Repackaging Copenhagen: Will There Be a Global Climate Agreement?

On the eve of the UN’s long-awaited Copenhagen climate summit, officials are pulling out all the stops to spin the  conference as a success, no matter what actually happens. Barack  Obama’s announcement that he will briefly pass through Copenhagen was  a headline story, as was China’s commitment to reduce their economy’s  "carbon intensity," merely lowering their rate of increase in  greenhouse gas emissions. Some are proclaiming the advantages of a non- binding "political" or "operational" agreement, as an incremental step  toward reducing worldwide emissions. Others are preoccupied with the  manufactured scandal stemming from some UK climate researchers’ stolen  emails (see http://www.realclimate.org/index.php/archives/2009/11/the-cru-hack) . It’s everything but what was once promised: the setting for a new  binding global treaty to forestall catastrophic climate changes.

It wasn’t supposed to be that way. For several years now,  environmentalists in North America, Europe, and around the world have  been describing this as a decisive moment in the history of the global  climate crisis. Since the passage of the still-controversial Kyoto  Protocol in 1997, signatories to the Protocol, and to the more  comprehensive UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), have  held major biennial conferences to further these documents’  implementation. With the first so-called "commitment period" of Kyoto  scheduled to end in 2012, the Copenhagen meeting has long been  described as the crucial moment to forestall increasingly  uncontrollable climate disruptions.

For well over a year now, environmentalists have been planning events,  drafting reports, and coordinating action plans with the Copenhagen  conference in mind. The October 24th "350.org" events around the world  — over 5000 recorded activities in 181 countries dramatizing the need  to reduce atmospheric carbon dioxide to below 350 parts per million —  were timed to influence Copenhagen. Until mid-November, the timetable  for Congressional action on US climate legislation was also partly  aimed toward the international stage. Speculations about whether Obama  would go to Copenhagen were the subject of countless news reports,  blog postings, and impassioned pleas by Greenpeace and other well- known organizations.

For much of this fall, however, most public statements by both US and  UN officials have been pointedly aimed at lowering expectations. US  climate negotiators have been evasive for months about what if any  commitments they would bring to the table. Senate committees began  deleting the climate bill from their year-end calendars in mid- November, after a Republican boycott of Senator Boxer’s hearings  allowed for only a pro-forma passage of a highly flawed bill by the  Environment and Public Works Committee, which she chairs. Earlier in  the fall, UNFCCC Executive Secretary Yvo de Boer began refocusing his  public statements toward the ‘art of the possible.’

What may have been the decisive rupture came during talks in Bangkok  in mid-October, aimed at finalizing the framework for a Copenhagen  agreement. For the first time, European Union representatives echoed  the US refusal to make any future commitments under the framework  established by the Kyoto Protocol. While previous UN climate meetings  have been aided by the Europeans’ insistence on scientifically  meaningful emission targets, this change in position — perhaps a  result of Obama’s "improved" diplomacy — significantly shifted the  focus of the talks and raised the level of acrimony to new heights. A  month later, African delegates walked out of a follow-up meeting in  Barcelona, and threatened to do the same in Copenhagen if rich  countries refused to commit to meaningful emission reductions.  Finally, at a breakfast meeting during the APEC summit in Singapore in  mid-November, Obama and Danish prime minister Rasmussen announced  definitively that a legally binding climate treaty would take at least  another year to negotiate.

How and why has the world gotten to this point? Part of the reason  stems from the inherent flaws in the Kyoto Protocol, but much of the  blame rests with US policymakers, who have been working behind the  scenes to undermine Copenhagen for quite a long time. To complicate  things further, negotiators on different sides of the table have  conflicting interpretations of what the Kyoto Protocol means and to  what degree it should help define the terms of future agreements.

In some ways, the Kyoto Protocol represented a crucial breakthrough in  the ongoing UNFCCC process. For the first time, countries agreed to a  schedule of binding targets for reducing emissions of greenhouse  gases, and a prescribed means for working toward those targets. The  primary responsibility for reductions fell on the richest countries,  with the rest of the world accepting "common but differentiated  responsibilities" to mitigate a potential climate crisis. The devil,  as always, was in the details, and those details were in many ways a  product of then Vice President Al Gore’s interventions in Kyoto.

Gore arrived in Kyoto toward the end of the conference, at a point  when the US refusal to sign on to mandatory emissions cuts threatened  to derail the proceedings. Gore was widely credited with saving the  day; specifically he offered that the US would sign on to a Kyoto  Protocol under two conditions. First, mandated reductions in emissions  had to be limited to roughly half of what was originally proposed, and  second, emissions cuts would be implemented through the market-based  trading of "rights to pollute" among various companies and between  countries. This was the beginning of carbon trading (a.k.a. "cap-and- trade") as an instrument of international policy. While the US, of  course, never ratified the Kyoto Protocol, the rest of the world has  had to live with the consequences, namely a cumbersome but corporate- friendly carbon trading system that has utterly failed to bring needed  pollution reductions, and an even more unwieldy and unjust scheme for  allowing companies to offset their emissions by investing in nominally  low-carbon projects in the global South. (For more on trading and  offsets, see  http://www.zcomm.org/zspace/commentaries/3913  and http://storyofstuff.com/capandtrade/.)

A decade later, this picture was further complicated by the so-called  Bali Action Plan that emerged from the 2007 UN climate summit. This  plan allowed for the negotiations toward Copenhagen to proceed on two  tracks, one continuing the process laid out in the Kyoto Protocol, and  the other essentially going back to the drawing board of the original  1992 climate convention. While Kyoto remains a legally binding treaty,  developing nation representatives fear that this second track will be  used to create a superseding agreement and in effect overturn the  meager gains that poor countries feel they achieved in Kyoto. China  has been among the most vocal champions of retaining the Kyoto  framework, with its notable lack of distinction between rapidly  developing nations such as China and the world’s poorest countries,  while the US has long sought to pin the blame on China and India for  rapidly rising CO2 levels. The G77 group of poor countries and the  Alliance of Small Island States – who have the most to lose if there  is no Copenhagen agreement and the pace of sea level rise continues to  accelerate – have all lined up in support of retaining Kyoto and  continuing to hold the richest nations responsible for their historic  contribution to destabilizing the climate.

Technology transfer funds were another key sticking point in the pre- Copenhagen talks. If poorer countries are to eventually bring their  emissions down and simultaneously lifting people out of poverty, it is  argued, Northern countries will need to fulfill their commitment under  Kyoto to speed the deployment of renewable energy technologies in the  South without impeding economic development. While this is often  viewed as a straightforward matter of comparative wealth and global  equity, indigenous peoples’ representatives such as Anastasia Pinto of  CORE, based in India’s Eastern Himalayas, view such "sustainable  development" arguments as mainly benefiting elites in the South, who  want to continue getting richer at the expense of both poor people and  the environment. In a recent US tour, Pinto described India’s growing  economic divide as the real key to their government’s refusal to  consider any steps toward reducing India’s contribution to the climate  crisis.

Lim Li Lin of the Third World Network summed up one aspect of the  deadlock over Kyoto in a recent briefing paper, stating, "The  international compliance regime under the Kyoto Protocol … faces an  uncertain future. While it can always be further improved, the risk is  now the possibility of no longer having a system of international  compliance." Perhaps the strongest argument in favor of Kyoto is that  it may prove far more costly to the environment in the long run to try  to develop a new climate treaty from scratch, especially if the worst  features of Kyoto—namely the cap-and-trade system—will be retained in  any case.

While the future of the Kyoto Protocol is burdened by all the  complexities of North-South politics, the continued resistance of the  US government to internationally binding limits on global warming  pollution raises even more fundamental questions. Is there any  alternative to a mutually agreed-upon effort to reduce worldwide  greenhouse gas emissions? Just what is the US bringing to the table in  Copenhagen beside a vague pledge to reduce emissions by 2020 that  still falls short of many countries’ 2012 commitments under Kyoto?  (Obama’s recent statement that the US will reduce emissions  approximately 17% from 2005 levels by 2020, along the lines of the  bill that passed the House of Representatives in June, is only  equivalent to a 4-5 percent reduction from 1990 levels, the baseline  established in Kyoto. EU countries, in contrast, agreed in Kyoto to an  8 percent reduction from 1990 levels by 2012.)

An article in the September/October issue of the journal Foreign  Affairs may offer some important clues as to what we should expect to  see in Copenhagen. Foreign Affairs is the official organ of the  Council on Foreign Relations (CFR), which has long been noted as both  a weathervane and an active arbiter of elite opinion in the US, and  lists most recent presidents and numerous other senior officials among  its members. In an article titled "Copenhagen’s Inconvenient Truth,"  CFR Senior Fellow Michael Levi outlined what may be the US  government’s long-standing strategy for Copenhagen.

"The odds of signing a comprehensive treaty in December are  vanishingly small," Levi wrote last summer, in time for the journal’s  early September publication, urging even then that those concerned  about the climate problem needed to "rethink their strategy and  expectations" for Copenhagen. Levi’s alternative proposal is for  international emissions standards to essentially be replaced by a  patchwork of country-specific policies with the modest, and  fundamentally inadequate, goal of reducing world emissions of carbon  dioxide by half, "ideally from 1990 levels, by 2050." Under Levi’s  scenario, China would step up investments in renewable energy and  "ultra-efficient conventional coal power," India would become a  pioneer in smart grid technology, and countries whose emissions are  mainly from deforestation (especially Indonesia and Brazil) would be  offered incentives to protect forests and raise agricultural  productivity. The main contribution of the US would be to push for a  detailed agreement on "measurement, reporting and verification," one  of the few areas where US technology may still hold an advantage.

Levi’s article pointedly blames developing countries for the world’s  inability to agree on meaningful emission caps. He argues that the  Chinese and others invariably insist on less stringent caps than are  feasible, lack the capacity to accurately monitor their emissions, and  would simply ignore any caps that they are unable to meet.  Unfortunately, this reads a great deal like the way Northern countries  have been behaving since Kyoto; Levi even cites Canada as a key  example of a country that greatly exceeds its Kyoto limits, and has  faced no penalty for doing so. For these reasons, according to Levi,  efforts to develop binding caps for developing countries are simply "a  waste of time."

A key challenge for the US in Copenhagen, according to Levi, is to  avoid "excessive blame" if the conference is seen as a failure. Rather  than expecting a comprehensive agreement to come out of Copenhagen, he  argued, the conference should instead be seen as analogous to the  beginning of a round of arms control or world trade talks, processes  which invariably take many years to complete. "This ‘Copenhagen  Round,’" he argues, mirroring the typical WTO language, "would be much  more like an extended trade negotiation than like a typical  environmental treaty process." Overlooking the fact that a substantive- though-flawed agreement was actually signed in Kyoto, he emphasizes  that it took another several years of negotiations before that treaty  could be implemented.

If that’s what the world has to look forward to over the next two  weeks in Copenhagen, what are the implications? Climate scientists  generally agree that time is rapidly running out to prevent  irreversible tipping points in the destabilization of the earth’s  climate. Current trends in CO2 emissions already exceed the worst-case  "business-as-usual" scenarios of the Intergovernmental Panel on  Climate Change’s (IPCC) 2007 report, and agencies such as the British  Meteorological Office are now predicting average temperature rises of  10 degrees or more in various regions of the world before the end of  this century. That would mean a permanent loss of Arctic ice,  unprecedented spells of flooding and droughts, threats to half the  earth’s fresh water supplies, and the collapse of important  ecosystems, as well as significant areas of world agriculture.

Fortunately, while diplomats seek to wish the problem away – even as  they devise ever more complex and less effective means to alleviate  climate chaos – people around the world are beginning to confront the  full magnitude of the climate crisis. Climate justice activists in  Europe, in indigenous and small farming communities worldwide, and  even in North America, are beginning to challenge the inequities  underlying current climate policies and demand real solutions. They  are highlighting the voices of the communities most affected by the  climate changes that are already underway, and challenging corporate- friendly false solutions, from carbon trading and offsets, to the  myths of "clean coal" and nuclear power and the onslaught of  industrial-scale biofuel (more appropriately "agrofuel") plantations.  Simultaneously, they are challenging the growing dominance of  corporate interests in the UN process itself, a phenomenon that led  one participant in the 2007 UN conference in Bali to describe it as "a  giant shopping extravaganza, marketing the earth, the sky and the  rights of the poor."

The climate justice movement in North America had its first continent- wide day of action on Monday, November 30th, the tenth anniversary of  the mass demonstrations that confronted the World Trade Organization  in Seattle. Hundreds of people marched and rallied and dozens were  arrested at locations from San Francisco’s Bank of America  headquarters to the Chicago Climate Exchange, home of the US’ largest  voluntary carbon market. South Carolina activists blocked the shipment  of a generator for a new coal plant, Canadians sat in at the office of  their Finance Minister – a proponent of the massively destructive  scheme to extract oil from the tar sands of central Alberta – and New  Yorkers marched from a local Bank of America to the offices of the  Natural Resources Defense Council, a leading advocate for carbon  trading. (For more on the N30 actions, see http://actforclimatejustice.org .)

Meanwhile in Europe, thousands marched in Geneva at the outset of the  WTO’s first ministerial conference in four years. The momentum is  building rapidly for massive actions on the streets of Copenhagen,  where activists will demand that fossil fuels be kept in the ground,  indigenous and forest peoples’ rights be respected and reparations for  ecological and climate debts be paid by the richest countries to those  who are most affected by resource extraction and climate-related  disasters. For some of the organizers, Copenhagen has come to  represent capitalism’s last attempt to come to terms with the climate  crisis. With African delegates threatening another walkout, and the US  pushing for an agreement in name only, the disturbing analogy raised  by international activists between the Copenhagen climate conference  and the November 1999 World Trade Organization meeting in Seattle may  prove to be truer than most environmentalists ever imagined.


Brian Tokar is the current director of the Institute for Social  Ecology, author of The Green Alternative and Earth for Sale, editor of  two books on the politics of biotechnology, Redesigning Life? and Gene  Traders, and co-editor of the forthcoming collection, Crisis in Food  and Agriculture: Conflict, Resistance and Renewal (Monthly Review  Press). He works with Climate SOS and the Mobilization for Climate  Justice (climatesos.org, actforclimatejustice.org).aised  by international activists between the Copenhagen climate conference  and the November 1999 World Trade Organization meeting in Seattle may  prove to be truer than most environmentalists ever imagined.

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