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Copenhagen hangover

Published 19th December 2009 - 2 comments - 1319 views -

Despite the hype, the Copenhagen summit failed to produce a climate deal. A number of developing countries backed away from a weak proposal tabled by the US, South Africa, India, and China in the final hours of Friday. In the cold light of day, all that is left is a hollow accord which nations are invited to sign. The accord does not guarantee action, at best would deliver a fraction of the money poor countries need to tackle climate change, and big decisions on emissions reduction targets have been kicked off to the New Year.

It is shameful that after two years of blood, sweat and tears, we didn’t finish the marathon on time!   

World leaders had a genuine chance here in Copenhagen to deliver the fair, ambitious and binding deal the world needed. But as the deal got cooked up, fairness was taken off the table and ambition watered down. In the early hours of the morning, any hopes of a legally binding deal were stripped out too.

It is too late to save the summit, but it’s not too late to save the planet and its people. We have no choice but to forge forward towards a legally binding deal in 2010. This must be a rapid, decisive and ambitious movement, not business as usual.


Two interrelated issues that were to blame for the turmoil during the summit, although it should be recognised that the roots of this failure extend back at least to the initiation of the Bali Action Plan.

The process 

There were a small number of countries that came to this summit without the intention of negotiating in good faith. They were generally countries that have massive vested interests in fossil fuels, or which exclusively focus on their short-term competitiveness. These countries undermined the negotiations.

The Danish Presidency grossly mismanaged the process. Many countries were left out of the ‘Friends of the Chair” process while there was an attempt to include negotiating groups, the selection of participants was not open and transparent. Heads of State found themselves effectively negotiating from the podium, rehearsing their national positions rather than proposing breakthroughs which had not been achieved in the preparatory meetings.

Decisions went down to the wire as negotiations continued into the early hours of the morning. An ‘agreement’ was forged in a small number of closed bilateral sessions before being thrust onto poor countries under conditions of tiredness and stress.

The breakdown of this process will hopefully signal that the days of stitching up deals in small selective groups and then expecting all countries to sign up are over. A fundamental change of approach is needed in the negotiating tactics of the big players as the process continues into 2010.

We need processes which move us away from competitive negotiations, where countries try to minimise their concessions, to collaborative actions informed by the science, for example, conducting problem-solving sessions in mixed groups rather than blocks. It is clear that the UNFCCC negotiating process will need substantial reform to handle the complexity of this issue.

As the Summit entered its final critical days, the vast majority of observers were barred from the conference centre. While the security challenges of such a meeting are huge, it is inexcusable that the forward planning did not take account of needing civil society and other observers to be present for transparency and legitimacy.

The substance

Rich (Annex 1) countries came empty handed to Copenhagen didn’t offer much while they were here.

$100bn was offered in long term finance for emissions reductions and adaptation in poor countries and $30bn in short term emergency adaptation for the most vulnerable countries. However these offers were full of caveats and loopholes.

  • $100bn is a goal not a commitment – poor countries will have no confidence that they will get the money they need to reduce their emissions and adapt to a changing climate.
  • $100bn is only half the money needed, according to development NGOs.
  • There are no assurances that the $100bn will be additional to existing aid commitments. This means money could be diverted from education and health care in poor countries to pay for flood defences.
  • The $100bn may not be public money. Unless climate cash comes from public sources, there are no guarantees that it will reach the right people, in the right places, at right time.  

Rich countries offers on emissions reductions were not based, even loosely, on sound science. The process for agreeing mid-term targets, without criteria for burden sharing or a top down process to test the adequacy of targets, is of serious concern. Continuing the current voluntary (pledge and review) approach undermines equitable burden sharing and does not guarantee emissions reductions demanded by the science will be delivered. Current emissions reductions pledges by rich countries are riddled with loopholes (notably the overhang of ‘hot air’, the loose accounting rules on land use and forests, and the omission of aviation and maritime fuels) and put the world on track for a 3.9°C temperature rise. This would have catastrophic impacts on vulnerable people.

Some developing countries came with proposals and concessions - China on measurable reportable and verifiable action (MRV), Brazil on financial contributions by developing countries, and South Africa on emissions reduction targets. On a common comparative basis (reductions from business as usual), the emissions reductions offers from some major developing countries are more ambitious than their rich country counterparts.

The loss of a strong agreement by world leaders means we leave Copenhagen with little more then we arrived with and some strong proposals were lost on the way. However, lack of full agreement, means some of the unhelpful parts of the Accord are not locked in, such as a lack of clear commitment to 2°C.  One other positive outcome is that the consolidation of the two negotiating texts (KP and LCA) has delivered a more manageable document as a basis of discussions in 2010.

 The politics

 The agreement with China will help build political capital for the Obama Administration’s climate and energy bill in the US. However, a full agreement to the Copenhagen Accord would have been more helpful. On the downside, the adversarial atmosphere in Copenhagen might be used to provide opponents of climate change and multilateralism with ammunition. More broadly, the lack of clear success might mean that some Heads of State will be wary of coming to the next Summit on climate change.

We face major challenges in calling for Parties to get back to negotiations given the likelihood that there will be a widespread perception that this will fail again. The lack of trust is even deeper than it was before Copenhagen. Restoring trust and re-building momentum is a major challenge over the coming months.

Category: UN Climate Change Conference 2009, | Tags: copenhagen, leaders, responsibility,


Paul Montariol on 20th December 2009:

There was no possible agreement.
The rich countries do not have any more money.
The poor countries do not see their richnesses.
It is impossible to negotiate a reduction in anything.
The lobby of oil did everything to break the good relationships between States.
The attitude of the scientists does not make it possible to give a theoretical base to favorable exchanges.
True skeptics are those which think that new energies are unable to replace oil!

Daniel Nylin Nilsson on 24th December 2009:

Good point… we really need to find different ways to deal with these issues. I think most politicians did their best, but a two week negotiation marathon is not the best way to reach results, maybe.

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