Copenhagen nights

COPENHAGEN — The days in Copenhagen are short at this time of year, but the working days at the UN climate change conference seemed endless. Brinksmanship and late-night drafting sessions are nothing new to climate-change negotiations: in Indonesia, in 2007, ministers stayed up until the late morning to wrap up the Bali Action Plan and adopted it amid scenes of jubilation. The Copenhagen Accord, struck last night among a group of key countries and incorporated–ambiguously–into the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change by unanimous decision this morning, delivered little of the same sense of accomplishment. The coming months will determine how much of a breakthrough the deal represents, and compared to the very real possibility of collapse it is indeed a major achievement. But the mood in the halls of the Bella Conference Center these past 48 hours was one of sullen anticlimax.

Climate change is a problem of numbing complexity, a diffuse global problem requiring coordinated action among nations that have little to gain in the short term interest from cooperating. To be successful, the climate negotiations must push an agenda of global change through a complex intergovernmental process that gives every country the right to veto decisions. Drafting teams have convened every few months over the two years since Bali to produce the text of a new treaty to extend, replace or complement the Kyoto Protocol, the world’s first attempt to control greenhouse gas emissions whose legally binding commitments come to an end in 2012 and which does not cover greenhouse gas emissions from developing countries, where most future growth in emissions will occur.

The Copenhagen conference was supposed to be the culmination of that process. Ministers would convene, choose between options prepared for them by their functionaries, and hammer out the terms of a new international agreement. But expectations were pulled in two directions: the negotiations had not advanced the texts anywhere near readiness for ministerial decision, but the world’s leaders piled layer upon layer of hope and importance on the Copenhagen summit by announcing their intention to participate at the highest level. In the end, over 120 heads of state and government participated. These two sets of expectations came into rude contact in Copenhagen. World leaders achieved today what may have been the best possible deal almost by definition, given the level of top-level participation and media interest. But that same interest virtually guaranteed that the world would read the Copenhagen Accord, two-and-a-half pages long plus Appendices, weak on deadlines and targets, and conclude (perhaps unfairly) that the mountainous international process had labored and groaned over years only to give birth to a mouse.

The first 7-10 days of the negotiations were an inconclusive attempt to produce a comprehensive set of agreements on issues ranging from avoided deforestation to technology transfer to new emission reduction targets. The second week saw the talks shift away from the technical discussions about targets and mechanisms to an almost existential question of whether and how the international community should grapple with climate change. The atmosphere of the conference changed discernibly. In anticipation of the arrival of the ministers and heads of state the conference center began to lock down. By Tuesday, the UN security apparatus decided to limit nongovernmental observers to 7,000 and banned altogether of the more colorful NGO groups, Avaaz and Friends of the Earth. On Wednesday many observers who thought that they had the correct credentials learnt that their delegation number had been reduced further, without prior notice. And on Thursday and Friday only 350 observers were allowed into the Bella Center, and even this was a compromise after NGO leaders strenuously protested against the UN’s original decision to limit observers to 90. This meant that the conference hall was unusually empty of the usual groups of observers for the last two days.

On Friday morning at around 2:30am reports started circulating that ministers had agreed a deal, with details to be worked out for head-of-state finalization later that morning. The promised deal failed to materialize, however. The issue seemed to be a standoff between the United States and China and the U.S. insistence that China accept independent verification that it was reducing its emissions below business-as-usual. China was rumored to be ready to accept a conditional US commitment to accept legally binding commitments contingent on a bill approved by both houses of the U.S. Congress, so the legally binding agreement would be struck at an international meeting in 6 months time; China would then follow formal suit by making its own commitments”contingent” on the support of the Chinese assembly, which was obviously not so difficult to secure as Senate support.

Just before noon the head-of-state speeches began, but rather than announce a deal, as many had expected, the world leaders took the podium only to reiterate known positions, decry past grievances, or implore their counterparts to show new flexibility to strike a deal. Although there were exceptions–Brazil offered to accept a greater share of responsibility, and the United States had the previous day given new life to the negotiations forward by committing to additional international funding–this was the moment when observers began to realize that even the arrival of the political masters of the world had not yet resolved the deadlock. The speeches continued, but Obama and the other principals had left the room and stayed out of sight for the rest of the day in close consultations.

Later it emerged that a core group of about 25 countries–including the United States, China, India, several European countries, and South Africa–had developed a short political statement with principles for a future agreement on climate change. During the course of that day observers and journalists spent their time chasing the latest rumor of a new draft text of the political agreement. The basic components, according to the different versions, were to set a target of no more than 2 °C global warming over levels the Earth experienced before the Industrial Revolution, which scientists say is a risky but acceptable temperature increase (although probably enough to drown low-lying island states like Tuvalu, which tried desperately to win a more ambitious target of 1.5 °C); to define specific emission reduction targets for rich countries by 2020; to promise financing guarantees for developing countries to reduce their emissions and adapt to climate change; and to set up some form of international verification of abatement efforts for developing country mitigation. At least five draft texts were leaked at some point during the day, each with more or less stringent language on these points.

At around 8:15 pm rumors started flying that the US and other key states had brokered a deal. A journalist, his BlackBerry jammed to his ear, started running through the main concourse. This kind of action can have a viral effect in a crowded and news-starved conference room and it quickly caused a wave of thousands of reporters and cameramen to sweep towards the press briefing room where President Obama was rumored to be about to start a press conference. Shortly afterwards a UN official announced, with glee, that he had heard a rumor that Obama would be delivering a statement, that he had no information to support this rumor, and that he hoped that the press representatives would be invigorated by this lively action as they had a long night ahead of them. Half an hour later Obama appeared briefly after all, without notice, gliding from one room to the next with his Secretary of State by his side; this time the press had no warning and only a few managed to run alongside him to shout an unanswered question at him.

Just after 10pm news flashed around the ubiquitous laptops that the White House had announced a “meaningful agreement” at the climate conference. Observers wolfed down their late dinners to find colleagues in the know or officials who might have been party to the behind-the-scenes negotiations. Within the hour Obama delivered a short press conference in which he sketched a deal that was “not legally binding” and was only a “first step” toward where the world needs to be by 2050 in order to avoid dangerous climate change, but nevertheless secured important principles such as an acknowledgment by developing countries that they would need to reorientate themselves toward development based on lower greenhouse gas emissions. Having declared victory, as it were, he boarded Air Force One for home.

Copies of the deal soon appeared and they revealed it to be even weaker than the drafts that had been circulating all day. Gone was the reference to any 2020 targets for rich countries, instead deferring until February 1st, 2010, the definition of any such targets. Gone too was the tentative reference to 1.5 °C as an aspirational future target. There were commitments to increase funding to developing countries and provisions for the verification of developing-country commitments, but the deadline for the conclusion of a legally binding agreement by the end of 2010 had become ambiguous.

There then followed a long period of uncertainty. The deal was done, but would it be acceptable to the Conference of the Parties (the “COP”), the formal decision-making body of the UN climate convention that represents essentially all the countries of the world? Throughout the conference the COP had resisted any attempt by the Danish hosts to convene a smaller but representative group of countries to advance the draft text. Now a core group of countries led by the United States, China, India and Brazil had gone ahead and hammered out a deal, but it counted for nothing unless the COP formally adopted it. Meanwhile, what was the reaction to the deal of Europe, the self-proclaimed leader of the fight against climate change since George Bush repudiated the Kyoto Protocol in 2001? The EU leaders announced a press conference at about 11 pm and then cancelled it.

The next 10 hours were essentially a period of coming to terms with the deal. The EU member states consulted with each other and with their allies and concluded that, although it fell far short of their initial hopes, the deal was the best that they could hope for and as such deserved their support. The Least Developed Nations, Australia, Japan, Russia, and others followed suit. Sudan thundered to the press that it would reject the deal. Whoever one spoke to, the view was the same: faint praise for the deal as better than nothing and the basis for further work; as such, the COP would probably adopt it after some registrations of protest by some developing countries because the alternative, the collapse of the negotiations, was unthinkable.

In this context the reaction of the COP was somewhat of a surprise. Lars Løkke Rasmussen, the Danish Prime Minister serving as President of the COP, called the meeting to order at about 3am, invited parties to consider the draft text over the next hour and to reconvene in one hour, and quickly tried to gavel the meeting to a close. But Tuvalu had already raised its flag and loudly banged its flag on the desk to be recognized, forcing Rasmussen to return to the podium and reopen the meeting. With some dignity, Tuvalu compared the agreement and its financial aid to most vulnerable countries as an offer of 30 pieces of silver, and declared that it was obliged to reject the agreement. Venezuela, Bolivia, Cuba and Sudan intervened to condemn the manner in which the President had allowed the agreement to be drafted outside the formal COP process and the paltry 60 minutes he had proposed to offer the COP to consider it (even though everyone in the room had had plenty of time to read it), and all indicated their refusal to accept the document. Countering this melodrama, a large majority of countries flagged their support of the document as a minimal, if unsatisfying, compromise that could keep the UN climate process alive.

But the enduring limitation of the climate negotiations is their intergovernmental insistence on decision by consensus. By mid-morning today, fully 31 hours after the start of the final stage of these negotiations, it was clear that the COP was not going to endorse by adoption the Copenhagen Accord. Instead, after energetic consultations by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, the hold-out countries agreed to a formulation under which the COP would “take note of” the Copenhagen Accord, with a list of those countries that supported it attached as a chapeau to the text.

The final result is an unloved Copenhagen Accord that nevertheless represents the best that the assembled leaders of the world were able to do. It is more than a mouse, to be sure: it is the first time major emitters, including those in the developing world, have agreed to cooperate to limit global warming to 2 degrees. But its main short-term virtue seems to be that it keeps the UN negotiations on climate change alive, and in doing so it highlighted the apparent weakness of that process in dealing with the increasingly certain threat of global warming. The next twelve months leading up to the next meeting in Mexico will show whether the process is able to regain some of the hopes that were invested in it before Copenhagen.