Taking stock of Copenhagen

Greenpeace activists protest the recent Copenhagen climate summit in Mexico City on Sunday. Photo: AP

Greenpeace activists protest the recent Copenhagen climate summit in Mexico City on Sunday. Photo: AP   | Photo Credit: AP

It is evident that the Copenhagen climate summit has failed to produce an equitable and viable plan to combat global warming that responds to both the scientific and moral imperative. But without clarifying the import of Copenhagen in a careful evaluation, taking note of both the process and substantive aspects of what transpired at the summit, one would have little purchase on a future strategy and course of action.

Undoubtedly the success of the United States in forcing the Copenhagen Accord on to the agenda, with the active collusion of several developed countries, constitutes a serious threat to equitable and transparent global environmental governance under United Nations’ auspices. Following the personal intervention of President Obama with select leaders, the drafting of the accord, drawn up in a series of closed-door meetings with select participants setting aside the outcomes of earlier negotiations, completely ignored the norms of equality of all nations and transparency that are at the core of the U.N. process. It was the unanticipated but firm opposition of a few developing countries that ensured that the accord remained an agreement only between those nations that chose to declare their adherence to it, and was merely “taken note” of under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC).

Nevertheless one of Copenhagen’s most valuable outcomes has been the guarantee of the continuity of UNFCCC negotiations, which will now continue at least for another year, despite the Copenhagen Accord. The summit plenary also mandated that these extended negotiations would be based on the negotiating texts as they stood prior to the introduction of the accord.

The developing countries have thus managed to ensure that the primary agenda of the developed countries in the run-up to Copenhagen, that sought to dilute or erase the principle of “common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities” has been pushed back in some measure. The attempts to set aside or replace the Kyoto Protocol and alter significantly the terms of the UNFCCC have not succeeded at the formal level, though the Copenhagen Accord itself is likely to be used for fresh attempts in this direction.

The most significant concessions by the developing countries though are in the substance of the Copenhagen Accord. Developed nations are only expected to voluntarily declare their emission reduction commitments by 31 January, 2010. It remains to be seen whether these nations will honour their pre-Copenhagen pledges as is expected. The most significant uncertainty though relates to whether the domestic legislative process of the United States would allow it to make any significant commitment to emissions reduction at all. The summit proceedings have also made it clear that the pre-Copenhagen emission reduction pledges of the developed nations fall well short of what climate science demands.

The accord also devotes disproportionately greater attention to the mitigation actions of developing nations, responding to the US obsession with `transparency’ in their reporting and verification. All developing nations too have to declare the mitigation actions they will undertake, with the pre-Copenhagen commitments of the BASIC four likely to be declared by the same cut-off date. The developing countries’ position that their voluntary mitigation actions, which are not financially assisted, will be reported only through periodic national communications and will be reviewed only domestically has been partially preserved. However, the developing countries have conceded that all their mitigation action will be subject to ``international consultations and analysis under clearly defined guidelines that will ensure that national sovereignty is respected.” The ambiguity in this formulation, that postpones the question of defining the guidelines to the future, is of a piece with the number of other ambiguities that plague the accord.

Despite the strident criticism of sections of climate change activists, it is clear that the BASIC Four (China, India, Brazil and South Africa) had little room for manoeuvre at Copenhagen. In retrospect the only way they could have evaded high-level political negotiations, would have been to reject at the outset itself the ``leader-driven” process promoted by the Danish Prime Minister on behalf of the United States. But faced with the stalemate in climate negotiations, and unwilling to risk being held responsible for pre-determining the summit’s failure, the four major developing nations, to varying degrees, were clearly willing to explore the Danish proposals. India went the farthest with its acquiescence in the statement on climate change from the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting that explicitly welcomed the “leader-driven” process. At the same time, wary of the demands of the developed nations, all the four major developing nations jointly announced their main negotiating positions.

Eventually at Copenhagen, faced with the intransigence of the United States that none of the developed nations were able to mediate, the BASIC Four chose to avoid a summit failure, with its not easily calculable and potentially costly consequences. In a positive reading, the strategy of the BASIC Four appears to have provided a temporary reprieve from the danger of a total breakdown of negotiations. They have demonstrated that they recognise their special (though differentiated) responsibilities while deflecting potential criticism of standing in the way of drawing the United States into global climate action. It is unlikely though that they will have the luxury of a compromise of this nature in the future.

The summit also exposed the weakness inherent in the developing nations’ strategy of an undifferentiated unity that so far has not, in any formal way, distinguished between the major developing nations and the rest of the G-77 in climate negotiations. The U.S. Secretary of State Hilary Clinton’s threat that the U.S. offer of climate finance for the poorest nations would expire by the end of the summit if China did not offer greater “transparency” in its mitigation efforts showed that that this unity could be turned against the developing nations themselves. The text of the accord demonstrates that the U.S. successfully used justified concerns regarding the emissions of the major developing economies to impose mitigation demands on the entire developing world. The protection of the most vulnerable nations at the frontline of climate change while guaranteeing the development needs of more than half the world’s population cannot be ensured without a more concrete differentiation among Third World nations, while continuing to insist that the developed nations take the lead in mitigation action.

Looking beyond Copenhagen, one can anticipate an even thornier path for future negotiations. Despite its lack of official status, the Copenhagen Accord will undoubtedly interfere with official UNFCCC negotiations for a legally binding agreement. Resolving this issue will not be easy since at its heart is the key dilemma of dealing with the United States on climate change. Unfortunately for the world, its foremost superpower is trapped domestically in a climate discourse that is short-sighted and parochial and yet seeks to impose this discourse on the entire globe. Engaging the United States for global climate action without allowing it to run away with the global climate agenda is a question that the nations of the world have yet to address adequately.

One possibility to partially resolve this dilemma is to look for new interlocutors on either side with better perspectives who could set the terms of the climate debate. A closer climate dialogue between the European Union, currently smarting from being sidelined in the U.S. end-run at Copenhagen, and the major developing economies could have much to offer in this regard. But such dialogues need a willingness to rise above current political prejudices and linkages and a greater expenditure of political capital on the climate question going well beyond the technical skirmishes and semantic battles of the global negotiating table.

(T. Jayaraman is Chairperson, Centre for Science, Technology and Society, Tata Institute of Social Sciences.)

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Printable version | Sep 19, 2020 9:29:03 AM |

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