Features | Environment | East Asia

Taking the Hope out of ‘Hopenhagen’

Stephen Midas reports from the Copenhagen Climate Conference where delegates around the world are working to thrash out an agreement aimed at tackling global warming.

By Stephen Minas for

Bolivia, Cuba, Nicaragua, Sudan, Tuvalu and Venezuela: Six nations with little in common except that they united to prevent the adoption of a face-saving political deal on the final day of the Copenhagen summit. Such a deal had long looked the likeliest outcome from the summit, with expectations already having been dramatically lowered with the realization that a comprehensive, legally binding agreement had been all but ruled out weeks, if not months, ago. In the end, though, even a non-binding, aspirational statement proved beyond the conference, which has also raised serious questions about the UN climate change process.

After a series of deadlocks squandered days of negotiations, US President Barack Obama extended his stay in Copenhagen to hammer out a deal with key European delegations and representatives from China, India, Brazil and South Africa–the emerging economies on track to produce most of the growth in greenhouse gas emissions in coming decades.

The resulting Copenhagen Accord recognises ‘the scientific view that the increase in global temperature should be below 2 degrees Celsius.’ However, no deadline is set for either global or national emissions to peak, with the Accord simply stating that this should happen ‘as soon as possible.’ It includes a commitment that climate aid for ‘particularly vulnerable’ states will be prioritized, with developed countries committing to climate aid ‘approaching’ $30 billion by 2012, and $100 billion annually by 2020. Developing country mitigation action, meanwhile, will be subject to verification through ‘international consultations and analysis under clearly defined guidelines that will ensure that national sovereignty is respected.’

The Accord adds that there is a need for the immediate establishment of a mechanism including REDD-plus, to lower deforestation emissions, but convention head Yvo de Boer was forced to admit that the Accord is more a letter of intent, including only the ‘ingredients’ of a structure for responding to climate change.

The text that went before the final plenary was weaker than earlier drafts Friday, which had included an agreement to reduce overall emissions by 50 percent and developed world emissions by 80 percent by 2050. These goals vanished from the final text, as did the call for a legally binding agreement as soon as possible–and no later than the 2010 meeting in Mexico. The final text called only for ‘an assessment of the implementation of this Accord to be completed by 2015,’ including consideration of whether to move to the much touted 1.5 degrees Celsius global warming cap.

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Obama declared the deal unprecedented and left for the airport, with no reason to believe that the deal would fail. But at the end of a conference in which smaller players had repeatedly asserted prescribed procedure over big power backroom dealing, there was a final twist. The delegations of Bolivia, Cuba, Nicaragua, Sudan, Tuvalu and Venezuela objected to the text in the strongest terms, blocking the unanimous adoption required under the Framework Convention. Instead, the chair of the session declared that the nations assembled would ‘take note’ of the text and brought the conference to a close.

The six nations’ intervention earned the obstructionist delegates an 8am meeting with UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, who emerged to state that ‘the UN system will work to immediately start to deliver meaningful results to people in need and jump-start clean energy growth in developing countries.’ While work will continue on turning REDD plus and the other Accord measures into concrete programmes, the work of achieving a comprehensive, legally binding agreement using the Accord as a starting point will be difficult, if not impossible.

But ultimately, the failings of this conference run far deeper than the decision of six states to block even a face-saving accord, which many had acknowledged would anyway have been totally inadequate to deal with climate change. The UN process itself is now in the crosshairs. The tireless Yvo de Boer acknowledged the argument that it would be far more effective to address climate change in the G20, but rejected doing so on equity grounds. Regardless, two difficult weeks have exhausted optimism and goodwill. Talk like that of ‘Hopenhagen’ won’t be repeated any time soon.