How Copenhagen changed the world

On paper, as an attempt to meet the climate change challenge Copenhagen was a failure. But in bringing into the spotlight the urgent need to address our carbon emissions, it was an outstanding success. [22 December 2009 | Peter Boyer]

Vernacular view from Tasmania: a reader's Copenhagen-inspired Christmas greetings

A view from Tasmania: art by John Evans

How are we to judge the 15th Conference of Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, the larger-than-life event that we now know simply as “Copenhagen”?

From almost every perspective, Copenhagen was a gigantic failure. It failed the politicians, who would have wanted to return home bathed in glory. It failed the bureaucrats and lawyers, who wanted a binding outcome. It failed business, hoping for a more settled, predictable investment environment.

Importantly, it failed the scientific tests. With the final accord lacking any concrete measures to keep warming below 2C, the scientific consensus is that it puts the world on track to warm by over 3C by 2100. By any measure, that would be a catastrophic outcome.

And yet for all its colossal failings, this unprecedented, unforgettable, impossibly ambitious extravaganza has changed our world forever.

The final official text emerging from Copenhagen was too loose, too hastily compiled and signed off on, to be called a treaty or a protocol. The formally-adopted term was “accord”,  implying a harmony and agreement that just wasn’t there.

Attracted by rising expectations after two years of promotional hyperbole, over 40,000 people turned up at a venue able to contain about half that number (organisers apparently thought that most people who registered wouldn’t actually turn up). The result gave all the appearances of utter chaos.

As the meeting that had begun with such fanfare slowly degenerated into warring camps, you had to feel a bit sorry for the Danish organisers, especially Climate Change Minister Connie Hedegaard, as she expressed her frustration with tardy national delegations in the lead-up to the meeting.

After the disappointment of having its emissions trading legislation dumped in the Senate, the Australian government stood up to be counted. Its delegation was a central player in negotiations leading up to the frantic final days and hours, led by Climate Change Minister Penny Wong and late in the piece by Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, and supported by scientist and author Tim Flannery.

The arrival of national leaders in the final few days gave hope that the need of these ego-driven people to appear successful would bring a last-gasp breakthrough. The biggest players — Europe and the United States, China and India — finally got it together enough to produce a final text.

Barak Obama’s late intervention at the apparently deadlocked summit secured the final, reluctant agreement of China to a set of words, but with poorer countries excluded from these discussions, controversy erupted immediately both at the words themselves and the way they were framed.

Obama spent less than 24 hours in Copenhagen, hurrying to reach Washington ahead of a forecast snowstorm that might have prevented his aircraft from landing.

“As the deal got cooked up, fairness was taken off the table and ambition watered down” was how an Oxfam spokesman described the accord. Lumumba Di-Aping, the Sudanese chair of the G77 group, representing 130 poor countries, bluntly described it as a “suicide pact, an incineration pact”, and likened it to the killing of Jews in the Nazi Holocaust.

Yet Di-Aping, along with most other national delegates, had no choice but to sign off on the accord, because the one thing worse than acceding to an inferior outcome would have been to return home with nothing achieved.

The legal status of this document is ultimately a matter for the United Nations. Yvo de Boer, chair of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, called it a “letter of intent”. That’s probably as precise a definition as we’ll get.

The Copenhagen Accord was a broad-brush commitment by the world’s assembled nations to keep a lid on global warming, to register emissions targets by early next year, and to begin to gather public and private financial support to help poorer countries deal with emissions and impacts.

Its big breakthrough was an international commitment to keeping the global temperature rise below 2C. But given the high pre-meeting expectations, the accord is most notable for what it does not do:

• It fails to commit to the recommended 1.5C warming limit, or a 350 parts per million greenhouse gas level, above which scientists now say we will face dangerous changes.

• It fails to identify when global carbon emissions should peak before starting to fall, and does not endorse any 2050 target.

• It does not address rising emissions from ships and aircraft, nor does it address other Kyoto loopholes that allow countries to continue increasing emissions for another decade.

• It sets no deadline for transforming its broad objectives into a legally-binding treaty.

• It specifies no penalties for countries that fail to meet their promised 2020 target.

Worryingly, targets now on the table are clearly inadequate. Scientific advice to the UN said that current national targets will yield greenhouse concentrations of between 550 and 700 parts per million and temperature increases of at least 3C and closing fast on 4C.

Such an outcome would bring catastrophic climate change to many parts of the world, including Australia, with rising sea levels, storms, floods, droughts and food and water shortages sparking potentially massive population shifts and greatly increasing the likelihood of runaway positive feedbacks such as large-scale release of methane from thawing soils and warming seas.

For a while it seemed the conference would have one bright spot, tackling a major emission problem of deforestation by paying countries to protect remaining forests, but measures failed to provide adequate international oversight of what will essentially be transactions between corporations, not governments, making accountability next to impossible.

What is there left to say about the great show that was Copenhagen?

There’s good reason to see it as an unmitigated failure, a futile procession of vainglorious politicians and their faceless bureaucratic minders, with no result to speak of and at considerable cost in greenhouse emissions.

But I’m led to conclude otherwise, partly by a 15-minute Copenhagen plenary speech earlier last week by the irrepressible Arnold Schwarzenegger, former movie muscleman and now governor of California, a state that’s come to see itself as a leader in sub-national climate action.

“History tells us that movements begin with people, not with government. And then, when they become powerful enough, government responds,” Schwarzenegger told his mainly-government audience.

“I believe in the power of the iconoclast and the entrepreneur and the individualist, of the scientist and the capitalist and the activist, of the cities and the states and the provinces to be the laboratories for new ideas. Too often, by putting all our eggs in one [government] basket, we fail to see the other eggs in the other baskets.”

Far from a failure, said Schwarzenegger, Copenhagen successfully changed the way we think about the world. He is seeking UN endorsement for a follow-up sub-national meeting on climate change action by communities around the world, and offering to host it in California.

Britain’s most eloquent commentator on climate and humanity, George Monbiot, wrote in The Guardian of the Copenhagen meeting as “the moment at which we turn and face ourselves”.

“Here, in the plastic corridors and crowded stalls, among impenetrable texts and withering procedures, humankind decides what it is and what it will become. It chooses whether to continue living as it has done, until it must make a wasteland of its home, or to stop and redefine itself. This is about much more than climate change. This is about us.”

Indeed it is. In terms of the written outcomes, apart from the commitment to limit the temperature rise to 2C Copenhagen was a failure, but when viewed as a meeting of minds and hearts and souls, separately and collectively clamouring to be heard on the great questions of our age, it becomes an entirely different beast.

Before Copenhagen it was still possible, if remotely, to think that climate change was a peripheral, ephemeral issue that eventually would fade into obscurity. No longer. Standing here at the Copenhagen crossroads, we are forced to acknowledge the need to act.

Copenhagen opened our eyes to the enormity of the task ahead and the frailty of our leaders and political instruments in facing this challenge. They cannot succeed without the active engagement of the mass of their people. That’s where the rest of us come in.

What the Accord says

The Copenhagen Accord runs for a mere 12 clauses and 1364 words. You can read the full text here, but following is a summary:

Clause 1: Stresses strong political will to urgently combat climate change, “one of the greatest challenges of our time”, and recognises that global temperature rise should be less than 2C.

Clause 2:  Deep emission cuts needed, with cooperation to achieve peaking of emissions as soon as possible, recognising developing countries’ need for a longer time frame for peaking.

Clause 3: Dealing with climate change requires urgent international cooperation, with developed countries providing developing countries with adequate and sustainable resources.

Clauses 4, 5: Developed countries to submit 2020 emissions targets by January 31; rigorous, robust and transparent accounting to be put in place. Developing countries to submit plans to act on emissions by January 31 (voluntary for poorest countries and small island states).

Clause 6: Need for incentives and “immediate” mobilisation of financial resources to enhance forests’ removal of greenhouse gases and to reduce deforestation and forest degradation.

Clause 7: Markets and other approaches needed to make mitigation more cost-effective, with low-emitting developing countries given incentives to continue on low emission pathway.

Clause 8: Extra funding from public and private sources to help developing countries deal with climate change, with priority for most vulnerable states, to approach US$30 billion a year in 2010 – 2012 and to reach US$100 billion a year by 2020.

Clauses 9–11: Tools to help developing countries deal with climate change: “High Level Panel” to uncover potential finance sources, “Copenhagen Green Climate Fund” to support implementation of projects, and “Technology Mechanism” to accelerate technology transfer.

Clause 12: Assessment of the Accord’s implementation by 2012 to consider a stronger long-term goal including limiting the temperature rise to 1.5C.

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