The Politics of Climate Change
Why the Copenhagen Summit Ended in Failure
In a direct act of defiance, climate change activists from Oxfam rallied outside the Copenhagen Summit last December, disguised as caricatures of the world’s most powerful leaders: “The main obstacle to a climate deal” they said, “is state sovereignty”.
Two weeks later, following the presentation of the Copenhagen ‘Accord’ – a statement of political (rather than legally binding) intent drafted by a small select group of powerful states – the UK Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, echoed the same sentiment: “Never again should we let a global deal to move towards a greener future be held to ransom by only a handful of countries”.
The Oxfam protestors and Gordon Brown illustrate a broader belief amongst those following the climate change negotiations: stubborn assertion of state sovereignty and ‘political hijacking’ caused the meltdown of what was one of the most complex negotiations that the United Nations has ever attempted to co-ordinate.
Over 190 countries, each with a legitimate stake in the climate negotiations, brought vastly different concerns and priorities to the negotiating table. Issues ranged as far and wide as trade, human rights, biological diversity, multilateral institutional reform, global finance, intellectual property and the rights of marginalized, young and indigenous people.
Stubborn assertion of
state sovereignty and
‘political hijacking’ caused
the meltdown of what was
one of the most complex
negotiations that the United
Nations has ever attempted
Given the complexity of the debates on climate change, as well as the range of stakeholders and sovereign interests involved, many question whether the United Nations approach to world-wide diplomacy – one nation, one vote – is suitable for handling truly global and urgent concerns such as climate change.
Is a global agreement on a cohesive strategy for tackling climate change and associated problems really possible via alternative forum or a sub-group of ‘representative’ nations, such as was seen in Copenhagen? Or is the United Nations system, where rules and principles are respected and negotiators arrive at the table willing to discuss an ecologically interdependent global community rather than with a preconditioned mandate to serve only their sovereign interests, needed to address this unprecedented challenge?
2009: The Year of the Climate Change Deal?
2009 was a year filled with preparatory meetings and negotiations on the substantive elements of a climate change deal, set to be signed in December at the 15th annual Conference Of the Parties (the COP-15) in Copenhagen. Towards the end of 2009, however, it became clear that negotiators were unlikely to be able to agree on the collaborative and ambitious deal that the world was waiting for. Discussions at the start of the COP-15 indicated a huge split not only between developed and developing countries, but also within the group of developing countries.
“We are moving further apart instead of closer together ... It feels as if two worlds are colliding”
Nepalese delegate, Barcelona 2009
In essence, developed and developing countries were divided primarily due to the charge that developed countries are responsible for current and short-term future climate change. These countries faced demands from the rest of the world to dramatically mitigate future carbon emissions and pay for the damages caused by past emissions. Mitigation in any country will have huge economic repercussions as it demands, amongst other things, transforming the energy sector, rethinking subsidies for high-carbon activities, altering our dependency on air and sea transport, investing in renewable energy, increasing the cost of fossil fuels and reducing our dependency on high carbon goods from abroad. Furthermore, developing countries demanded that money to fund adaptation activities, such as building defences against climate change impacts such as sea level rise, drought, disease of migration, should be made through compensation payments. Importantly, these payments should be in addition to, rather form a part of, existing pledges of aid. Technology and financial support should also be provided to enable developing countries to emerge along ‘low-carbon’ trajectories.
On the other hand, diverse developing economies cannot be considered equal in terms of how far they should have to develop along low-carbon paths, or how much adaptation and technology support they should be compensated or provided with. Developing countries have a range of vulnerabilities to, and concerns about, climate change. Some countries are submerging while others are drying out; some very poor countries will be made richer because of foreign investment in Clean Development Mechanisms that allow rich countries to offset their own emissions, whereas others will be made poorer due to a loss in oil export revenue.
Developing countries argue
that they should have the
‘carbon space’ to develop
and move out of poverty
Whilst developing countries argue that they should have the ‘carbon space’ to develop and move out of poverty, many developed countries see low carbon development as the only viable means of meeting a global carbon emissions cap. The latter may restrict growth and development thus hindering advances in both economic and political spheres. Furthermore, there is a vast difference between the short and longer-term emissions arising out of a developing country such as China, and one such as Tuvalu. It is hence very difficult to treat all developing countries the same. Should an island such as Tuvalu be as heavily penalised for low carbon development as China? Should Saudi Arabia be eligible for adaptation finance that is arguably more urgent in regions of sub-Saharan Africa? A paradox arises in that the voice of the smallest developing country can often only be heard if it is projected from within a coalition of developing countries that include the largest developing nations. Thus it is the case that coalitions of countries form in the hope that as a collective, their voices will be heard when faced with economic heavyweights such as the United States or China.
Movers and Shakers
The political dynamic that emerged in 2009 cannot be characterized only as a standoff between developed and developing countries, as is often the case in multilateral negotiations involving trade and finance. In addition to the major developed/developing economic split, there were significant fractions within coalitions of countries: the US and EU didn’t always stand on common ground, and increasingly the major emerging economies – China, India, South Africa and Brazil known as the BASIC group – stood apart from other developing nations. There were marked differences between the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) and other coalitions such as the Small Island Developing States (SIDS) due to conflicting interests in protection of oil trade. A new coalition emerged between Latin American countries and the African group; the African group showed unprecedented political strength within the negotiations leading up to Copenhagen. Finally, bilateral pacts such as suspected trading agreements between certain African and Asian countries only served to complicate alliances, and split coalitions further.
“Convergence would mean a meeting of minds: meeting of minds would mean a common understanding. We don’t have a common understanding on any issue. Therefore, Mr Chairman, we have no convergence”
Philippine delegate, Copenhagen 2009
A Backroom Deal
Given the array of elements to be negotiated, national priorities and interests, and the range of alliances and fractions within and between groups, negotiations proceeded at a predictably slow pace. By the second week of negotiations in Copenhagen, there was a distinct possibility of not being ready to present a draft deal to the arriving heads of government. The COP President, the Danish Prime Minister Lars Lokke Rasmussen, at the last minute, convened a high-level ‘Friends of the Chair’ – a sub-group of nation states, with the authority under the UNFCCC to draft a decision on behalf of the whole. Although this group made some progress towards drafting a text, it is widely believed that the real dealmaker occurred during a meeting between US President Obama and the BASIC group of powerful emerging economies. It is thought to be their interests that drove the drafting of the Accord, and which are primarily served by it.
A Disappointing Outcome
The Copenhagen Accord does not meet most expectations. It does not include any overall targets for the emissions reductions of developed and developing country. Its governance structure is ‘bottom-up’ – it is up to individual countries to volunteer targets and ensure that they meet them without obligation under the UNFCCC. It does contain promises of funding in the short and long term, but without any guarantee that such funding will in reality materialise outside previously promised development aid. Finally, the Accord does not fit clearly into international law and says nothing about the future of existing legal instruments such as the Kyoto Protocol.
In an emotionally charged,
all-night negotiating session,
the Parties to the UNFCCC
battled to agree on whether
to adopt the Accord
In order for the Accord text to be officially recognized under UN negotiations on climate change, unanimous support amongst 190 nations to ‘adopt’ it, had to be achieved. In the final meeting of Copenhagen, the Accord was to be presented to all the nations in attendance in anticipation of them agreeing to adopt it as the official outcome of the COP-15. Yet before the plenary had actually opened, US President Obama held a press conference at the COP venue, shortly before departing for Washington, in which he announced that there had been a “meaningful and unprecedented breakthrough here in Copenhagen. For the first time in history, all major economies have come together to accept their responsibility to take action to confront the threat of climate change”. At the time, however, the vast majority of countries that were not ‘Friends of the Chair’ had not actually received the text of the Accord – they would only receive it four long hours later. In an emotionally charged, all-night negotiating session, the Parties to the UNFCCC battled to agree on whether to adopt the Accord. By the end of the meeting, carrying on the trend from the past year of negotiations, political consensus was not achieved.
“We are surprised and offended by the methodology used ... We do not believe this is respectful of a democratic mechanisms. Which part of the world was consulted? Which interests of the world have agreed this document that we have not had access to? Why have we not discussed this amongst all of us? ... We are seeing actions in a dictatorial way and this is not the way the world should discuss the future of humanity ... It does not reflect nearly two years of work. The rights of our people are not being respected ... Our position is absolutely clear. It is a document of a small group of countries who feel they have the political authority to impose this document on us.”
Evo Morales, President of Bolivia
“We all work under the umbrella of the UN ... we demand that all nations are given respect, and use processes to consider matters collectively. This is called the Conference of the Parties. Earlier tonight a prominent member was announcing to the press that he had a ‘deal’. This is disrespectful to the UN process. Negotiation via the media may be the norm in some countries. But other countries have greater respect for these processes ... Can I suggest that in biblical terms we are being offered 30 pieces of silver to betray our peoples’ future. Mr President our future is not for sale. Mr President I regret to inform you that Tuvalu cannot accept this document.”
Ian Fry, International Environmental Officer for Tuvalu
“[you are asking] Africa to sign a suicide pact, an incineration pact, in order to maintain the economic dominance of a few countries ... I want to put on record that in conducting your duties as President of COP 15, you have been biased, violated all rules of procedure of transparency.”
Lumumba DiAping, Sudanese Diplomat
“There is nothing to apologise for in terms of participating in the process convened by the President of this body. This was a transparent group ... with representatives from each of the major regional groupings ... This was an appropriate role for the Chair and we applaud it.”
Jonathan Pershing, US Lead Negotiator
“... We have one choice: to accept this document and get it going to start money flowing.”
Ed Miliband, UK Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change
Consensus was not reached amongst the parties, and there was no decision to formally adopt the Accord under the UNFCCC. As such the Accord remains little more than a political declaration, with no legal authority or principles to guide its interpretation. Because it does not sit under the UNFCCC, it provides a legitimate opportunity to take action on climate change to alternative fora. These might include political fora where the major economies are already well represented and not everyone’s voice can be heard. Examples include the Major Economies Forum (MEF) or the G20.
The Blame Game
Who or what was the cause of the failure of Copenhagen? The blame game that has ensued since the close of the final plenary has seen fingers pointed at individual Parties as well as the UN system as a whole.
“The immediate reason for the failure of the talks can be summarised in two words: Barrack Obama.”
George Monbiot, The Guardian, 21 Dec. 2009
“How do I know China wrecked the Copenhagen deal? I was in the room.”
Mark Lynas, The Guardian, 22 Dec. 2009
According to John Vidal of the Guardian (20 Dec.), Ed Miliband “accuses China, Sudan, Bolivia and other left-wing Latin American countries of trying to hijack the UN climate summit and ‘hold the world to ransom’ to prevent a deal being reached.”
A senior Chinese official, however, published an opinion piece in China Daily entitled ‘Obstruction of developed nations’ in which he points out the “developed countries, especially the EU, have not reflected on their activities that delayed and hampered progress at the global climate talks”.
Some commentators and delegates, clearly disappointed and disturbed by the events of the final plenary, referred to the process that gave rise to the Accord as the primary problem in the climate negotiations. As reported by the Financial Times: “One immediate target of criticism was the unwieldy United Nations negotiating process, which several nations blamed for Copenhagen’s failure”. In his Guardian opinion piece the day after the final Copenhagen plenary, Ed Milliband emphasised the “need to have major reform of the UN body overseeing the negotiations and the way the negotiations are conducted”.
About a month after the summit, it was reported in the US press that “America sees a diminished role for the United Nations in trying to stop global warming after the ‘chaotic’ Copenhagen climate change summit.” The role of the UN would be as a forum “for countries such as Cuba or the small islands ... to air their grievances”
It is difficult to establish a single country or group of countries as the cause of the Copenhagen stalemate. Yet similarly, it is difficult to attribute primary blame to the UN. As a climate-negotiating forum, the United Nations is highly imperfect. Professional negotiators who consider defending historical national
positions more important than progress dominate climate talks. The rules of procedure invite delay and obstruction. Progress is very slow and often absent. But the United Nations is not the main impediment to progress on climate change.
So long as the assertion of individual national interests remains a major influence, political consensus will be an insurmountable hurdle in the pursuit of a Climate Deal. It is state politics, together with blatant disregard and disrespect for UN procedure, that remains the fundamental cause for the Copenhagen failure – not the United Nations itself. In fact the UN process, if properly used and rules abided by, actually provides a mechanism to deal with the problem of political bargaining in multilateral negotiations.
As a lead US negotiator, Jonathan Pershing, pointed out, the UN procedures are there to ensure “a global buy-in”... and “there is no other institution other than the UN that can provide that.”
“... The responsibility ultimately was not with the UN, but with the Parties and, as such, with their leadership collectively.”
Benito Mueller, Director of Energy and Environment with the Oxford Institute of Energy Studies
Looking forward to Mexico – the next Conference of the Parties under the UNFCCC – the responsibility for a successful outcome lies with the Parties and their willingness to abide by the principles and rules of procedure of the United Nations. In particular, all rules on voting must be decided upon prior to the start of the next round of negotiations. States must sideline national interest, bilateral alliances, and the temptation to create subgroups of the most powerful regional and national interests. Instead they must use the framework of the UNFCCC and the forum of the United Nations to focus on what needs to be a truly shared vision.
Nicola Peart was an MSc student at the Centre for Environmental Policy at Imperial College. She wrote her thesis on climate change adaptation, and the UNFCCC process. She has attended the negotiations since early 2009 working for the World Wildlife Fund. She is now studying law at the College of Law, Bloomsbury.