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Looking Back In Retrospect

By Marianne de Nazareth

30 December, 2009

It had been a year of hope for me. A year of travelling from Poznan to Bonn (twice), to Bangkok and finally to freezing Copenhagen, as a media fellow. Yes, I was one of the 45,000 people who travelled enmasse to the UN climate summit in Copenhagen. I sat alongside fellow hopefuls in ‘planes heading for Copenhagen, who were convinced that there would be a solid new global agreement on climate change. It was an upbeat feeling as discussions went as we converged at the venue. So why did the summit end without one? Why did the world accept a weak Copenhagen Accord, essentially a deal struck by five nations, led by the US? Did the delegates finally leave Denmark without a binding agreement because they were worn down by attrition?

A couple of points come to mind in retrospect when mulling over the events of the two weeks of chaotic ‘negotiations.’

Until the end of this summit, it seemed obvious that the developed countries had already a planned agenda which did not include negotiation. The UNFCCC was meant to be the arbitrator through which governments put forth their points of view and actually negotiated a deal. The Kyoto Protocol was sacrosanct and followed this procedure. There developed nations argued over a wide range of desired outcomes; and a negotiated deal was done. In Copenhagen, it sounded like a tower of Babel where everyone talked at one another and there was no actual negotiation being done.

In the first week itself, when the Danish ‘proposal’ was leaked and hackles of the developing countries were raised it became apparent that Copenhagen had an agenda which had already been fixed by the developed nations.

Sitting in the G77 and China briefings every single day, one heard the same points being reiterated like a well worn gramophone record. They were just said in a more creative or annoyed tone depending on the days proceedings. Finger pointing had already begun so a haze started to envelop the outcome from week one itself.

The end of the meeting saw leaders of the US and the BASIC group of countries (Brazil, South Africa, India and China) hammering out a last-minute deal in a back room as though the nine months of talks leading up to this summit, and the Bali Action Plan to which they had all committed two years previously, did not exist. So now we have an accord which is not legally binding in any way, just a toothless political agreement.

There are several reasons why this happened in my opinion. When recession hit the West, especially the US, one was sure Climate Change was not going to be very high up on the list of ‘must do’s’ on the developed world’s agenda. Although the Bali Action Plan was drawn up two years ago, it is only one year since Barack Obama entered the White House and initiated attempts to curb US carbon emissions from the previous regime which ignored Climate Change. The priority of organising major healthcare reforms was higher on his list of issues to be dealt with than Climate Change.

If the Copenhagen summit had come a year later, perhaps Mr Obama would have been able to speak from firmer ground, and perhaps offer some indication of further action down the line - indications that might have induced other countries to step up their own offers. As it is, he was in a position to offer nothing - and other countries responded in a likewise fashion.

Also what was noticeable was that most countries involved in the UNFCCC COP15 talks had a single chain of command; when the president or prime minister speaks, he or was able to make commitments for the entire government.

But the US was different, as the president is not able to pledge anything that Congress will not support, and his inability to step up the US offer in Copenhagen was probably the single biggest impediment to other parties improving theirs. Viewed internationally, the US effectively has two governments, each with power of veto over the other. That did not bode well for Copenhagen.

In many ways, Denmark was an excellent summit host. Copenhagen was a friendly and capable city, with transport links that worked (initially). The Bella Center food outlets remained open through the long negotiating nights. But the government of PM Lars Lokke Rasmussen triggered off wrong signals.

Even before the summit had properly begun, his office put forward a draft political declaration to a select group of “important countries” - thereby annoying every country not on the list, including most of the ones that feel seriously threatened by climate impacts. When the environment minister Connie Hedeegard stepped down, suspicions rose to an all time high.

Procedurally, the summit was a farce, with the Danes trying to hurry things along so that a conclusion could be reached, bringing protest after protest from some of the developing countries that had presumed everything on the table would be properly negotiated. So walk outs and suspensions of sessions became routine.

When Rasmussen took over for the high-level talks, it became quickly evident that he understood neither the climate convention itself nor the politics of the issue. Talk in the corridors said the plan was that the prime minister’s office envisaged the summit as an opportunity to cover Denmark and Rasmussen in glory - a “made in Denmark” pact that would solve climate change. Instead the whole episode badly back fired on him.

For about two hours on Friday night, the EU had declined to endorse the deal and, a substantial number of developing countries would have followed suit. This would have made the accord simply an informal agreement between a handful of countries - symbolising the failure of the summit to agree anything close to the EU’s minimum requirements, and putting some beef behind Europe’s insistence that something significant must be achieved next time around. So why did the EU endorse such an emasculated document, given that several leaders beforehand had declared that no deal would be better than a weak deal?

The answer probably lies in a mixture of guesstimates: Politics is the key where the thumb rule is never to go against the US, particularly Obama’s US, and always emerge with something to claim as a success

The fact that important EU nations, in particular France and the UK, had invested significant political capital in preparing the ground for a deal - tying up a pact on finance with Ethiopia’s President Meles Zenawi, and mounting a major diplomatic push on Thursday when it appeared things might unravel. Plus, the EU had been instrumental in preparing the way for the US and Chinese leaders hoping to share the deal with them as equal partners. Therefore with the sudden volte face, the EU was forced to acquiesce to an outcome that it did not want announced in a manner that gave it no respect.

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