Tom Burke’s Political Commentary: Slouching away from Copenhagen: a terrible beauty was stillborn

Published in ENDS Report (Issue 419, p55), in December 2009.

They came. They tried. They failed. Not one of the 119 world leaders who attended the Copenhagen summit came intending to shatter a global climate regime so painfully built over 20 years. But that is what they accomplished. Do not be mistaken. When the fog of war and spin clears, we will find that all has changed utterly. But no terrible beauty has been born.

It will take a while for the full magnitude of the calamity that has befallen the world to become clear. But calamity it is. Some are already looking to see how to make the best of the Copenhagen outcome. This is a natural and creditable reflex for those who have devoted their lives to solving the most difficult and urgent problem facing humanity.

But they are the shell-shocked survivors of a political hurricane, picking over the disaster site for any useful fragments of their past existence. By its final days, Denmark and the convention secretariat had totally lost control of the process. Everything from entrance to the conference venue to the drafting of text was in chaos.

The sight of the world’s most powerful leaders huddling in little groups, negotiating text line by line for all the world like a group of NGOs, may appeal to some as showing how important climate change has become. Wiser heads know this is a recipe for disaster as getting out of town with the right headline becomes the most urgent priority for many of those doing the drafting.

The point of the whole Copenhagen exercise was to set the world on a course to keeping the eventual global temperature rise below 2°C. The core elements of a deal that could have accomplished this goal were in view, if not within grasp, before the meeting began.

A little more movement on emissions reductions, a bit more money on the table and a real foundation to build on could have been laid. By the end, enough had moved on both these central issues for a deal to have been grasped. But so sour had the mood become, and so chaotic the process, that it slipped from the hand.

Political bargains at this level work on the basis that nothing is agreed until everything is agreed. The meeting eventually “took note” of the so-called Copenhagen Accord – in other words it neither agreed nor disagreed with it.

The accord itself will do as much to prevent climate change as the infamous piece of paper Chamberlain thought would stop Hitler. What was not in the document is rather more significant than what was in it. For example:

• No commitment to medium-term emission goals.

• No commitment to halving global emissions by 2050. Without this the 2°C target becomes impossible.

• No agreement on specific emission reduction commitments – these are delayed until February 2010 and then could be far away from a 2°C trajectory. The EU has announced it will not move to 30% based on this deal, implying that global emissions will be far from a 2°C-compatible pathway in 2020.

• No deadline to complete a legally binding instrument to lock in progress made during two years of negotiations on issues such as technology and forestry.

• No requirement to review whether the agreement is consistent with the latest science.

• No commitment to a compliance mechanism on US targets that would ensure comparability with other developed countries under the Kyoto Protocol.

• No reliable public finance commitment for 2015 and weak ambition for 2020.

• No commitment that long-term public finance for developing countries will be additional to aid for poverty reduction, leaving the door open for diversion of funds from other development objectives.

• No clarity on closing loopholes for surplus ‘hot air’ credits or for emissions from land use change and international shipping and aviation.

But it is what this means for the future development of the global climate regime that matters. Three things are already apparent.

The first is that Europe, which has led the drive for an ambitious global climate regime, allowed itself to be marginalised by the US and China by failing to develop or deploy a coherent political strategy. It now faces a difficult choice about whether or not to stick to its current approach as the US starts to lead the world into a very different policy regime.

Second, the whole approach based on economy-wide emissions caps and with it the future of a global carbon price, is now in doubt as the loss of confidence in the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change/Kyoto Protocol policy model leads to calls for a bottom-up, fragmented pledge-and-review approach.

Third, there is no immediate prospect that the business sector will get the policy certainty needed to generate the high- capital long-life investments required for the technology transition to get to 2°C. Nor will there be much of the projected private capital flows needed to promote mitigation actions in the developing countries.

A nowadays politically incorrect saying reminds us that nothing is over until the fat lady sings. I have learned the hard way that there are no fat ladies in politics.

The struggle to keep climate change within manageable bounds is not over, but we would be deluding ourselves if we didn’t recognise that it has suffered a strategic setback.