Copenhagen: A One-Act Farce

18 January 2010 (Last Updated January 18th, 2010 18:30)

A month since the UN's climate change conference and nations will soon reveal their voluntary emissions-cutting targets. Mitch Beedie reports on how it has been allowed to come to this.

Copenhagen: A One-Act Farce

Two years of preparations for Copenhagen 2009 were clearly not enough. The week-long summit was supposed to finally address climate change globally and was to produce three legally binding agreements.

The developed countries were to reduce their carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions, the developing countries were to limit theirs and a fund had to be set up to help the developing world cope with climate change.

There was certainly enough publicity to focus the politicians' minds. Instead of serious environmental discussions, though, we saw only political manoeuvring.

Early on, the new Danish Government showed itself to be an incompetent host. It quickly put forward a draft declaration to a few "important countries", which favoured the rich nations but bypassed and alienated the others.

That prompted developing countries to suspend co-operation in the summit. When US President Barack Obama arrived, he too negotiated with only a few countries and continued to ignore the views of the developing nations. The real discussions therefore sidelined the UN itself.

"President Obama negotiated with only a few countries and continued to ignore the views of the developing nations."

US: not the whole picture?

The US was in no position to be so high handed. It indeed came to the conference as world leader, but world leader in pollution, consuming 25% of world energy with only 5% of the world's population.

By refusing to accept the Kyoto Protocol, it had blocked any real global action on climate change.

It came to Copenhagen offering a 17% reduction from 2005 levels by 2020. That looks good, but is a figure decided by the public relations department. From 1990 levels, the usual measure, it is only 4% – compared to the 40% needed by developed countries to limit warming temperature rise to the crucial 2°C.

The US offered $100bn a year by 2020 on behalf of the developed nations but this was conditional on a formal accord being signed. It was not new money and may even have to come from the private sector, for example, from selling carbon credits.

The member nations were given no chance to agree the accord, which was discussed in the final – and closed – session by a handful of leaders including those of the BASIC countries (Brazil, South Africa, India and China).

China, however, had stated beforehand that it would accept no binding targets. It demanded removal of a commitment for global emissions to peak by 2020, and even of the industrialised countries' previously announced targets of an 80% cut by 2050. These are the figures needed in practice needed to keep global temperature rises to 2°C by the end of the century.

The resulting accord is weak and allows individual countries to set their own targets for 2020. They will do this by the end of January, with the final targets being settled at COP16 in Mexico in a year's time.

"It came to Copenhagen offering a 17% reduction from 2005 levels by 2020. From 1990 levels, the usual measure, it is only 4%."

After the closed session, Obama triumphantly announced to the TV cameras that the US-brokered deal had been a success. He did this for the US home audience, he now has to get even this emasculated agreement past the US Congress, and before most of the other governments even knew an agreement had been reached.

The accord has been described as a sham by developing countries and calls into question why a hundred or so world leaders turned up to Copenhagen in the first place.

It is tempting to see the US as resisting action when it was the largest polluter being replaced by China resisting action now it is the largest polluter.

That would be simplistic, however. China has over four times the population of the US and is at least making real progress on solar, wind, hydro and also reforestation.

The US and Europe have put nearly all the excess CO2 into the atmosphere and seem to be pulling up the drawbridge now that manufacturing has been sent abroad to China and other low-wage economies.

Copenhagen's agreements

The accord does at least agree that we must limit global warming to 2°C and there is mention of an emissions verification system. It agrees to stop deforestation, although the agreement itself is not clear.

There was, however, one item of good news from Copenhagen. The ineffective and largely fraudulent carbon market – which has been a huge pit into which participants have thrown money – now has an uncertain future.

"The accord does at least agree that we must limit global warming to 2°C and there is mention of an emissions verification system."

What will replace it is not yet clear. It has been suggested that emissions producers themselves may have to be targeted, forcing fossil fuel companies to "clean up after themselves" by capturing and storing CO2 emissions. That would place a huge burden on power companies and would likely mean large rises in consumer electricity bills.

It might at least mean some serious work on carbon capture, a much promoted but so far illusory solution to global climate change.

Much better would be for the US, Europe and China to fund major improvement programmes on energy efficiency, renewable energy and low-carbon transport to bring down prices for the rest of the world.

In the meantime, perhaps the main effect of Copenhagen will be to allow countries to continue burning huge quantities of coal. It has finally killed off Kyoto, and also driven a wedge between the G77 countries. That of course may have been the idea of the rich nations in the first place, who behind closed doors will be seeing the conference as a great success.