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Attending the Copenhagen Climate

A brief background to Copenhagen:

the Rio earth summit in 1992 was Conference – a student’s
when the world started to get serious perspective
on climate change. Its outcome was
the UN Framework Convention on
Climate Change whose ultimate goal The stage was set for Copenhagen to be the pinnacle climate
is the stabilization of greenhouse gas conference – the culmination of a series of multi-national
to “prevent dangerous anthropogenic meetings and conferences where the world’s leaders were
interference with the climate system.” finally going to “seal the deal” on a new global regime for
Singed by 192 countries it was a start tackling climate change. We know now that it was a failure:
but lacked teeth and operalisation
details. In answer to this, the Kyoto an organisational disaster on an embarrassing scale but more
Protocol was signed in 1997 and importantly, despite the sophisticated development of the
came into force in 2005 (infamously arguments across the plethora of climate issues, it did not
without the US) and the system of move significantly beyond the north/ south division of
national quotas (for the developed responsibility impasse that has beset climate politics for the
world only) and carbon trading was
born. The fundamental problem with last 18 years since Rio (see side bar). However, from a
the Protocol (and the reason the US personal perspective Copenhagen got me hooked as a climate
never ratified it) is that it divides the junkie. It was a thrilling insight to the multiple agendas and
world into two homogenous blocks: actions operating in this realm and a fascinating exposé of
the developed world (38 OECD the mechanics of international diplomacy.
countries who would shoulder the
burden of dealing with climate
change on the basis that our caused it) I came to Copenhagen as part of the university’s delegation,
and the developing (i.e. the rest). It having NGO observer status. Like many others I expected to
only regulates the emissions of the see the gamesmanship of international politics in full,
former who are required to cut their sophisticated flow. This was the ultimate tournament, the
emissions as well as assist the
developing world to reduce their
one all others had been qualifying rounds building up to. In
emissions (‘mitigation’) and to adapt fact it was rather tedious – slow and futile. We knew in
to the effects of climate change. I.e. advance a final legal text would not be ready for inking yet at
it requires a north- south transfer of least the fundamental outstanding points should be squared
resources as reparations for the off- right? In fact the pages would turn, a flag would raise
climate damage caused by our
industrialisation and because climate
and a nation given its turn to express the strength of its
chaos will ensue if the developing feelings on the sentence (or word) in question. Then another
world doesn’t leapfrog our dirty country would interject and elaborate at length on why they
development paths. Eh voila – felt strongly in the alternative.
impasse ensues over climate
Before coming to Oxford I was a lawyer and so have some
Friction over this crude division of experience in negotiating deals between parties at
perpetrators and victims has escalated loggerheads. Long, dull meetings turning the pages of
as the wealth and carbon emissions of hideously large agreements are not new to me. But here! I
some advanced developing nations expected more pace, final point knock-ins only, surely? The
(the BICs and Middle East states) has
energy and desire to close the deal seemed absent. For
grown at rapid pace and now eclipses
that of many developed nations. The almost every issue there were 3 options: i) yes, lets do X, ii)
absurdity of Saudi Arabia no, or iii) let’s hold on this and decide later! And there was a
representing the developing world’s farcical lack of co-operation to combine (or even co-ordinate
negotiating block (the G77) is a case progress on) the two alternative proposals (work streams)
in point. being negotiated.
The crux of the global impasse rests with
two countries: China and the US, the
biggest two emitting nations who together
account for 50% of the world’s emissions
yet neither are covered by Kyoto’s legal
regime. Both are seen globally as climate
pariahs. China recently overtook the US
in becoming the world’s largest emitter There were some points of drama: some threatened walk outs
and is the world’s 3rd largest economy by delegates, protestor skirmishes and excessive clamp-
and a huge beneficiary of the climate
finance regime and the growing clean downs, chinese whispers of deals done in other rooms… But
market economy. as the days ticked by no real progress, actually often the
The US’s per capita emissions are 4 times
that of China’s. It is late to the climate But all was not lost, Obama was coming, he wouldn’t come
party and its emission reduction offerings
at the Copenhagen conference alter were empty handed, he’d just picked up his peace prize saying now
pitiful (3% reduction by 2020 compared was the time to earn it. The US and China had been in
to 20% (or possibly 30%) committed to months of private climate meetings – surely a deal was to be
by the EU). Its major culpability for the announced. And so the two week conference felt like a
climate crises and its refusal to engage to- basketball game of inconsequential point scoring, or even
date promotes international inaction (why
should the rest act if the US refuses to
lack thereof, either way it didn’t matter as we all know the
take its share of the clean-up burden?) It exciting zenith of the game is in the last few minutes before
is expected that if the US signs its tabled the whistle blows. So the frustrations of the increasingly
clean energy bill and offers meaningful wasted days in the weeks before where somehow pacified
emission cuts then like dominoes the rest with the mindset that Obama and Hu Jin Tao would fly in for
of the major emitters around the world
will fall in place. But the US and China
the final slam dunk.
are in a Mexican stand-off. The US has
always asserted that it will not join a It didn’t happen. In the final few days we NGOs were booted
regime which penalises its industries who out and left to watch on internet relays as the world leaders
are forced to finance technological took the stage to orate their commitments and concerns. If
investments in key competitors (read
China) in rapidly developing nations
you played a drinking game on words and phrases like
unless they are subject to similar carbon ‘historic’ and ‘the world’s eyes are on us’ or ‘future
restraints. generations will ask…’ you’d have had one hell of a
hangover. Like X factor – you either want to see a Susan
Copenhagen effectively stalled in Boyle or a hilarious disaster. And there were few of either.
anticipation of one of these proud titans to
Though my top scores for the former goes to Sarkosy
stand down first – a tough diplomatic
challenge. The conference failed as it did (surprised me too) but without doubt the one to look for on
not facilitate the horse trading and game Utube is Chavez. So when Obama delivered his bland
playing that is needed to get a deal done. address with pointed distrust directed at China it wasn’t just a
damp squid for a man known for his oratory it was a terrible
signal – he hadn’t come with a deal to save the conference
and the climate.

Yes, Obama secured the ‘Copenhagen Accord’ (and so could

announce the vital ‘success’ story to domestic audiences) but
it is debatable how valuable this loose, non-binding
agreement will be for the climate. It did break new ground in
securing mitigation commitments from all major emitters
(including, for the first time, those in the developing world).
It has now been signed by 110 countries. And it does include
significant climate funds for developing countries. However,
its 3 pages cover headline points without operational detail or
mechanisms and it makes no reference to many of the
panoply of complex issues that are entailed in the climate debate (from forests to nuclear,
carbon capture to carbon trading). It was heavily criticised by some for its cloak and
dagger manner of last minute negotiation. (Much has been made of China walking out
and being obstructive, of the EU being marginalised, of slammed tables and secret
meetings). In juxtaposition, the UN’s 192-party consensus based democratic regime has
inevitably mired its twin track negotiating process in deadlock and lowest common
denominator settlements. Thus, on one hand this club deal represents a pragmatic, real
politik step forward. On the other its marginalisation of the UN process opens the way
for undemocratic bilateralism and western conditionality terms to de facto rule climate
based international relations. Couched in diplomatic language it makes clear to
developing countries that to get a slice of the significant green funds they need to
conform to conditions set by the donor countries. Such a donor-led club regime latently
leaves open the possibility of carbon tariffs being imposed at borders to punish regimes
without (western) accepted carbon management policies. This may be good for the
environment after years of inaction but it does not bode well for international relations or
a true global, legally binding deal being agreed.

This haphazard collection of responses in the absence of a UN lead treaty has been called
‘anarchic but creative adhocary’. Perhaps this new wave of international climate politics
is not disastrous. Some argue that the ethic of UN consensus building is a myth anyway.
Roughly 8 countries account for 80% of the world’s emissions and that for some of the
vast majority that are not a part of the climate problem or solution their natural overriding
objective is to extract rent (public funds) from the system rather than make sacrifices for
the collective interest – their climate votes are for sale. Of course this is inherent to a
collective action problem such as climate change but also suggests that a future of adhoc
regimes that effectively focus on the key protagonists may still represent progress. One
can question how effective international law is anyway especially where enforcement
regimes are loosely defined, jurisdiction can be opted out of and ultimately few have the
will to enforce.

This shift away from the UN regime is significant in another area too. The Copenhagen
Accord regime is based on a bottom-up ‘pledge and review’ system of emission reduction
targets – i.e. countries pledge their commitments and then report back on progress.
Hence transparency (often referred to as ‘MRV’ (for monitoring, reporting and
verification)) becomes a critical component to ensure the system is working yet this
clashes with the golden principle of sovereignty. In contrast, the existing Kyoto Protocol
regime is based on a top-down allocation of targets and punishment (at least notionally)
for breach.

Thus the biggest failure of Copenhagen was not that there was not a binding legal
agreement but that the summit was not managed to extricate a bidding upwards of
ambitious pledges from the key emitters.