinks before 2012 in the face of opposition from the USA and some other countries are potential deal breakers.
Japan wants greater scope to use the mechanisms as it has less emission-reduction potential than many other industrialised countries in areas such as transport. A senior EU government delegate today accepted that "something special must be sorted out" for Japan, opening up the prospect of caps at different levels for different countries rather than a blanket 50% ceiling.
What the EU wants in return is for Japan to stop supporting US demands for forestry and land use sinks to be counted towards achievement of protocol emission targets, at least before 2012. America last week proposed limiting the scope for counting these carbon credits (ENDS Daily 15 November), but the EU remains staunchly opposed to any inclusion (ENDS Daily 21 November).
Persuading Japan to drop its support could leave the USA and Canada isolated, because it has become clear that the US sinks proposal has little support elsewhere, with countries such as Norway and New Zealand distancing themselves from it. According to French environment minister Dominique Voynet, a "very large majority of countries share the EU's analysis of the question".
Whether the EU will succeed is far from clear. Some reports circulating in The Hague suggest that the Japanese delegation is still making ratification of the protocol conditional on inclusion of these sinks.
Meanwhile, delegations are evaluating a separate compromise proposal from the G77 group of developing countries over the EU's 50% cap proposal, the details of which are not known.
In talks on the CDM, the EU appears to be facing an uphill battle over its proposal to create an exclusive, positive list of eligible technologies centred on renewable energy, with most countries said to be against.
Nevertheless, nuclear power could yet be excluded from the scheme. While Canada and Japan still want it to be eligible, none of the non-industrialised countries that would benefit from the CDM are arguing for it with the exception of China, according to an EU source.
Meanwhile, environmental groups are warning of a huge threat to the CDM arising out of talks over the rights of eastern European countries to sell large quantities of emission credits - so-called hot air trading. A plan to restrict these rights was omitted from negotiating texts on Friday, apparently through administrative error. Five days later it is still absent despite several EU requests for its reinstatement.
NGOs fear that if this "seller's cap" is removed, Russia and other countries could flood the market, depressing the price of emission credits and rendering CDM projects, which also generate credits, uncompetitive. "It's impossible to overestimate just how important this cap is," Rob Bradley of Climate Network Europe said.
Finally, a stir was caused this evening when a cream cake was flung in the face of US chief negotiator Frank Loy by as-yet-unidentified environmental activists who had infiltrated the talks centre. Conference chairman Jan Pronk said he "abhorred" their tactics of protesting without listening.
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