Global Trends by Martin Khor

Monday 30 Nov 2009

World leaders race to save Copenhagen

The announcements on climate targets by the US and Chinese Presidents last week are part of the moves by world leaders to save the Copenhagen conference on climate change from failure.  Developing countries are angry with the downgrading of expectations.


Last week saw a flurry of activities by some world leaders to give impetus to the Copenhagen conference on climate change, after gloom cast on it when it was made known that there would be no legally binding agreement to be expected from it.

President Barrack Obama of the United States and President Hu Jintao of China on Thursday announced 2020 targets for their countries.  For the US this would be cuts to Greenhouse Gas emissions.  For China, it would be reducing the emission intensity of GNP.

These announcements by the two most important countries in terms of total emissions gave a boost to the mood in climate politics just a week before delegates arrive for the Copenhagen meeting.

In reality, the chances of success of Copenhagen is in the balance.  The definition of what would constitute success has changed, in fact downgraded. No longer is there any possibility of a final set of agreements. There are deep divisions on key issues that cannot be resolved in time.

At best, Copenhagen will come up with a framework intended to lead to a final deal.  But many leaders hope that this framework can at least have some key details. For example, the United Kingdom's climate minister Ed Miliband says that there have to be figures on the emission reduction targets of developed countries, and on adequate finances for developing countries, otherwise Copenhagen will be a failure.

At the APEC Summit in Singapore, a breakfast meeting of leaders that included US President Barrack Obama concluded that there would not be a legally-binding agreement, but some kind of “political declaration” that would somehow be “binding.”

To many analysts, this constitutes a climb-down from the “seal the deal” goal that the UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon has campaigned for.  No one is sure what a “political declaration” would look like and how this can be “binding” or have legal effect.

The UN General Assembly convened a meeting on 19 November to discuss the status of the climate talks.  At that meeting, the developing countries strongly attacked the lack of commitment by the developed countries either to cut their emissions or to provide financing to developing countries, or even to retain the legally-binding Kyoto Protocol.  This, they said, is what has caused the downgrading of expectations for Copenhagen.     

Mr. Ban tried to reassure the General Assembly that Copenhagen is still on track.  He said that news reports had recently portrayed that Copenhagen is destined to be a “disappointment”, but this was wrong.  He countered this perception with examples of individual countries' pledges on emissions reduction. 

However, the Chair of the G77 and China, Ambassador Abdalmahmood Mohamad of Sudan, said the developing countries were extremely disappointed that the Copenhagen Conference did not seem to be able to result in the final outcomes needed and this was a major setback.  It said Parties should not pretend otherwise by using words such as a “legally binding political declaration”.

For the G77 and China, Copenhagen's most important outcome should be adopting the second commitment period of the Kyoto Protocol, the treaty that implements the legal commitment of industrialised countries to reduce greenhouse gases emissions.

Instead the developed countries are moving to exit from this Protocol, and this is the main cause of the present impasse.  Without a Kyoto Protocol decision, Copenhagen cannot succeed, said the group.

Grenada, speaking for the Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS) said the group was concerned over attempts to water down results of Copenhagen.  It insisted that an internationally legally binding outcome at Copenhagen is both technically and legally feasible.

At the end of the 2-hour session, Ban acknowledged the deep concerns of the developing countries about there being a major setback or deep disappointment as there would be no treaty agreed upon in Copenhagen.  But this should not be seen as a failure as Copenhagen will lay the foundation for a legally-binding agreement, he said.

However, as the meeting ended, the mood among many delegates, at least those from developing countries, was that there would be a setback in Copenhagen.  Several delegates said they had the impression after listening to the speakers that the conference would not result in a final legally binding outcome, and they were uncertain whether there would be a clear decision on the emission reduction commitments of developed countries, which is the foundation of many other decisions.

The G77 and China highlighted their most serious concern, that many developed-country members of the Kyoto Protocol want to move away from this Protocol and move towards another agreement whose nature is not understood.

“There is a danger of a downgrading of the commitments of developed countries from an internationally legally binding commitment in the Kyoto Protocol to an inferior agreement involving each country pledging its national programme, with no aggregate figure for developed countries overall, and which is not legally binding,” said the Sudanese Ambassador.

The group was also very disappointed with the very low overall reduction figure arising from the national announcements from developed countries so far, which is only 11 to 18 per cent (including the US).

“The main impasse that has led to downgrading of expectations in Copenhagen is the uncertainty caused by the actions of the developed countries on whether they are willing to commit to a second period for Kyoto Protocol, and whether their emission reduction targets are good enough,” said the G77 chair. 

He asked if the Secretary General and the Denmark representative could  assure the Group that the developed country members of the Kyoto Protocol will remain in the Kyoto Protocol and will make adequate commitments of at least 40% cut by 2020 (from 1990 levels), and will finish the negotiations in the Kyoto Protocol track by the time Copenhagen is concluded. Without such an assurance, it will be hard to see how Copenhagen will be a success, he said.

The Copenhagen Conference must not end only with mere rhetorical political statements. There must be concrete commitments from the developed countries on their emission reduction figures, and commitments on finance, as well as decisions to establish a finance mechanism and a technology mechanism.

Earlier, Mr. Ban said he believed that Parties will reach a deal in Copenhagen that sets the stage for a binding treaty as soon as possible in 2010.   He said that political momentum was building almost daily. He urged Parties to stay positive, come to Copenhagen and seal a deal.  

Despite last week's announcements by the US and Chinese Presidents, the prospects are not so bright that Copenhagen will “seal the final deal”.  Hopefully the conference can agree to a framework and basis of an eventual deal in   2010 that is both fair and effective.