COP15—Copenhagen Climate Conference

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  • by Anup Shah
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December 7 – December 18, 2009, Copenhagen, Denmark was the venue for the 15th annual United Nations Climate Change Conference, also known as the 15th Conference of the Parties — or COP 15.

As with previous conferences, thousands of politicians (including head of states), diplomats, journalists, lobbyists and NGOs attended hoping the summit would finalize a post-Kyoto international agreement on climate change to take effect in 2013.

The build-up to the meeting was full of optimism and hope, as the US was, for the first time in a long time, going to be seen as a positive contributor, and their involvement is always recognized as key. There was also increasing focus on emerging economies such as China and India.

Instead of a positive outcome, most commentators saw it as a failure, though for different reasons.

This article provides a very brief summary of the outcome and related issues, as much has been said in the mainstream media and the Internet:

On this page:

  1. Lowered expectations and outcomes
  2. Common but Differentiated Responsibility Principle Sidelined Again
  3. China’s actions a new cause for concern?
  4. Emerging Geopolitics
  5. Trillions for Wall Street, Pennies for Earth
  6. Does tackling climate change have to mean lowering living standards?
  7. Will we ever agree on a common course of action?
  8. More Information

Lowered expectations and outcomes

As the Copenhagen conference drew closer, it was becoming more likely that nothing concrete would be achieved due to various impasses.

As early as March, 2009, Yvo de Boer, executive secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) said that even if a climate treaty could not be established in Copenhagen, if four essential issues could be addressed, that would alone mean progress:

  1. How much are the industrialized countries willing to reduce their emissions of greenhouse gases?
  2. How much are major developing countries such as China and India willing to do to limit the growth of their emissions?
  3. How is the help needed by developing countries to engage in reducing their emissions and adapting to the impacts of climate change going to be financed?
  4. How is that money going to be managed?

Despite the pressure and expectations, including grueling last minute efforts to salvage something, all that emerged was a vague agreement — the Copenhagen Accord .

This Accord, brokered by the US in a backroom agreement between Brazil, China, India and South Africa came about in the final hours of the 2-week conference. But not without controversy because,

  • Some delegates out of the 187 countries excluded from this backroom meeting were visibly upset at not being involved
  • Some therefore decided not to support it, and
  • In the end, the accord had no legal standing under the UN convention on climate change — participating countries merely noted its existence and expressed support or not.

In effect, it took hours of diplomacy just to produce a letter of intent, an accord which did not really address the 4 essential issues de Boer hoped would be tackled.

What did the Accord set out? Key points included

  • To keep the maximum temperature rise to below 2°C
  • To list developed country emission reduction targets and mitigation action by developing countries for 2020
  • $30 billion short-term funding for immediate action till 2012
  • $100 billion annually by 2020 in long-term financing
  • Reiterating past intentions such as providing mechanisms to support technology transfer and forestry.
Video: Yvo de Boer of the UNFCCC summarizes the Accord at COP15 closing press briefing, December 19, 2009

While many were disappointed with the final outcome, many (especially some politicians at the conference who perhaps had to avoid losing face) tried to put a positive spin on things.

Danish Prime Minister Lars Løkke Rasmussen was interviewed as saying, “The top leaders were taking Copenhagen seriously as their deadline and delivered beforehand. Had Obama not been due to attend, I doubt whether the US would have begun committing on long-term finance – which is historical. Had Lula not been due to attend, Brazil would hardly have raised its level of ambitions. Had Wen not been due to attend, China would probably not have opened to some level of international insight as to what it is doing – which actually is a globally politically significant admission.”

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Common but Differentiated Responsibility Principle Sidelined Again

As Inter Press Service (IPS) summarized:

What is abundantly clear is the enormous divide between the rich and poor countries. Poor countries want deep cuts in emissions by the industrialized world, and the latter continue to resist significant cuts and legally binding targets.

Stephen Leahy, Climate Change: History Was Not Made, Inter Press Service, December 19, 2009

This site’s section on climate justice has long gone into some detail about

  • How the Common but Differentiated Responsibility acknowledges that rich nations have emitted most of the greenhouse gases that are causing climate change, that developing countries’ emissions are likely to rise on their path to industrialization and trying to meet basic social and development needs; and that therefore while the goals are the same, the means to tackle climate change will be different.
  • Year after year at climate summits, it seems this principle is often ignored by some rich nations and their media.
  • It has therefore been easier in public to blame nations like China and India for reacting negatively and being uncooperative when faced with pressure to submit to emission reduction targets (before many rich nations demonstrate they can do the same).

Greenhouse gases tend to remain in the atmosphere for many decades so historical emissions are an important consideration.

The following shows that the rich nations (known as Annex I countries in UN climate change speak) have historically emitted more than the rest of the world combined, even though China, India and others have been growing recently. This is why the common but differentiated responsibilities principle was recognized.

(Chart updated in January 2012 to add data up to 2008 and preliminary estimates for 2009 and 2010)

Source: Boden, T.A., G. Marland, and R.J. Andres, Global, Regional, and National Fossil-Fuel CO2 Emissions, Carbon Dioxide Information Analysis Center, Oak Ridge National Laboratory, 2011, DOI: 10.3334/CDIAC/00001_V2011. 2009 and 2010 estimates also from CDIAC, by Tom Boden and T.J. Blasing

No doubt, developing nations should be aware of their recent rise and also do more to curb their emissions. But given their later entry to industrialization and that their per capita emissions are even less than rich nations, more emission reduction could also be achieved per person in rich nations.

Source: Boden, T.A., G. Marland, and R.J. Andres, Global, Regional, and National Fossil-Fuel CO2 Emissions, Carbon Dioxide Information Analysis Center, Oak Ridge National Laboratory, 2011, DOI: 10.3334/CDIAC/00001_V2011. 2009 and 2010 estimates also from CDIAC, by Tom Boden and T.J. Blasing

The US and others have characterized the campaign for climate justice and equality to the atmosphere as a way to claim climate reparations; that it is unfair to make the industrialized nations pay for climate emissions into the past century or more at a time when they didn’t know it would cause more harm.

That seems reasonable. However, one of the implications is that any agreement that is subsequently drawn up will, in effect, put disproportionately more burden on the poorer countries to tackle a problem they did not largely cause. The poor are less likely to have the resources to do so, which also means that tackling climate change is less likely to be successful.

This is why rich nations are being asked to seriously think about the type and way they use energy in addition to helping the poorer nations (not necessarily reparations but through meaningful technology and adaptation assistance — which would be far less costly than the bailouts readily handed to people that did cause a major problem).

In addition, there is little fairness in asking China, India and others to be subject to emission targets when many rich countries didn’t achieve the watered down Kyoto targets themselves.

Some emerging nations are in a grey area — India, China, Brazil, etc are rapidly developing and although they have enormous social and development problems outstanding, some of their wealthy are as wealthy (some more so) as those in industrialized nations. As such, wealthier developing nations aren’t necessarily the target (nor asking) for such adaptation funds.

It is certainly more complex than a few sentences on this page can provide, but the simplification offered by rich country leaders and their media hides this complexity year after year. (See climate justice from this web site for more details on this.)

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China’s actions a new cause for concern?

Nonetheless, actions from China at the Copenhagen summit is possibly a cause for concern. While seemingly backed into a diplomatic corner by the US and others on the issue of transparency (how can we believe you when you claim you will make all the stated energy savings; please be more transparent) and emission reduction targets, it flexed its growing muscle, possibly a bit too far, showing the world that it can be just like the superpowers that have come before it and disregard many opinions and views as it sees fit.

The British and Americans are keen to blame China, though there is enough blame to go around, it seems. While China must certainly bear some of the blame, we can’t forget over a decade’s worth of climate negotiations where the US, and/or Europe have typically also been blocking meaningful commitments.

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Emerging Geopolitics

The meeting was also interesting for the geopolitical implications of China’s actions: it almost certainly highlighted Europe’s decreasing influence even as a united bloc. It also perhaps showed that the US could not get its way — at least not as easily as in the past. Many commentators asked if we were witnessing a slow handing of the global superpower baton from the US to China (though this is a process likely to take many years to complete).

Some island nations as well as some African countries were also able to get heard more than in the past, signaling perhaps a new emerging voice.

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Trillions for Wall Street, Pennies for Earth

Perhaps a indictment of humanity (or at least its leaders) was the contrast in how we can deal with a global financial crisis and a global warming crisis: wealthy bankers fail the world and get trillions as a reward bailout through just a few negotiations.

By contrast, it is mostly the emissions from wealthy countries that fail the world with climate change, yet many manage (for years, not just up to Copenhagen) to put equal blame on China, India and other emerging nations and take decades to come up with very little.

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Does tackling climate change have to mean lowering living standards?

Some fear climate change negotiations amount to asking industrialized nations to lower their standard of living. Yet, this need not have to be.

For example, almost two decades ago, J.W. Smith of the Institute for Economic Democracy calculated that half the American economy alone was wasteful and unnecessary, with the same standard of living achievable with much less wasted effort. Of course, the implications are staggering (mass unemployment for example) as well as interesting (share the remaining productive jobs by reducing the work week), and perhaps idealistic (no country could try this alone in today’s globalized world). But recognizing the problem is an important first step. (See this site’s consumption section for more details.)

Most world governments have barely encouraged their industries to look for affordable alternatives to fossil fuel, yet, already many businesses (especially in America) are already innovating in this area. With enough political will, just fractions of the amount of funding and subsidies given to the fossil fuel industries could be channeled into alternatives yet still be a massive scale of investment.

In addition, as the authors of Natural Capitalism wrote over a decade ago, adjusting production processes to factor the entire production-to-use-to-dispose cycle to include recycling or eliminating waste and internalizing all the usually externalized costs could see enormous productivity and economic benefits, while significantly reducing resource usage.

Gross National Product measures typically do not count environmental costs or measure human well-being very well, and when those factors are measured, what may have seemed inefficient in the past is shown to not be so viable.

Volumes could be written on how we could in theory solve this so easily. Reality of course is so much harder in part due to power, greed, politics, etc. Yet, for richer nations afraid of losing out economically to China and India (for that really seems to be the concern), they may already lose out if China’s increasingly heavy investment into alternatives pays off.

It may be quite difficult for leaders of some Western nations to convince their public amidst lots of negative PR that these investments into alternatives could be incredibly beneficial, economically and even politically (see the above side note, for example). Yet, in combination with the global financial crisis and the questioning of the economic ideologies that allowed this to happen, this perfect storm perhaps also means that these crises are an opportunity; now is the time to try and make meaningful changes and make our systems work with nature rather than constantly fighting it.

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Will we ever agree on a common course of action?

Despite all the optimism that these problems can be solved, the concerns have been raised by many for decades.

Ultimately, it seems, we are showing our future generations that once again power, greed, selfishness and other negative qualities of human nature can easily usurp any positive traits such as cooperation.

For climate negotiations, many now hope the follow-up meeting in Mexico in 2010 will be the place where concrete agreements are made. Many scientists say greenhouse emissions need to peak sooner rather than later, so each year seems like wasted time.

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More Information

Some useful links for further details and insights:

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