Lessons from the Copenhagen Chaos
Source:Chief Editor, CCEN   Date:2009-12-22   Author:Tom Pellman

It’s hard to write about the Copenhagen climate change conference and resist the temptation to recap the sheer drama of the two weeks. Every negotiator must have expected major struggles going in, given the wildly different priorities and conditions of the participants. But did we expect the walkouts? Secret “Danish proposals”? Obama “crashing” clandestine negotiations? Eleventh-hour calls to the Copenhagen airport urging delegates back to the negotiating table one last time?


Copenhagen was chaotic – much more than most anticipated. The eventual agreement that emerged, the so-called Copenhagen Accord, captures a bit of this chaos. The agreement is a voluntary and largely figure-less emissions reduction pledge hammered out by the US, China, Brazil, India and South Africa in, literally, the meeting’s final moments. The Korea Times called it a “face-saver.”


More tellingly though, the Copenhagen Accord was brokered by world leaders themselves, not their negotiators. When US President Obama two weeks ago said he would come to Copenhagen at the all-important conclusion of the summit rather than the start, it was in faith that his team of experts would have a deal ready and waiting. Instead it was Obama himself and his counterparts like China’s Premier Wen Jiabao that sweated out those agonizing final details.


In that vein, the accord is notable in that it was birthed outside of the UN’s normal operating procedures. While the UN’s other 188 member countries are welcome to sign and implement the accord, they were not directly involved in its creation. Not all member countries are pleased with the terms.


The document is far from ideal, but it is tangible. Copenhagen’s chaos may have taught us (reminded us?) that a hundred-plus proposals and subsequent debate, however well-intentioned, may drown us before the melting glaciers do.


“We need to start investigating other options, or at a minimum start using some alternative forums,” Andrew Light, Coordinator of International Climate Policy at the Center for American Progress, told Reuters, suggesting the Group of 20 (G-20) and the Major Economies Forum instead.


But what of the accord itself?


As expected, it depends on your spin. Most NGOs and academics panned it as an obvious failure, “a half-baked text of unclear substance.” China’s media was a bit more charitable, calling the accord “positive” and “a new beginning.”


I’m feeling cautiously optimistic about the Copenhagen Accord, if only because it forced both the US and China, the world’s two biggest GHG emitters, to show their cards a bit. How aware were US negotiators of China’s strong resistance to international influence in how it tracks and measures its emissions, I wonder? Did China know how readily the US would cough up US$100 billion a year to a fund to aid developing countries?


Realists knew well in advance there was no chance the countries would “save the world” at Copenhagen with a one-off reduction pledge. I’m convinced that countries, especially China, will almost never make meaningful policy changes at public events, under the sharp glare of the spotlight.


It’s worth repeating that China and the US are essentially at the start of a long, long dialogue of give and take on this issue. This accord, however vague, gives both sides a point of reference – both in what’s on the page and how the other side has approached negotiations in the past.


It’s good that Obama, Wen and the others now have this knowledge, but it’s better for those faceless bureaucrats from government departments we’ve never heard of. The people who will meet regularly, far from the media circus and political soap operas, to figure out a way to stem global warming without giving too much away.

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