Flight From Copenhagen


The dramatic closure of the climate talks in Copenhagen on the weekend brought to mind the final scene of the Life of Brian. Just as it seems Brian will be rescued from crucifixion by the arrival of the Crack Suicide Squad, they kill themselves, leaving the condemned men to sing "Always look on the bright side of life". The denouement of the Copenhagen summit followed a similar trajectory — and some rather flat singing has already begun.

As late as Friday night, a more positive outcome still seemed possible. Barack Obama had extended his stay in Copenhagen to negotiate a face-saving compromise "Accord" with European heads of government, representatives from China, India, Brazil and South Africa and some other states. While the resultant text which went to the final plenary had been greatly watered down over the course of Friday, it mapped out (in Convention head Yvo de Boer’s words) the "ingredients of an architecture" to deal with climate change. 

But the world’s great powers and biggest emitters had reckoned without Bolivia, Cuba, Nicaragua, Sudan, Tuvalu and Venezuela, the "Cop-Out Six" of COP15. Like the Crack Suicide Squad, their last-minute intervention was dramatic and distinctly unhelpful. They prevented the assembled nations from adopting the final Accord and brought the talks to the brink of total collapse, although that was averted.

Their objections to the Accord were forcefully put. "You are witnessing a coup d’état against the UN," declared a delegate from Venezuela, presumably speaking from her country’s long experience of attempted coups.

"Sudan will not be a signatory to a deal that destroys Africa," fumed the G77-and-China chief negotiator Lumumba Di-Aping, leaving many to wonder why every other African nation (splitters!) was prepared to be part of such a deal. Lumumba provoked outrage by comparing the Accord to the Holocaust, claiming that it was animated by "the very same values … that funnelled 6 million people in Europe into furnaces". This claim took considerable chutzpah, given that Sudan’s president is wanted by the International Criminal Court for war crimes and crimes against humanity.

Sudan’s eventual isolation left many to wonder whether Lumumba had actually been speaking for the G77 and China, or only for African states, or simply for his own state all along. G77 and China solidarity has become a dead letter. It is difficult to see how the block will play any significant role in future talks. The interests it encompasses are simply too conflicting.

British Climate Secretary Ed Miliband returned to the chamber to intervene. Emphasising that delegates faced "a moment of profound crisis", Miliband defended the Accord as "a document that in substantive ways will make the lives of people around this planet better because it puts into effect fast-start finance of US$30 billion, it puts into effect a plan for $100 billion of long-term public and private finance". The conference then "took note" of the Accord, rather than adopting it. With that, the chairman brought the Copenhagen summit to a belated and unlamented end.

And at 6am on a Saturday morning, who could blame the representative of Papua New Guinea for saying "I told you so?" On day one, PNG had proposed that, in the absence of a consensus, Copenhagen’s outcome should be adoptable by a 75 per cent majority. This proposal was dead on arrival, but after a deal brokered between the US, Europe, China, India, Brazil and South Africa was blocked by Sudan (where conflict in Darfur is still raging), Tuvalu (population: 12,000-odd) and some of the more truculently anti-US Latin American states, perhaps it will be revisited.

But that is from a legal perspective. From a political perspective, even if six relatively peripheral countries had not blocked the adoption of a non-binding, face-saving deal, few would be hailing Copenhagen a success.

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has been trying his best to do so: "Finally we sealed the deal and it is a real deal. Bringing world leaders to the table paid off. The Copenhagen Accord may not be everything that everyone hoped for but this decision of the conference of parties is a beginning, an essential beginning."

There were also positive reactions from China and Indonesia, though for very different reasons. The Copenhagen Accord preserves the Kyoto Protocol, and with it the principal of "common but differentiated responsibilities" dividing developed and developing countries, which China had emphasised at every turn. The text also recognises the "need" for the "immediate establishment of a mechanism including REDD-plus". Together with the billions already committed for Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and forest Degradation, this boosts confidence that work to build a REDD mechanism will be successful. Indonesia — the third-largest emitter by virtue of the widespread destruction of its forests — had been strongly promoting REDD at the conference.

The Accord also "recognis[es]the scientific view that the increase in global temperature should be below 2 degrees Celsius". It commits developed countries to climate aid "approaching" $30 billion by 2012, and $100 billion annually by 2020, although this second target is hedged by the conditions of "meaningful mitigation actions" and "transparency" on the part of developing countries. Verification will be through "international consultations and analysis" which must "ensure that national sovereignty is respected". Implementation of the Accord must be assessed by 2015, with a legally binding treaty to be achieved "as soon as possible". Earlier drafts set a 2010 deadline to achieve a legal agreement and a 2050 deadline to halve world emissions. These did not make it into the final text.

So the Accord is not a complete failure. It sets the 2-degrees target, states the dramatically increased target for climate aid, endorses REDD and provides, arguably, for the continuation of the Kyoto Protocol. But it makes no definite commitments on emissions reductions, emissions peaking or the responsibilities of emerging economies. Quite important matters, all.

Additionally, the amount of doubt it leaves around the future of the Kyoto process is unfortunate, and it will become a major problem if not dispelled quickly. Although it endorses the decision to request the Kyoto working group "to continue its work", it does not clearly address Kyoto’s second, post-2012 phase. Business lobbies had been asking for a clear framework in this second phase of Kyoto and a mechanism for pricing carbon. They got neither. The Accord will retard clean energy innovation and implementation unless it is quickly superseded by something more concrete.

Adopted or not, the text seems likely to form the basis for future Convention talks, which will aim to convert its declarations into a legally binding treaty. Delegates will next convene in Bonn in mid-2010, followed by the annual meeting in December, which in 2010 will be held in Mexico. But the outcome has led to conclusions that the UN is the wrong forum in which to tackle climate change. Could the issue not be addressed by the G20, which accounts for the majority of emissions and can draw on the majority of the finance and technology needed for a solution? Yvo de Boer rejected this argument on the basis of equity. Others will consider it further.

Overall, Copenhagen shrank. It shrank from the comprehensive, legally binding treaty envisaged in the Bali Road Map, down to the "oven-ready" political framework, capable of immediate implementation, called for by de Boer during the conference. It then shrank further to the patchy but still significant text stitched up on Friday, and even further to the less significant, somewhat neutered text which, in the event, the nations assembled did not adopt after dawn on Saturday morning.

It is not the outcome that the UN, the hosts, scientists, activists and business had hoped for. But that’s the way it is, after the most hyped conference of recent times showed just how little changes in world politics.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.