The Copenhagen Climate Conference has ended disastrously, the only saving grace being that things could have been even worse. People’s expectations that this meeting of world leaders would finalize a legally binding global arrangement to rescue humanity from calamitous climate change have been rudely dashed. Frustration, anger and disappointment are widespread, but not surprise, since many had predicted just such an outcome including in these columns.
No agreement was reached on targets for deep and binding emission cuts by developed countries. No firm commitments were made regarding finance and technology transfers to help developing countries cope with climate change, or on mechanisms and measures for effective implementation. None of these were in fact on the agenda of at least some countries at Copenhagen.
From day one, the US and its developed country allies made a planned and systematic effort to kill the Kyoto Protocol itself, remove the crucial distinction in the global Treaty architecture between industrialized and developing countries, and decisively shift the burden of reducing global emissions on to developing countries. They have half-way succeeded in these attempts and it was only the determined and united resistance of the developing countries that prevented the complete subversion and formal dismantling of the Kyoto Treaty, although this unity too started fraying at the edges towards the end.
Just as the Conference was about to close in complete disarray, a so-called “Copenhagen Accord” was drawn up by the US along with the BASIC group of Brazil, South Africa, India and China, with the assistance of 22 other countries drawn from all continents and groupings. The Accord is in the nature of a political agreement with no legal force or approval by the Conference and, as such, its very operational status is very much in doubt. Even though it was widely perceived to be weak, flawed and dangerously open to differing interpretations, it was finally supported however reluctantly by most countries and blocs as providing at least some basis for future negotiations. Without this Accord, the Copenhagen conference would have closed not only with no agreement but also with no future direction and perhaps even no hope of ever attaining a global pact. This would have suited the US and other developed countries who have always, and in all contexts, opposed internationally binding agreements since, under a laissez faire dispensation, they can carry on with business-as-usual and impose their will upon others through bilateral and multilateral arrangements. The Accord should be seen as merely an instrument to keep the ball in play so that the game is still on.
Serious consequences No one can seriously call what transpired at Copenhagen “negotiations” since the term assumes parties willing to move from earlier stated positions and converging towards a common one. Developed countries, led by the US, did not budge an inch from their emission reduction pledges made several months before Copenhagen, even though these were far below the 40 percent reduction from 1990 levels by 2020 as called for by the IPCC and despite knowing full well that this would condemn hundreds of millions of people especially in the developing countries to grevious deprivation or even death due to climate change.
The US stayed at their pathetic 3 percent, the Japanese at roughly the same and even the EU did not raise their 20 percent to 30 percent as they had promised to consider.
As UN Secretary General Ban-Ki Moon put it, “Nature does not negotiate with us.” IPCC has warned that the window of opportunity to prevent runaway climate change and irreversible damage is small and narrowing with each passing day. Indeed, since the release of IPCC’s Fourth Report in mid-2007, evidence has been mounting that the situation is deteriorating even more rapidly than earlier believed. A secret UN report released during the Conference showed that, with the low emission cuts pledged by developed countries at Copenhagen, global emissions would not peak (i.e. reach maximum) by 2015 and then start declining as required, which would mean that global temperature rise could reach 3 degrees C by 2050, not 2 degrees as repeatedly promised.
But in effect, therefore, the world is now where it was before Copenhagen, teetering on the brink of runaway climate change, hanging on by a frail thread offered by the Accord which, as we shall see, is like a minefield, strewn with traps for the unwary. But the game will not be just about the right words but about power equations and purposeful negotiations to bring about the best results. The world is replete with Treaties crafted with the best of intentions but which are manipulated and twisted to suit the interests of the US and other forces of global capital. In the months to come, India and other developing countries will have to carefully work their way through the minefield in order to reach the goal of an internationally binding climate Treaty.
A great deal of introspection based on experience of the past few months, and during the Copenhagen Conference itself, is called for. The failure of the Conference to extract deeper cuts from developed countries, and of negotiations leading up to it including the tactics adopted by large developing countries, must rank uppermost among the aspect s calling for analysis. A few other salient features are discussed below.
Towards a new Treaty? US President Barack Obama’s take-it-or-leave-it speech at the Conference shattered his carefully cultivated messianic image and the illusions of many. At Copenhagen, his smiling “Yes we Can” slogan changed to a grim “No we Won’t”. Obama told the Conference he had come “not to talk but to act”, but all he did was to say that the US had done whatever it had to and had nothing more to offer. He also pushed the US agenda of dismantling the Kyoto Protocol and called upon developing countries to forget the past (meaning historical responsibility of developed countries for high atmospheric GHG concentrations, 30 percent contributed by the US alone) and leave behind the “fault lines… we’ve been imprisoned by… and the same divisions that have stood in the way of action for years” (meaning differentiated responsibilities and equitable sharing of the global atmospheric commons) leading therefore to the conclusion that “all major economies… must reduce their emissions”, once again removing the crucial Kyoto distinction between industrialized and developing countries.
It was difficult to believe that two years had gone by since the Bali Action Plan was drawn up and two Ad-hoc Working Groups, one on the Kyoto Protocol (AWG-KP) for enhanced emission reduction commitments by developed countries and the other on Long-term Cooperative Action (AWG-LCA) towards achievement of broader and longer-term goals, were set up. These two Working Groups had held extensive consultations with national governments, experts and civil society organizations around the world in order to promote a convergence of views and prepare draft negotiating texts for Copenhagen. Yet all this work was rudely and arrogantly cast aside by the US and its allies, ably aided by the Danish Chair of the Conference who manipulated the proceedings in such a way that discussions on the KP track were completely sidelined while all discussions focused on the LCA track. The aim was clearly to by-pass the Kyoto Protocol with its differentiated targets for developed and developing countries, and to work on a single track that would later be converted into a new Treaty.
It took two walk-outs by African delegates, with India playing intermediary in the second instance (Indian negotiators were at pains to point out that they had not actually joined the boycott), for the Conference Chair to even nominally restore the twin-track discussions. It was only in the last couple of days, just prior to the arrival of the Heads of Government, that a virtual complete revolt on the Conference floor by all developing countries finally forced the issue but by that time the stalemate was set in concrete.
Poor Tactics It is a matter of some surprise why these moves by the US and its allies, actively aided by the Danish Chair, were not nipped in the bud at the very outset in the opening days of the Conference rather than being allowed to overwhelm the Conference to the point of completely undermining it. The official and often reiterated Indian position that it did not want to take issues with anybody but would adopt a constructive role offers some clue. In Copenhagen, cooperation was taken for, and to a great extent translated into, acquiescence.
In fact, if one looks back to developments over the past few years going back to even before Bali, it would seem that India and other large developing countries have paid a heavy price for going along with supposedly “consensus” formulations of the US and other G7 countries in earlier meetings of the G8 plus G5. This is not just hindsight. As regular readers of these columns would know, warning bells had been sounded even at those junctures in reviews of climate discussions at these Meetings. Joint statements of the G8 plus G5 on aspirational goals of limiting global warming to 2 degrees C and collaborative efforts to combat climate change were issued at the G8 Summits at Heiligendamm in Germany in mid 2007, at Toyako in Japan in 2008 and at the so-called “Major Economies Forum” in L’Aquila, Italy earlier this year. While India basked in the supposed glory of dining at the high table of global powers, and others thought these had brought about a gradual shift in the US position, these Statements implicitly put forward the idea that the US, other developed countries and India along with other large developing countries were all sailing in the same boat. All these came back to haunt the Copenhagen Conference. The dangers contained in the “Copenhagen Accord” should therefore be looked at in this light as well.
The mostly unilateral commitments by developing countries such as China, India, South Africa, Brazil, Mexico and Indonesia prior to Copenhagen, which they were not obliged to do under the Kyoto Protocol, also need to be re-examined. To some commentators these declarations appeared to have enabled these large developing countries to seize the moral high ground. However, as events unfolded it became clear that, again as forewarned in these columns, they were used by the developed nations to their advantage. The US and allies merely kept pushing the developing countries to cut more, or to concede more ground for instance as regards monitoring and verification, while themselves refusing to increase their emission reduction commitments. The leaked UN report revealed that the mitigation actions volunteered by developing countries amounting to 5.2 billion tonnes of GHGs was considerably more that the emissions cuts pledged by the developed countries amounting to reduction of just 2.1-3.4 billion tonnes! Since the commitments by developing countries were made unilaterally, not conditional upon reciprocal action and deep cuts by developed nations, there was no pressure on the latter. In fact, the US and others also took the opportunity to put a further spin on this saying developing countries had made no concessions at Copenhagen, conveniently glossing over the fact that all these major concessions had been made before!
Looking ahead The real task now lies ahead, hopefully with lessons learnt. First the minefield of the Copenhagen Accord. The mines are in plain sight but still need careful navigation to avoid tripping over them and setting them off.
At the very outset, there is no date set in the Accord itself for arriving at a global and legally binding Treaty. The earlier reference to the next Conference in Mexico City in December 2010 has been deleted in the final version. First priority should be to prioritize this goal which, though, is implied in references to the LCA Working Group Report which contains it. Failing this, this will be only an open-ended “national pledge-based” agreement as the US has been pushing for with a review only in 2015.
Targets for global emissions, or for a peaking year, have been left out, not just in the Accord but even during negotiations and especially by India which has pretended that that these are of no concern! There is perhaps a fear that, if global emission limits such as 50% of 1990 levels by 2050, or a peaking year of not later than 2015, are mentioned, this will be used by developed countries to adopt low targets for themselves and thrust the balance on to developing countries. But this is where linkages with developed country targets and reciprocal actions come in and should be insisted on. 2 degrees C is not an operational target but an outcome that depends on limiting the quantity of emissions and the time within which this is done, both of which can be achieved through targeted actions and monitoring of the same. Current formulations suffer from the same weaknesses as previous ones.
Doors have been opened in the Accord for the removal or at least blurring of distinctions between developed and developing countries. At US insistence, even voluntary mitigation actions by the latter will be subject to “international consultations and analysis”, a thinly veil over international monitoring and verification. The provision for funding is worded not as a binding commitment of developed countries but that they would seek to “mobilize” these amounts from various sources leaving open the possibility not only of uncertainty as to amounts but also of diversion of aid money, funding from World bank or IMF etc.
India also needs to think seriously about differences among G77 developing countries that came to the surface in Copenhagen. While India has rightly paid attention to cementing the BASIC alliance, and of course is falling over backwards to please the US in the interests of the “strategic alliance”, it needs to ensure that it cements its natural alliance with the Association of Small Island States (AOSIS), the African Union and the bloc of Least Developed Countries (LDCs) together accounting for over 85 nations. There is a deep sense of disquiet among these countries that the “big four” developing nations are making common cause with the developed countries while sacrificing the interests of the most vulnerable. This is one red line India would do well not to cross.