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Shifting Climate

News Analysis: Copenhagen meeting falls victim to evolving global-warming politics

by Cheryl Hogue
January 11, 2010 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 88, Issue 2

Credit: Gunnar Seijbold/Swedish Government
India and China were key players in the talks that yielded the Copenhagen Accord.
Credit: Gunnar Seijbold/Swedish Government
India and China were key players in the talks that yielded the Copenhagen Accord.

In the end, all that the head of the United Nations could do was put an optimistic spin on the outcome of last month’s climate-change talks in Copenhagen.

The international negotiations yielded little. They were stymied not only by shifting geopolitical dynamics but also by procedural maneuvers that stifled consensus and by disruptions from the unprecedented number of people observing the proceedings. The result raises the prospect that nations will eschew the UN process and negotiate legally binding treaties to limit greenhouse gas emissions on their own. It’s too soon to tell how the political shifts will play out and whether nations of the world can agree to curb their emissions and usher in a new age of cleaner energy.

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon called the agreement emerging from the conference “an essential beginning.” But, he also acknowledged, “the Copenhagen Accord may not be everything that everyone hoped for.”

Reached on Dec. 18, 2009, the pact didn’t meet the expectations of many. Countries had agreed in late 2007 that the Copenhagen meeting, held for two weeks in mid-December 2009, would culminate in a new, legally binding treaty to address climate change. But two years of talks leading up to Copenhagen made little progress. The Copenhagen meeting itself was fraught with seemingly endless discussions about procedure rather than substance.

Eventually, a handful of world leaders, convened by U.S. President Barack Obama, short-circuited the UN negotiating process and crafted a nonbinding deal in the closing hours of the Copenhagen meeting. The agreement doesn’t specify numbers for countries’ emission cuts, nor does it specify how much money will come from the industrialized world to help developing countries adapt to climate change and mitigate emissions (C&EN, Jan. 4, page 8). The most optimistic view is that the Copenhagen Accord will form the basis of a legally binding international treaty to be completed by the end of 2010.

One of those most disappointed in the outcome might well have been Ban. The UN chief wanted the Copenhagen talks to produce a legally binding treaty. For months, he had encouraged world leaders to throw their political weight behind the Copenhagen talks. He even called leaders to a summit in September 2009, and about 100 of them attended (C&EN, Sept. 21, 2009, page 7).

By the end of October, however, prospects for the Copenhagen meeting had fallen, and the odds of the gathering producing a legally binding treaty became almost nil. A nonbinding political deal, such as the one that emerged, was the most realistically hopeful outcome (C&EN, Nov. 9, 2009, page 37).

The Copenhagen meeting reflected a significant shift in the international politics of climate change. The dynamics of global affairs in 2009 are considerably different from what they were in 1997, when the last climate treaty, the Kyoto protocol, was completed, or five years earlier, when the first climate deal, the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, emerged from the 1992 Earth Summit.

Both of those treaties divided the world in two—industrialized versus developing countries—reflecting the dominant geopolitical perspective of many years. But the Copenhagen meeting made it clear that dividing the world into this simple dichotomy is increasingly less valid.

Developing countries still stuck together in Copenhagen as a bloc of 130 countries called the Group of 77 & China. The group wants industrialized countries to accept mandatory emissions cuts and to provide developing countries with financing to adapt to the effects of climate change and to install greener energy technologies. G-77 & China is adamantly against any legally binding global requirements for developing countries to control their emissions.

But fissures exist within G-77 & China, and they are widening. For instance, small island states that could face obliteration by rising seas are calling strongly for emission cuts, which they see as critical to their survival. They want human-induced global warming constrained to less than 2 °C and are pushing for a 1.5 °C cap. They aren’t picky about where in the world the reductions happen—whether in the developing or industrialized world. And several of them have pledged to control their own minuscule emissions.

Meanwhile, the African Group, which includes 33 of the 49 countries the UN has designated as the world’s poorest, is focused on getting financial assistance for adaptation and low-carbon energy technologies. Poverty alleviation and aid to cope with projected increases in droughts are priorities for many African nations.

Then there’s China. The fastest growing economy on Earth and the world’s largest emitter of carbon dioxide sticks to its historical designation as a developing country. He Yafei, vice minister of foreign affairs, emphasized to reporters in Copenhagen that his country has 150 million people who live below the international poverty line of $1.25 per day.

Any action to combat climate change, He said, “should not be done at the expense of the right to development by developing countries.” The top priority for the developing world, including China, He said, is reducing poverty.

In addition to China, other large, rapidly industrializing developing countries, such as Brazil, India, and South Africa, belong to G-77 & China. These countries are becoming major emitters of CO2.

U.S. negotiators, backed by the European Union, pushed hard in Copenhagen to distinguish emerging economies with rising emissions from the rest of the developing world. Most of the growth in greenhouse gas emissions is taking place in emerging economies, said Todd Stern, U.S. special envoy for climate change. Any emission reductions by the industrialized world would be swamped by these countries. So if these emerging economies take no action to restrain their emissions, global warming would continue unabated, he stressed.

In addition to this physical reality, Stern is concerned about the political imperative to get China to agree to control its emissions—something the U.S. Senate has made clear is needed for it to ratify any global climate pact.

Credit: Newscom
By the end of the conference, some negotiators snatched a few minutes of sleep at their desks during breaks in the around-the-clock talks.
Credit: Newscom
By the end of the conference, some negotiators snatched a few minutes of sleep at their desks during breaks in the around-the-clock talks.

U.S. efforts to involve emerging economies in the fight against global warming bore fruit in Copenhagen, despite resistance from G-77 & China. Involved in hammering out the Copenhagen Accord were China’s Premier Wen Jiabao, India’s Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, and South Africa’s President Jacob Zuma.

Plus, several emerging economies had pledged to control their greenhouse gas emissions as part of the run-up to Copenhagen, marking a major shift in policy. For instance, China’s President Hu Jintao announced in September 2009 that the country would ratchet down its emissions of energy per unit of gross domestic product—a measure called energy intensity (C&EN, Sept. 28, 2009, page 10). “China’s commitment is very firm,” Foreign Affairs Vice Minister He said in Copenhagen. “It is unconditional” and will be enforced under domestic law.

India, too, says it will cut its energy intensity. And Brazil has recently taken steps that arguably set it apart from other developing countries. President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva signed a law on Dec. 29, 2009, that requires Brazil to cut its emissions by 36–39% from projected 2020 levels. About half of those reductions would come from slowing deforestation in the Amazon.

In Copenhagen, da Silva boldly suggested that Brazil is willing to donate money to help poorer countries grapple with climate change. Until now, only countries historically categorized as industrialized have provided financing for climate projects, which have thus far taken place under the Kyoto protocol.

Evolving economic distinctions among the countries classified as developing aren’t the only way Copenhagen showed that the dynamics of climate discussions have changed in recent years. Another sign is the direct involvement of world leaders in climate-change discussions. The Copenhagen meeting wasn’t just a negotiating session, it was also the largest summit ever to be held outside of UN headquarters in New York City, with 119 heads of state or heads of government attending. Those leaders generally agreed that climate change is happening. As a result, they said the world needs to cut greenhouse gas emissions and developing countries need financial assistance to adapt to climate change and to install clean-energy technologies.

Credit: Newscom
Credit: Newscom

Furthermore, ordinary citizens from around the world descended on Copenhagen in droves to participate in what many saw as a historic gathering that would determine the future of the planet. Of the 45,000 people registered for the meeting, nearly half were observers from environmental groups, businesses, or religious organizations, or were indigenous people or farmers, according to the UN. As a result of this overwhelming interest, toward the end of the meeting, many observers could not get into the meeting venue, Copenhagen’s massive Bella Center, because their numbers overwhelmed the complex’s capacity of 15,000.

Yvo de Boer, the UN’s top climate official, said the meeting afforded more observers access to the official proceedings than any other UN conference before. But having hundreds of people wait in freezing weather for hours to get into the Bella Center and the disruptions some protesters caused inside the venue “test my courage to continue in this way,” de Boer confessed. This admission suggests that the UN could limit the number of observers who can register to attend major conferences in the future.

The tens of thousands who came to Copenhagen also clogged the city’s streets in mostly peaceful demonstrations. That so many people came to the city in the short days of winter and stood under cold gray skies to demand action against global warming puts more pressure on governments to act, according to many environmental groups.

As the two-week meeting wore on, many participants—from government officials to protesters—held high hopes that Obama would save the negotiations from failure. They anticipated the change of the American presidency from George W. Bush, who resisted emission targets, to Obama, who has made clean energy a priority, would make a big difference in the global climate talks. But Obama’s performance in Copenhagen on the last scheduled day of the meeting got mixed reviews.

Some portrayed Obama as a hero who intervened at the last minute and emerged with deal in hand. “President Obama’s hands-on engagement broke through the bickering,” said Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.), chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

Others were more measured.

“I applaud President Obama for his determination to not let these talks fail and his success working with China,” said Larry Schweiger, president and chief executive officer of the conservation advocacy group National Wildlife Federation. “The deal is incomplete, and we’re not done yet,” he continued. “We will need far more ambitious global cooperation to fill in the missing pieces next year.”

Obama’s actions in Copenhagen attracted criticism, too, including from Kate Horner, international policy analyst of the environmental group Friends of the Earth U.S.

Credit: Cheryl Hogue/C&EN
More observers were approved to attend the Copenhagen climate meeting than at any other UN meeting in history.
Credit: Cheryl Hogue/C&EN
More observers were approved to attend the Copenhagen climate meeting than at any other UN meeting in history.

“This toothless declaration, being spun by the U.S. as a historic success, reflects contempt for the multilateral process, and we expect more from our Nobel Prize-winning President,” Horner said.

That multilateral process—the open, consensus-based way the UN runs negotiations—is also in question for future climate negotiations in the wake of Copenhagen’s outcome.

Some developing countries kept the negotiations in knots at Copenhagen by repeatedly raising procedural objections. And most countries and blocs remained entrenched in positions solidified over the past months or years, making no concessions. Near the end of the second week of the talks, the drawn-out and seemingly endless proceedings took place around-the-clock.

Breaking the impasse were the closed-door talks by leaders who came up with the Copenhagen Accord.

As a group, G-77 & China was frustrated at the deal and how it was reached, said Bernarditas de Castro Muller of the Philippines, a spokeswoman for the bloc. She complained that the long-standing UN negotiations on climate change, involving representatives of 193 countries, got trumped by a backroom deal put together by a handful of world leaders. “We were diverted by processes beyond our control,” she said.

The Copenhagen Accord is “a strong strike against multilateralism and the democratic principles in the UN system,” said Guillermo Kerber, program executive on climate change for the World Council of Churches, a fellowship of nearly 350 Christian churches in 120 countries.

So, although UN chief Ban might be disappointed that governments missed his goal for completing a new treaty in Copenhagen, he also may have significant worries about the continued relevance of the organization he leads for climate-change matters. Countries that are major emitters of greenhouse gases have been meeting for a few years, in a process that Bush began and Obama has continued. It is foreseeable—and, likely, politically easier—for these countries to come up with their own legally binding treaty to address emissions.


But if they do so, they would bypass key global equity and environmental concerns of poor countries that have contributed nothing to global warming yet are facing its impacts, de Boer said. “Part of the reason why people went to the trouble of inventing the United Nations,” he said, “is to ensure that we address global issues like climate change equitably, taking the concerns of all into account.”


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