Published in ENDS Report (Issue 420, p49), in January 2010.

So what really happened in Copenhagen? And even more importantly, what happens now? Forgive me for troubling you with this topic again, but this was no ordinary meeting.

Konrad von Moltke, the founder of the Institute for European Environment Policy, remarked more than 20 years ago that climate change might be an issue too difficult for politics to solve. He was a distinguished historian as well as a descendant of the famous military strategist, and his remark stuck in my memory.

Since the shock wore off and the pain set in, a great deal of finger pointing has taken place. This is misplaced. What happened in Copenhagen was a tragedy, not a crime. Almost everyone got it wrong as the political tides swirling around climate change proved too strong for anyone to control.

If there is to be any prospect of reinstating a global regime capable of containing climate change within the bounds of the manageable, we need a much better understanding than we have now of the nature and strength of those tides.

It quickly became clear in Copenhagen that China wanted to avoid a legally binding agreement without being blamed for preventing one. It had calculated that an agreement to depart verifiably from business as usual in this round of negotiations would lead to intense pressure to accept emissions limits in the next round.

To avoid this, it skilfully used its role in the G77 to throw so many procedural obstacles, largely through surrogates, into the path of the negotiations so that no real progress could be made. Without Chinese agreement there was no bargain acceptable to the US.

This gave China a very strong hand, which it played reasonably well. It left Copenhagen satisfied with the outcome though it did put its leadership of the G77 under much more strain than anticipated. Hence the sudden visit of the Chinese foreign minister to the Maldives in early January.

The US wanted to re-enter the global response to climate change. This is important personally to President Barack Obama but also to his increasingly uneasy base. However, it needed to do so in a way that did not so upset the Senate as to prejudice the passage of its domestic climate legislation without which it could not, in any case, achieve that re-entry.

The US came to Copenhagen with one hand tied behind its back, determined at all costs not to be seen domestically to be giving China a free ride. But it also had a deeper and darker concern. If there were doubt about the administration’s ability to get the 60 votes necessary for its own climate legislation in the Senate, there was a growing belief it would never be possible to get the 67 votes to ratify an international climate treaty of any kind.

This made it easier for Mr Obama to accede to Indian pressure to remove any reference to a legally binding treaty from the accord. Ironically, the failure in Copenhagen has encouraged those in the Senate seeking to delay action on a Climate Bill this year, which looks a lot less likely now than it did before Copenhagen.

The EU wanted an ambitious deal that would further develop the global regime on climate change and set the world on a trajectory to keep the eventual rise in global temperature below 2ºC. It had done more to reduce its carbon emissions than anyone else and was prepared to do even more.

It played a very strong hand ineptly, mainly for the familiar reason of lacking a single voice. It was thus unable to use its leverage to broker a compromise between the US and China. It now faces a difficult strategic choice about whether to continue its effort to build a comprehensive global regime founded on an international treaty, or to accept the looser and far less ambitious regime that is now emerging.

This marginalisation of the EU was a particularly cruel blow for Britain. In an unusually understated way, Britain has shaped the global debate on climate change for half a decade.

The Exeter Conference in 2005 took the science from the inside to the front pages of the newspapers. The Stern Review in 2006 brought the issue into the public policy mainstream. In 2007, the UK-sponsored Security Council debate shifted the issue decisively out of the environmental box.

Last year, the prime minister set the terms of the financial bargain between developed and developing worlds with his initiatives at the G20 and with the Commonwealth. The UK’s domestic legislation is the most far-reaching anywhere and it deployed more diplomatic assets on climate change, to greater effect, than any other nation.

What next? There is no answer yet. There is a froth of activity but only questions are emerging from it. Did the Copenhagen Accord avoid an imminent collapse only to offer a slow-motion collapse instead? Is the United Nations Framework on Climate Change broken beyond repair? If not, how could it be fixed? If so, what could replace it? What will happen to the carbon price? How will the private capital making up the larger part of the proposed $100bn a year touted in the accord now be made to flow?

In politics, tempo is everything. This is especially true when the politics are difficult. Procrastination is written into the DNA of political leaders. Often, this is helpful. The Tao Te Ching, an ancient Chinese book of advice to rulers advocates it: ‘If nothing is done, then all will be well’.

But the ancient Chinese did not have to reckon with climate change. We can be certain that if nothing is done all will most definitely not be well. What matters most now is restoring momentum to the effort to build a global regime to tackle climate change. In that respect the messages that emerge from business leaders at the next World Economic Forum meeting in Davos at the end of January will be particularly important.