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Beyond Copenhagen: how to cool the planet

By Peter Heap, Barry Carin and Gordon Smith - posted Thursday, 5 November 2009

Major international meetings rarely result in acknowledgements of abject failure. If the prospects for success look bleak, the job of senior officials and Ministers is to reframe objectives, lower expectations, devise productive “next stages” or “roadmaps”, and generate hopeful if non-substantive declarations of intent. In the worst case, meetings can be postponed, or, exceptionally, cancelled.

The organisers of the United Nations’ Climate Change Conference, scheduled for December 7 to 18 in Copenhagen, do not have the luxury of cancellation or postponement. Yet it is necessary to consider alternatives if the conference indeed concludes fruitlessly.

This 15th Conference of the Parties (COP) to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) will take place, whether or not the outcomes are likely to be useful. And absent a significant breakthrough in the next six weeks, on December 19 the global community will not have advanced materially toward the overarching goal of checking or reversing the increased levels of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.


Reflecting the dedication and professionalism of the COP 15 delegates, the meeting will produce a range of agreements to keep talking about a collection of subjects too technical for most outsiders to understand. So the several days of talk will not have been entirely in vain. With luck, the areas of disagreement will have been further defined and some of the “low hanging fruit” will have been picked. The shape of future agreements may be more evident, but it seems doubtful whether meaningful, binding commitments directly affecting the levels of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere will have been made, to say nothing of major financial arrangements to fund adaptation, prevent de-forestation and encourage technology transfer.

Current expert assessments of the state of play agree that too much technical work remains to be done for a definitive, comprehensive successor agreement to the Kyoto Accord to emerge from Copenhagen. The emphasis is on accomplishing enough to keep the negotiating round alive past the COP 15 meeting.

The alternatives at that point will be fairly clear - continue with a flawed process or seek a new way forwards. The first option is ill-advised, given the evidence of accelerating climate change and the demonstrable inability of 192 parties to reach agreement on highly technical, multi-sectoral, rapidly evolving global issues. If significant changes to the current approach are to be adopted, however, they must be grounded in the recognition that the decisions required are quintessentially political in nature.

After 14 meetings, it is clear that climate change can only be dealt with through a package deal. If the need for a package is generally recognised, however, the elements are still in major dispute (as is their sequencing). The nub of the problem is easy enough to state. Developing countries are totally unwilling to accept greenhouse gas caps unless developed countries pay for the impact this would have. The “southern” view is that developed countries caused the problem in the first place, and they must pay for solving it. Developing countries refuse to cripple their own economic development and thereby hamstring their efforts to reduce grinding poverty simply to pull developed countries’ irons out of the fire.

At the same time, if developed countries are to act to meet the conditions laid down by developing countries for participating in a climate change deal, significant impacts will be felt in Western economies which remain fragile in the wake of the recent financial crisis. Lifestyle changes would need to be contemplated at a time when western electorates feel especially vulnerable. And even if developed country leaders make major concessions, the level of mutual distrust is such that developing country leaders will be hard-pressed for domestic political reasons of their own to come on board.

Baldly stated, to achieve change on this scale, a major exercise of political will affecting national positions across a range of sectors will be needed. This sort of multi-dimensional commitment can only be made by government leaders, not by ministers or senior bureaucrats.


Substantively, in order to generate enough “wins” for all sides, the existing putative climate change package is already very large, extending beyond traditional environmental concerns to encompass key issues in fields as disparate as energy security, international financial flows, technology transfer, research and development, management of the nuclear fuel cycle, trade, and development assistance. To obtain ultimate success, additional issues of more local or national interest might have to be added to the mix to bring specific countries onside and to generate enough “winners” to make any climate change package broadly acceptable.

So, what existing body has the capability of breaking this deadlock which is closely related to so many other neuralgic areas? The players in this game will need to be government leaders, since the decisions required will be both broad and extremely political. The body will need to be both representative of the developing and developed worlds but limited in number to keep the numerous trade-offs feasible. The obvious candidate is the G20.

Called into existence only in November 2008 to respond to the international financial and economic crisis, the G20 has so far managed that emergency reasonably well. The group is developing useful habits of co-operation and co-ordination, and has passed the acid test of utility - it continues to be called together. In particular, the idea that the major developing economies (China, India, Brazil, Mexico and South Africa) must be fully involved in global decision-making seems firmly entrenched. As the signatories of the Pittsburgh Communiqué stated - “We designated the G-20 to be the premier forum for our international economic cooperation”.

Of course, others, and notably the Secretary-General of the United Nations, Ban Ki-moon, are very wary of any self-appointed group of countries taking on a role which existing international bodies should be undertaking. Ban himself, however, has recognised the critical need to generate political momentum in advance of Copenhagen, and to that end convened a September 22 “Climate Summit” in New York. That said, one would not need to be a terminal cynic to question the likelihood of major progress from four hours worth of “interactive roundtables” involving 192 or so Heads of Government.

In the absence of breakthroughs at the UN, the alternatives to full engagement in climate change by the G20 are grim, especially for vulnerable developing countries. The weight of climate change will fall earliest and disproportionately on poor countries, precisely those less resilient and less prepared. Adaptation to global warming will be expensive, even for developed countries. Fairly soon, public pressure for solutions will grow (Arctic melting, among other indicators, seems to suggest that the pace of warming is accelerating past rates expected in standard models). The political cost of inaction will eventually be prohibitive, although by then, a succession of so far undetectable tipping points may have been surpassed, with ruinous results.

There are, of course, no guarantees that engaging the G20 directly in the climate change negotiations will produce immediate results. Not involving a small group of leaders, however, seems to doom the attempt to devise a successor to the Kyoto Accord to a lingering death, as the oceans of the world continue to rise steadily about our feet.

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Reprinted with permission from YaleGlobal Online ( Copyright 2009, Yale Center for the Study of Globalization, Yale University.

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About the Authors

Peter Heap is all with the Centre for Global Studies at the University of Victoria in Canada.

Barry Carin is with the Centre for Global Studies at the University of Victoria in Canada.

Gordon Smith is with the Centre for Global Studies at the University of Victoria in Canada.

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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