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A cap-and-trade exercise riles Copenhagen

December 16, 2009 | 12:29 pm

Ironies abound here at the global climate talks, from the simple (holding a global-warming summit in freezing cold, inviting thousands of delegates from impoverished nations to one of the world’s most expensive cities) to the sad (the Danish people, some of the nicest on the planet, being represented on television by baton-wielding police cracking down on protesters).

But perhaps the most fascinating irony of all is playing out inside the host Bella Center, where environmentalists and other nonprofit groups are getting a quick and brutal immersion in the “cap-and-trade” system that President Obama has proposed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in the United States.

The problem here in Copenhagen is space: The Bella Center holds 20,000 people at capacity. The United Nations issued more than double that many credentials for the climate summit. So as more and more people arrived this week – delegates, environmentalists, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez – summit organizers started limiting who could come inside.

They started by issuing “secondary passes” to nonprofits and requiring those passes for admission. The groups, commonly referred to as non-governmental organizations or NGOs, are free to trade the passes amongst themselves.

The number of passes has declined each day. By some groups’ estimates, the entire U.S. environmental movement – consisting of 90 groups and thousands of people – will be down to fewer than 10 total passes by Thursday.

If that plan sounds familiar, it should. It’s a super-compressed version of how Obama wants to reduce the emissions that scientists blame for global warming: declining cap, tradeable permits, near phase-out in the long term.

Not that the parallel is any comfort to NGOs, who complained bitterly today that their numbers would be reduced from 15,000 total last week to 1,000 total on Thursday.

Mary Robinson, the honorary chair of Oxfam International, said in a statement that her group “is extremely concerned about the limited access which observers have to the international climate talks and the outright exclusion of some organizations altogether. With the negotiations here in crisis we desperately need the engagement and witness of people's organizations to keep the pressure on political leaders to deliver a fair, ambitious and binding climate deal.”

Conference organizers said today they will open an overflow center offsite on Thursday for the locked-out NGOs to watch proceedings. No word on whether a secondary pass market has sprung up yet.

--Jim Tankersley in Copenhagen