As it drifts from the present into the past, the Copenhagen climate change conference looks both better and worse. Worse, because a considered reading of the accord, which was its only tangible output, reveals that it is not just inadequate but in fact utterly empty. Better, because of the novel manner in which this ultimate failure was reached. As the sight of the daily chaos drops out of view, it becomes easier to appreciate that the rich world was forced to haggle with the bigger emerging economies on more equal terms than ever before.
As the dust has settled on the “meaningful agreement” proclaimed late on Friday, it has become plain that it was scarcely an agreement at all. For one thing it was “noted” rather than adopted by the assembly, and for another it contains no commitments with real bite. The gaping hole where emissions targets should have been was immediately apparent, but it took a little longer to spot that seemingly firm pledges on aid were hedged with lawyerly language, and that passages dealing with supposed “easy wins” – such as on forestry – were devoid of all detail. But amid all the multiple omissions in the three pages of waffle that constitute the accord, the most damning of all was a lack of anything firm about what happens next.
Failure to fix the climate in Copenhagen might have been forgiven, had the delegates emerged with a credible timetable for getting the job done. Instead, progress made under the text’s inaction plan is to be “assessed” in 2015, with a view to considering whether to tighten the 2C lid on temperature rises to 1.5C. This may sound a noble idea, but the review is set to be futile, since the science says that rises above 1.5C will probably be guaranteed by the middle of the new decade. About the only action committed to at an earlier date is for the rich countries to come up with targets by the end of next month, an obligation which the big players could fully discharge by simply repeating the pledges each has already made.
While the Copenhagen product is every inch the sham that campaigners say it is, the Copenhagen process has set important precedents. Most obviously, although the haggling proved fruitless, the sheer fact that it took place – and at such a high political level – means it will probably do so again. Many of the presidents and prime ministers who swanned off to Denmark told their people that their mission was saving the world. Before Copenhagen, across much of the planet, the highly complex risks faced by the climate had rarely been discussed in such dramatic terms. Now that leaders from Beijing to Brasilia have shown that they believe that the clear and present threat is sufficiently serious for them to turn up in person, they would have a tough time explaining why they were not going to bother next time.
Just as significant is what the summit revealed about the terms on which the ultimate climate deal will have to be brokered. Two moments were particularly instructive. The first involved the derailment of a western-led stitch-up, which became known as the Danish text. It would have done away with the Kyoto protocol, with its explicit acknowledgement of the industrialised world’s unique responsibility for the pollution it has pumped out over the centuries. When the poor countries made plain they would not wear it, the rich felt forced to back down. The second, which occurred only moments before stumps were finally drawn, was an American concession on monitoring emissions designed to sooth Chinese anxieties about sovereignty. Hours before, President Obama had taken a pointedly tough tone towards Beijing, but despite justified concerns about holding it to account, in the end he rightly recognised the need to compromise.
The silver that glistens within the dark cloud of Copenhagen’s failure is the west’s recognition that the world will not be rescued by diktat, but only through genuine dialogue.
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