Copenhagen Reflections: was anything accomplished?

The post-COP15 perspectives and analyses have been grim and negative. It could hardly be otherwise. Much of the media has been focussed on finding blame.

On December 22, in The Guardian ran free-lancer Mark Lynas’ assessment: ‘How do I know China wrecked the Copenhagen deal? I was in the room’ But even being ‘in the room’ in the bizarre, last minute, non-UN process to force a deal doesn’t give the full picture. There is more than enough blame to go around.

One starts with the host government. Much was at stake, but Denmark’s diplomatic efforts contributed to failure. The poisoning of the negotiating climate began on Day 2 with the leaked draft Danish text—a rich countries’ agreement to kill the Kyoto Protocol. Further problems were the bizarre logistics and security mess. It was egregious enough to accredit 40,000 participants for a space that accommodated 15,000 (and the UN Climate secretariat must answer for much of this mess), but when security barred members of country delegations from the building, the negotiating climate worsened. China’s head of delegation was reported to have been denied access for the first few days. At times, Brazil’s senior negotiator was unable to get in the room.

As soon as the High Level segment began and Prime Minister Rasmussen took over chairing duties from Environment Minister Connie Hedegaard, things went from bad to worse. The negotiators had worked all night agreeing to a new text on the Kyoto Protocol. As Minister Hedegaard left the chair, she noted a new text would be circulated soon from the Presidency. The question hanging in the room was ‘where is the text we negotiated all night?’ As she retreated, Prime Minister Rasmussen refused to allow the question to be answered, so keen was he on keeping the set speeches to take centre stage and run on time. In this brief public display the extent of the hostilities was clear. The head of the Chinese delegation spoke of the issue being a ‘matter of trust with the host country.’ Brazil and India agreed, the head of the Indian delegation still being quite flustered by the problems he encountered getting through security. South Africa and the Sudan, speaking for the group of 130 developing countries, also spoke of a lack of transparency in denying the primacy of the negotiated text in favour of some new text from the chair. Prime Minister Rasmussen ploughed ahead, ignoring the flag of Venezuela, cutting off none other than Hugo Chavez who had already joined his negotiators in the room.

The diplomatic gaffes continued the next night as leaders from around the world were invited to attend dinner with the Queen of Denmark. In an effort to get key leaders in the room for an informal chat, Prime Minister Rasmussen invited what he considered were the most important countries. Rumour has it he forgot to invite China. So, I do not doubt that what Mark Lynas saw looked like China wrecking a deal, but the wrecking started with a bizarre number of affronts to China before the world leaders arrived.

Blame also goes to Canada. In spring 2006 when Environment Minister Rona Ambrose was President of the COP, post Montreal’s hosting of COP11, Canada made itself the ‘bad boy’ of climate talks. With Canada actually chairing the negotiations, Ambrose announced Canada was not going to even attempt to reach our Kyoto target. Ever since, Canada has expanded the space for bad behaviour. Countries could be very uncooperative and counter-productive and still not be as bad as Canada. At the same time, in negotiation after negotiation, we laid down our square brackets (in international negotiations, applying square brackets to a draft text indicates disagreement with a phrase or section), blocking consensus on multiple issues. The reason Canada kept winning the Fossil of the Day award in negotiations, at COP 12, 13, 14 and 15, was that we were actively obstructing progress. And we continued being counter-productive right through the COP15 talks, winning, once again, the Colossal Fossil of the Year award.

On top of that, the US let everyone down. If there had been any hope, it was that President Obama would bring some flexibility to negotiations. Instead, he delivered a speech that had elements of Gary Cooper in ‘High Noon.’ It led to a forced, back-room effort to achieve something that could be used to appease a domestic US audience. So too was the United Nations hijacked to the US Senate and Obama’s desire to pass the Waxman-Markey bill. What now? Thanks to the round of all-night negotiations after the leaders had climbed on their jets for home, the so- called Copenhagen Accord was not the decision of COP15. Through the UN fudge of saying COP15 ‘took note’ of the five country deal, the commitments by China to allow verification of its reductions, and the financial commitments of wealthy countries, have been preserved as somehow meaningful. At the same time, the COP15 process did not allow the back-room accord to kill the Kyoto Protocol.

Copenhagen was a disaster, but it was not an unmitigated one. The negotiations continue. Civil society has found its champions, in the small low-lying island states, in African nations that argued that 2 degrees was too much in global temperature rise. We have a hellish hard task ahead to achieve the real carbon cuts that are urgently needed. Copenhagen was supposed to be the end of the road. Instead, it was a nasty pot hole.

This report was previously published in Embassy Magazine, who have kindly granted permission for its inclusion in Island Tides.

Elizabeth May, OC, is the author of Losing Confidence—Power, Politics and the Crisis in Canadian Democracy (McClelland and Stewart, 2009) and is the federal leader of the Green Party of Canada. ShelivesinSidney,BC.