The Copenhagen (lack of) accord

By Benedict De Meulemeester

By Benedict De Meulemeester on 22/12/2009

The word 'accord' is relative to the Italian word "accordare" or the French word "s'accorder". Both words mean reaching an agreement. Well, if the world is honest, it will have to admit that the climate summit in Copenhagen (COP15) has mostly unveiled the deep disagreement about how to curb man-made climate change. Disagreements between three main parties:

1. The developed countries. Most of the carbon dioxide currently in the air came out of their chimneys. And they are still the world's largest emitters. Still, there are large differences in their willingness to accept that historical responsibility. Europeans propose the most ambitious emission cuts. President Obama acted like a real leader on this issue when he arrived late on the summit. But he cannot make true on this leadership if his own country (the second largest per capita emitter) doesn't commit to larger cuts. And with so many of his countrymen in the non-believers camp regarding climate change, he needs to thread carefully. After all, the US is a democracy ...

2. The emerging economies. I recently saw a documentary about the Indian countryside. Hundreds of millions of people still live there without the comfort of electricity. This makes you understand how hard it is for these countries to commit to emission cuts. They claim their right to development, which, unfortunately, comes with larger emissions of carbon dioxide. If the average Chinese family would own two cars, like families in developed countries do, this would mean a disaster in terms of carbon dioxide emissions. But why would the Chinese have less right to drive cars than US or Belgian citizens?

3. The least developed countries. They have the lowest per capita emissions. And like emerging economies, they claim their right to development and more emissions. Moreover, they will probably suffer most from the effects of global warming. Flooding in Bangladesh, droughts in Africa, hurricanes in Central-America, many of the world's poorest people happen to live in areas that risk serious effects of rising temperatures and seas. Yes, raising dykes will be painful for the budget of the Netherlands. But that pain looks puny when compared to the Bangladeshi that will have to run for higher ground because his government has no money to build any protections. The developed countries came to Copenhagen to ask for money. Not only the Kyoto money aimed at cleaning up development but also bare money to pay for the consequences of global warming.

International politics is a dirty game. And it is money that is at stake here. Hence the difficulty of these negotiations. According to David Milliband, the British minister present in Copenhagen, the talks have even shown the limits of the UN's capacities as a facilitator of such international negotiations. He called it 'a chaotic process dogged by procedural games'. This was well illustrated by the most remarkable TV footage coming from Copenhagen. The leaders of the US, China, India, Brazil and other countries crammed together in a much too small meeting room to hammer out what became the final deal. Mrs. Clinton was almost sitting on Mr. Obama's lap! What a contrast with the huge stage in the central conference room. But it worked and some sort of deal was reached.

A deal that lacks ambition, it is true. There are no binding targets for countries. No sanctions if targets are not met. There is no clarity of how the Copenhagen Green Climate Fund that is to organize payments to the least developed countries ($100 billion per year) will be funded. And there is no timetable for tabling a more ambitious deal. Yet, even this toothless deal was too much for many countries to sign it. They 'took note' of it. Of course, the people in the small room did there best to look happy with what they had produced. They highlighted the achievements of the Copenhagen accord. The fact that all countries, China included, had agreed to have their emissions verified. This does indeed create the possibility of a more rational debate on emissions in the future. And then there is always that last excuse: "some deal is better than no deal". But all of them must have realized how extremely difficult it will continue to be for the world to deal successfully with man-made climate change. The root cause of the problem, energy consumption, is simply too much linked to economic development. This will always make it difficult for politicians to take tough decisions on reductions.

The question remains what the result of Copenhagen will be. On the ground, we see a lot going on. Development of technologies such as renewable energy or electric cars is moving fast. Will this dynamism be thwarted by the lack of a world-wide policy framework to support it? Or is the development to strong to be stopped?

Copenhagen also presents Europe with an important dilemma. The EU has again acted as the Jeanne d'Arc of climate change abatement. Saintly and ready to attack fiercely (30% reduction by 2020!). But is Europe willing to end up in the fires of the global warming caused by other, less ambitious countries? If Europe continues with an ambitious climate policy and it can finally hammer out an emissions trading system with real teeth, the price of electricity in Europe could easily rise by 50%. Is Europe willing to do that to its citizens and its economy after Copenhagen? The market seems to think that it won't. The first trading day after Copenhagen, European emission rights prices fell by 5%.

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