The summit that was designed to fail

December 17, 2009

Nicole Colson looks at the chaos, inside and outside, at the Copenhagen climate summit--and why whatever final deal, if any, is arrived at, it will be too little, too late.

TALKS AT Cop 15--the United Nations Conference on Global Warming being held in Copenhagen--have been marked by walkouts and bitter rivalries on the inside, and police repression of activists on the outside.

The sense is dawning even on those who hoped for progress on an agreement to slow greenhouse gas emissions that whatever deal is put together by the end of the summit will be much too little, and much too late.

Even as Danish police cracked down on the estimated 100,000 protesters--arresting hundreds of people each day, firing tear gas and beating some who tried to push their way into the Bella Center, where the main talks were being held--meetings inside the center ground to an abrupt halt earlier this week when a group of poor and developing nations, including many of those already feeling the most severe affects from climate change, walked out in protest.

Led by delegates from African nations and backed by the Alliance of Small Island States and the Group of 77 (G77)--which includes many developing nations, as well as larger ones such as Brazil, India and China--members walked out of negotiations on the morning of December 14. The delegates returned to the conference later that day, but the underlying issues remained unsolved.

An African delegate at the United Nations climate summit in Copenhagen
An African delegate at the United Nations climate summit in Copenhagen (Keld Navntoft | AFP)

The walkout was sparked by opposition on the part of large industrialized countries--primarily the U.S.--to accepting binding emissions targets set out in the 1997 Kyoto Protocol (which the U.S. has never signed).

A leaked draft proposal for a new climate change agreement at this summit presented by Denmark (and clearly influenced by the U.S. and Britain) would, in direct opposition to the Kyoto, weaken the UN's role in providing financing for climate measures and force developing countries to commit to specific emission cuts and other measures that were not part of Kyoto.

"It denies the fact that developed countries have a historical responsibility for damaging atmospheric space, [and] it demands that a negotiated treaty kills off the Kyoto Protocol," said Lumumba di-Aping, chair of the G77.

The so-called "Danish text" was supposedly a "long-term" vision, organizers explained. But developing nations demanded that, rather than prioritize this "vision" at Copenhagen, wealthy developed nations (frequently the biggest polluters) must first recommit to the binding targets called for by Kyoto.

"Poor countries want to see an outcome which guarantees sharp emissions reductions, yet rich countries are trying to delay discussions on the only mechanism we have to deliver this--the Kyoto Protocol," Jeremy Hobbs, of Oxfam International, explained to Sky News.

Unsurprisingly, delegates from countries that are the most resistant to firm limits on greenhouse emissions scolded the delegates who walked out. "This is a walkout over process and form, not a walkout over substance, and that's regrettable," said Australian Climate Change Minister Penny Wong. "This is not the time for people to play procedural games."

There is an element of truth to the charge that the walkout was tactical maneuver, given its support by China and India--countries that are loathe to place restrictions emissions for fear it will curtail their economies. As Inter Press Service noted, "China and other major polluters from the developing world have proposed only conservative targets for reducing emissions--failure that is linked to the reluctance of developed countries to pledge significant funding to the roughly $200 billion a year that will be needed for adaptation, mitigation, technology transfers and capacity building."

But industrialized countries, particularly the U.S., have much more to answer for.

As UN Framework Convention on Climate Change chief Yvo de Boer noted, the emphasis on what countries in the Global South should do to keep their emissions low seems outrageous in many ways. "In India," de Boer said, "there are 400 million people without electricity. How do you switch off the light bulb that you don't have?"

By any realistic measure, the limits on emissions set under the Kyoto Accords 12 years ago are woefully inadequate. That there remains such obstinate refusal to abide by its provisions among the richest (and most polluting) nations shows just how little those at the top are willing to do to curb emissions.

In other words, profits are being put above the planet yet again.

IN ALL, developing nations are asking for a commitment of some $200 billion from industrialized countries to help them tackle the effects of global warming. Even that paltry amount--far less than the U.S. alone has spent on its wars in Iraq and Afghanistan--is double the amount of money currently on the table. As di-Aping said, "The American Congress has to be asked: you approve billions of dollars in defense budgets. Can't you approve $200 billion to save the world?"

Although G77 countries came back to the table the same day of their walkout, talks appeared to stall again later in the week, as tensions between the U.S. and China came to the fore over how to ensure compliance with whatever deal is finally negotiated.

China, which only recently agreed to a target for reducing the rate of its greenhouse gas emissions, has refused to accept any international monitoring. The Obama administration negotiators, taking a page out of the playbook of predecessor George W. Bush, are insisting that they can't agree to any deal unless China agrees to monitoring first.

Underlying this dispute is the idea that curbing emissions will require steps that could be detrimental to both the U.S. and Chinese economies--which are in increasing competition with one another.

The U.S. is also calling China's stated emissions reduction goal too low. "If China or any other country wants to be a full partner in global climate efforts, that country must commit to transparency and review of their emissions-cutting regime," Rep. Edward Markey (D-Mass.), a co-sponsor of the climate and energy bill that passed the House in June, told the New York Times. "Without that commitment, other governments and industries, including those in America, will be hesitant to engage with those countries."

That kind of rhetoric is incredibily hypocritical, considering that the U.S. itself has still not officially signed onto the Kyoto Protocol--leaving it virtually alone in the world.

The impasse between China and the U.S. in Copenhagen threatens to spark a new trade war, with calls for tariffs on Chinese imports into the U.S.--since the House climate bill allows for imposition of tariffs on countries that don't cut carbon emissions. As the New York Times noted, "A group of 10 Democratic senators wrote to Mr. Obama two weeks ago warning that the Senate would not ratify any treaty that did not protect American industry from foreign competitors who do not have to meet global warming emissions limits."

SUCH SQUABBLING led "red-faced Danish Prime Minister Lars Rasmussen" (as he was called by the Web site to lecture delegates that, "People around the world [are] actually expecting something to be done from us."

Fat chance. In all likelihood, the talks will not have progressed far enough for a final deal by the time heads of state, including Barack Obama, arrive in Copenhagen on Thursday and Friday.

More importantly, the battles are giving a glimpse into how countries' business and economic interests are driving the talks--rather than a real consideration of how severe the climate crisis actually is.

The proposals that have a chance of being taken up are so woefully inadequate that, according to a December 14 media briefing from the Climate Action Network, a deal signed on the basis of what was on the table at the beginning of this week would lead to increased emissions, causing an estimated 3.9 degree rise in average global temperature--far beyond the critical threshold of 2 degrees that would result in catastrophic climate change.

Provisions to protect the rights of indigenous people--a key part of a proposed agreement to reduce emissions due to deforestation--have been stripped out of the legally enforceable main body of the proposed text, and moved instead to the preamble.

Moreover, the thrust of whatever agreement is reached will rely heavily on business-oriented "solutions" to emissions.

To take one example, at the conference, U.S. Energy Secretary Steven Chu announced the "Renewables and Efficiency Deployment Initiative," an international energy "partnership" created under the Obama administration that brings together the industrial nations responsible for more than 85 percent of global carbon emissions. Under the program, these countries would spend $350 million over five years--including $85 million from the United States--to "accelerate deployment of renewable energy and energy efficiency technologies in developing countries."

The program can't even be called window dressing. First of all, $350 million is a paltry sum, in no way adequate to make a dent in cutting emissions in the developing world. (To put the figure in perspective, the U.S. will spend about $85 million on just 85 soldiers this year alone in Obama's Afghanistan "surge" of 30,000 troops.)

Even more problematic is the fact that the program would push countries in the Global South toward things like "energy efficient" appliances--presumably made by companies like General Electric.

Meanwhile, back at home, the main culprits of global carbon emissions in industrialized nations--including fossil fuel-based industrial production and automobile use--are left relatively untouched. In all, the U.S. and Canada had announced emission cuts of 4 and 3 percent from 1990 levels by 2020, respectively, far below what is needed.

As Chris Williams noted recently in, overall:

...the industrialized countries have offered a combined cut of just 10-17 percent of their emissions from 1990 levels by 2020. That sounds good, except that the Inter-Governmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) stated two years ago that emissions needed reducing by at least 25 to 40 percent to even stand a 50-50 chance of avoiding the 2 degree Celsius threshold.

When it comes to money, the European Union has announced that at least $100 billion per year is needed to counter the effects of climate change (most environmental organizations put the figure much higher). Yet so far, a "quick start fund" of just $10 billion annually until 2012 has been pledged--with the EU pledging $3.6 billion. The U.S. has so far remained silent on what it will chip in.

Essentially, this is the climate equivalent of "Let them eat cake." As the poorest in the world face the brunt of the crisis, the rich refuse to take it seriously.

MEANWHILE, THE voices of the estimated 100,000 protesters who came to demand action were being repressed in the streets--hardly the picture of "Hopenhagen" (as the city has been branded on banners and signs) that authorities were hoping for.

As author Naomi Klein reported on a mass march that occurred December 12:

When a handful of people starting throwing stones and setting off sound grenades (no, they weren't "gunshots" as the Huffington Post breathlessly reported), the marchers handled it themselves, instructing the people responsible to leave the protest, which they promptly did...

Never mind. The Copenhagen cops used a little shattered glass as the pretext for detaining almost a thousand people, picking up another hundred the next day. Hundreds of those arrested were corralled together, forced to sit on the freezing pavement for hours, with wrists cuffed (and some ankles, too). According to organizer Tadzio Müller, these were not the people who threw rocks, but "the treatment was humiliating," with some of the detainees urinating on themselves because they were not allowed to move.

The arrests, part of a pattern all week, felt like a warning: deviations from the "Hopenhagen" message will not be tolerated.

A "People's Assembly" on December 16 was declared illegal, despite having previously been granted a permit--and was violently broken up. A march of hundreds of indigenous activists was prevented from joining the assembly, and journalists attempting to cover the repression were turned away.

In his speech in Oslo accepting the Nobel Peace Prize, Barack Obama called on countries negotiating in Copenhagen to "reach for the world that ought to be." But as is becoming clear from what we know is likely to end up in the final agreement, we can't trust the politicians to deliver "the world that ought to be" to us. We'll have to fight for it.

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