Tuesday, December 22, 2009

The failure of Copenhagen

I'm not intimate with the climate change negotiations, and have not reported on them or climate change except for a stint in November, but quite a few people have asked me what I thought of Copenhagen so here are my thoughts..... I'm disappointed, Copenhagen was a washout. You know that an event, or a deal, is a failure when people start redefining what success is after the event. Especially when success had been quite clearly defined to begin with as something else entirely.

We knew what we wanted: a legally binding deal over climate change, one with targets for emissions cuts and finance. Since November, the climate talks have been a car crash in slow motion. No doubt, behind the scenes, this crash has been going on for far longer. For me, the beginning of the end started on the penultimate day at the previous climate talks in Barcelona this November. It was apparent by Thursday that it was too late to get the legal deal that everyone had been aiming for over two years. I got very drunk that evening in a tapas bar that evening with environment correspondents from The Guardian, The Times, The Irish Times and The Telegraph. There was also someone from the RSPB, and a young man from Greenpeace who had travelled from the UK by train because he was ideologically opposed to travel by air. That evening, over one of many countless glasses of red wine I wondered how history would judge us, and judge this moment. I wondered whether I'd ever have to explain to my children why we couldn't agree to fix the world.

Will the next generation be laughing at us because some magic technofix solution solved the problem in a decade? Or will they be able to trace problems of climate, food and water supply and losses of biodiversity to our failure to master a global environmental problem of this kind?

In Barcelona, Yvo de Boer said that we could still get a legal deal but through a different route. First would come a political deal but a strong one with targets and commitments [sound of hollow laughter], which is then turned into a legal deal later on. In the end, five nations went into a huddle, had a group hug, took a collective bow and then went home for Christmas.
Although, lets be clear: it wasn't just hatched in the final hours. Negotiations over a political deal have been going on for some time during 2009, the only question is: how long?

If I were to guess, and this is a guess. I would suppose that the existence of a political deal had to remain secret until the UN talks were close to failure. Then the political deal could be produced like a rabbit out of the hat. Revealed too early, a political alternative suggests that some of the major players might not be quite so committed to the difficult and costly UN legal deal, when a lovely, fudgy, largely meaningless political deal is far preferable. A political agreement can be announced with great fanfare and everyone can go home with a warm feeling.

Avoided deforestation (REDD) as a climate reducing strategy, ironically, seems to be going strong--although without a commitment to cuts that Copenhagen was supposed to produce the market for carbon offsets related to forestry there is a big question of how much demand there will be for these.

If I were part of the political process, what I'd do next would be to try and put the blame squarely on the UN. Lets not blame the UN, everyone signed up for this process two years ago and to walk away with so little to show for all the effort is simply a testament to the failure of leadership by the world's largest carbon emitters.

As ever Kevin Grandia, at DeSmogBlog.com, puts it all far more pithily.