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Blame Denmark, not China, for Copenhagen failure

Updated: 2010-01-01 12:53
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It's been several days since the chaotic end to the Copenhagen climate conference but the aftershocks from its failure are still reverberating. As John Prescott points out in his letter to the Guardian, the pointing of fingers in the blame game does not help the regaining of trust needed for the positive resumption of talks early next year and to complete them by December 2010, the new deadline agreed to in Copenhagen.

First, the misinformation put out in the past few days has to be corrected. The UK climate secretary, Ed Miliband, backed by individuals such as Mark Lynas (both writing in the Guardian) have turned on China as the villain that "hijacked" the conference. The main "evidence" they gave was that China vetoed an "agreement" on a 50% reduction in global emissions by 2050 and an 80% reduction by developed countries, in the small meeting of 26 leaders on Copenhagen's final day.

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There was indeed a "hijack" in Copenhagen, but it was not by China. The hijack was organised by the host government, Denmark, whose prime minister convened a meeting of 26 leaders in the last two days of the conference, in an attempt to override the painstaking negotiations taking place among 193 countries throughout the two weeks and in fact in the past two to four years.

That exclusive meeting was not mandated by the UN climate convention. Indeed, the developing countries had warned the Danish prime minister, Lars Lokke Rasmussen, not to come up with his own "Danish text" to be negotiated by a small group that he himself would select, as this would violate the multilateral treaty-based process, and would replace the documents carefully negotiated by all countries with one unilaterally issued by the host country.

Despite this, the Danish government produced just such a document, and it convened exactly the kind of exclusive group that would undermine the UN climate convention's multilateral and democratic process. Under that process, the 193 countries had been collectively working on coming to a conclusion on the many aspects of the climate deal.

Weeks before, it had become clear that Copenhagen could not adopt a full agreement because many basic differences remained. Copenhagen should have been designed as a stepping stone to a future successful outcome accepted by all. Unfortunately, the host country Denmark selected a small number of the 110 top leaders who came, to meet in secret, without the mandate or even knowledge of the convention's membership.

The selected leaders were given a draft Danish document that mainly represented the developed countries' positions, thereby marginalising the developing countries' views tabled at the two-year negotiations.

Meanwhile, most of the thousands of delegates were working for two weeks on producing two reports representing the latest state of play, indicating areas of agreement and those where final decisions still had to be taken.

These reports were finally adopted by the conference. They should have been announced as the real outcome of Copenhagen, together with a decision to resume and complete work next year. It would not have been a resounding success, but it would have been an honest ending that would not have been termed a failure.

Instead, the Copenhagen accord was criticised by the final plenary of members and not adopted. The unwise attempt by the Danish presidency to impose a non-legitimate meeting to override the legitimate multilateral process was the reason why Copenhagen will be considered a disaster.

The accord itself is weak mainly because it does not contain any commitments by the developed countries to cut their emissions in the medium term. Perhaps the reason for this most glaring omission is that the national pledges so far announced amount to only a 11-19% overall reduction by the developed countries by 2020 (compared to 1990), a far cry from the over 40% target demanded by the developing countries and recent science.

To deflect from this great failure on their part, the developed countries tried to inject long-term emission-reduction goals of 50% for the world and 80% for themselves, by 2050 compared to 1990. When this failed to get through the 26-country meeting, some countries, especially the UK, began to blame China for the failure of Copenhagen.

In fact, these targets, especially taken together, have been highly contentious during the two years of discussions, and for good reasons. They would result in a highly inequitable outcome where developed countries get off from their responsibilities and push the burden of adjustment onto the developing countries.

Together, they imply that developing countries would have to cut their emissions overall by about 20% in absolute terms and at least 60% in per capita terms. By 2050, developed countries with high per capita emissions – such as the US – would be allowed to have two to five times higher per capita emission levels than developing countries. The latter would have to severely curb not only their emissions but also their economic growth, especially since there is, up to now, no credible plans let alone commitments for financial and technology transfers to help them shift to a low-emissions development path.

The developed countries have already completed their industrialisation on the basis of cheap carbon-based energy and can afford to take on an 80% goal for 2050, especially since they now have the technological and organisational capacity and infrastructure. For a minimally equitable deal, they should commit to cuts of at least 200-400%, or move into negative emission territory, with net re-absorption of greenhouse gases, to enable developing countries the atmospheric space to develop.

The acceptance of the two targets would also have locked in a most unfair sharing of the remaining global carbon budget as it would have allowed the developed countries to get off free from their historical responsibility and their carbon debt. They would have been allocated the rights to a large amount of "carbon space", historically and in the future, without being given the obligation and responsibility to undertake adequate emission cuts nor to make adequate financial and technology transfers to developing countries.

Fortunately these targets are absent from the accord. The imperative for the negotiations next year is to agree on what science says is necessary for the world to do (in terms of limits to temperature rise or in global emissions cut) but also on what is a just and equitable formula for sharing the costs and burdens of adjustment, and to decide on both simultaneously. By asking for agreement on only a global goal and a very low commitment figure for their own obligatory cut, the developed countries were attempting to fix a global carbon budget distribution that enables them to get away with the hijacking of atmospheric space, a resource worth many trillions of dollars.

Learning from Copenhagen's mistakes, the countries should return to the multilateral track and resume negotiations in the climate convention's two working groups as early as possible.

They can start with the two reports passed at Copenhagen as reference points. There should not be more attempts to hijack this multilateral process, which represents our best hope to achieve final results.

The bottom-up democratic process is slower but also steadier, compared to the top-down attempt to impose a solution by a few powers that will always lack legitimacy in decision-making and success or sustainability in implementation.