Global Trends by Martin Khor

Monday 28 December 2009

Lessons for new climate talks in 2010

The new round of talks on climate change next year should learn from Copenhagen’s mistakes:  there should be no undermining of the open and inclusive multilateral way of making decisions.


It’s been ten days since the Copenhagen Climate Conference ended but the aftershocks from its failure are still reverberating.  Leaders, mainly from Europe, are pointing fingers at other countries.

It makes for a bad ending to the year 2009. It does not bode well for 2010, during which there will be a second and maybe final chance to get a real agreement on an issue involving humanity’s survival.

We need to look forward, build on what was achieved in 2009, and prepare to sprint towards the new  December 2010 finishing line.

But first the misinformation put out in the past few days has to be corrected.  The UK Climate Minister Ed Miliband, backed by other UK individuals, have incredibly turned on China as the villain that “hijacked” the conference.  The evidence he gave was that China vetoed an “agreement” on a 50% reduction in global emissions by 2050 and a 80% reduction by developed countries.

There was indeed a “hijack” in Copenhagen, but it was not by China. The hijack was organized by the host government, Denmark, whose Prime Minister convened a meeting of 26 leaders in the last two days of the conference, in an attempt to over-ride the painstaking negotiations taking place among 193 countries throughout the two weeks and in fact in the past two to four years.

That exclusive meeting was not mandated by the Climate Convention. Indeed, the 130-strong G77 and China, representing developing countries, had explicitly told the Danish Prime Minister Lars Rasmussen not to come up with his own “Danish text” to be negotiated by a small group that he himself would select.

Despite assurances that there would not be a such Danish text, the Danish government produced just such a document, and it convened exactly the kind of exclusive group that would undermine the UN’s multilateral, participatory and transparent  process.

Under that process, two working groups had been trying to decide on the issues of the climate agenda (mitigation, adaptation, finance, technology, a shared vision and further Kyoto Protocol commitments)  under the Kyoto Protocol) in an inclusive manner with all Parties able to participate in drafting.

It was clear that Copenhagen could not adopt a full agreement, or even a core agreement, simply because there basic differences remained in key areas. Copenhagen should thus have been used to close as many gaps as possible and bring forward the most up-to-date documents arising from the two working groups (with the differing positions put as options) for continued work with a new deadline to finish in 2010.

Copenhagen should have been designed as a stepping stone.  Unfortunately, the host country Denmark and the UN leadership called on heads of states and governments to come to “seal the deal”, and selected 26 of the 110 top leaders who came to meet in secret.  

They were given a draft Danish document that mainly represented the developed countries’ positions, thereby marginalizing the developing countries’ views tabled at the two-year negotiations.  By hijacking the Conference from the inclusive negotiations downstairs to the secret conclave upstairs, the host country was apparently hoping to get for the developed countries what it could not get from the legitimate process.

Meanwhile, most of the thousands of delegates were diligently working for two weeks on texts on the many issues, often way past midnight.  The Chairs of the working groups produced up-to-date reports containing draft Decisions that contained texts that in their view represented the latest state of play. 

These reports, which went through hours of discussion by thousands of the delegates representing all the members, were finally adopted by the Conference.  They should have been announced as the real outcome of Copenhagen, together with a decision to resume and complete work next year.

It would not have been a resounding success, but it would have not been a failure.  And it would have helped to build the trust and confidence needed to complete the work.

Instead, the organisers chose to convene the small group of leaders, and opened themselves to the meeting being criticized as illegitimate and the document being rejected. And this is precisely what happened at the final plenary.

The failed attempt by the Danish Presidency to impose an over-riding process of a small leaders' meeting with its own Accord onto the only legitimate multilateral process with their own reports, was the reason why Copenhagen will be considered a disaster. 

The Accord itself is weak mainly because it does not contain any commitments by the developed countries to cut their emissions in the medium term, as they are mandated to do by the Kyoto Protocol and the Bali Action Plan.

Perhaps the reason is that the national pledges so far announced amount to only a 11-19 per cent overall reduction by the developed countries by 2020 (compared to 1990), a far cry from the over 40% that recent science requires.

To deflect from this great failure on their part, the developed countries tried to inject long-term emission-reduction goals of 50% for the world and 80% for themselves (by 2050 compared to 1990).   When this failed to get through the 26-country meeting, some countries especially the UK are now blaming China for the failure of Copenhagen.  

In fact, these targets, especially taken together, have been highly contentious during the two years of discussions, and for good reasons.  They would result in a highly inequitable outcome where developed countries get off from their responsibilities and push the burden onto developing countries.

Together, they imply that developing countries would have to commit to cut their emissions overall by about 20% in absolute terms and at least 60% in per capita terms. They would have to severely curb not only their emissions but also their economic growth prospects, especially since there is no genuine plan for financial and technology transfers to help them shift to a low-emissions path.

The developed countries have already completed their industrialization on the basis of cheap carbon-based energy and can afford to take on a 80% goal, especially since they have the technological capacity.  For a minimally equitable deal, they should commit to cuts of at least 200 to 300 per cent, or move into a negative emission territory, to enable developing countries the space to develop.

The acceptance of the two targets would also have locked in a most unfair sharing of the remaining global carbon budget as it would have allowed the developed countries to get off free from their historical responsibility and their carbon debt.  They would have been allocated the rights to a large amount of “carbon space” without being given the responsibility to undertake adequate emission cuts nor to make financial and technology transfers to developing countries.

Fortunately these targets are absent from the Accord.  The negotiations next year can thus consider what is a fair and equitable way to share the costs and burdens of adjustment to a climate-friendly world.

Learning from Copenhagen’s mistakes, the countries should return to the multilateral track and resume negotiations in the Climate Convention’s two working groups as early as possible.

They can start with the two reports passed at Copenhagen as reference points.  There should not be more attempts to hijack this multilateral process, which represents our best hope to achieve final results.

The bottom up democratic process is more slow but also more steady, compared to the top-down attempt to impose a solution by a few powers that will always lack legitimacy in decision-making and sustainability in implementation.