Copenhagen: A lesson in geopolitics

Climate talks were paralysed by the growing chasm between rich and poor countries.

The Copenhagen Accord was agreed by the US, China, India, Brazil and South Africa [AFP]

After two weeks of international deadlock and an all-night marathon negotiating session that produced a thin and toothless accord, the biggest climate talks in history devolved from “Hopenhagen” to “Nopenhagen”.

The Copenhagen Accord – brokered at the last minute by Barack Obama, the US president, with China, India, Brazil and South Africa – did not receive universal support from the 193 countries participating in the climate summit.

The accord, which gutted a comprehensive agreement to pay poor countries to protect their forests, since the mass cutting of trees accounts for 20 per cent of global emissions, is not binding and does not have a set date for capping carbon emissions.

It provoked reactions from fury to despair.

Lumumba Stanislaus Dia-ping, Sudan’s chief negotiator, compared it to the Holocaust, while Hugo Chavez, the Venezuelan president, referenced the sulfur of hell and suggested that Obama was Satan.

Ian Fry of Tuvalu, the drowning island-nation that has become the poster country for the perils of rising sea levels, likened the accord to “being offered 30 pieces of silver to betray our people and our future”.

Global climate politics

But longtime observers of climate negotiations never expected a sweeping deal in Copenhagen, especially considering today’s polarised and charged geopolitics. The rift between rich and poor countries remains wide, and the chasm paralysed the negotiations.

in depth

China and India, the developing world’s rising economic powerhouses and sometimes adversaries, together opposed key elements such as the external monitoring of greenhouse gas emissions.

Wen Jiabao, the premier of China – the world’s biggest emitter of CO2 gases – also snubbed 11th-hour meetings with Obama and other leaders, sending low-level aides instead.

Cleo Paskal, a fellow in the Energy, Environment and Development Programme at the British think tank Chatham House, says the world’s changing political landscape is partly why even Obama’s last-minute brokering did not produce something powerful.

“Climate change has become part of global politics,” Paskal says. “There was a very high expectation from the West that a deal would be pushed through. But what’s happened is a real wake-up call to how geopolitics has changed.”

Environmental groups, developing nations such Venezuela and Cuba, and much of the European media criticised Obama for the deal.

“He formed a league of super-polluters, and would-be super-polluters,” environmentalist and author Bill McKibben wrote in the American magazine Grist. “It is a coalition of foxes who will together govern the henhouse.”

‘Historic, if incomplete’

But, not everyone was critical of the deal.

An exhausted Ban Ki-moon, the UN secretary-general, told a press conference that he welcomed it as “an important beginning”, while Carl Pope, the executive director of the US-based environmental organisation Sierra Club, released a statement calling it “a historic, if incomplete, agreement”.

Meanwhile, Sheikh Hasina, the prime minister of the environmentally beleaguered Bangladesh, said in a speech that the accord was “a reasonable conclusion”, and Jose Manuel Barroso, the president of the European Commission, acknowledged that producing nothing at all would have been disastrous.

“This accord is better than no accord, but clearly below our ambition,” Barroso said at a 2am press conference on Saturday morning.

“Every leader who was there staked political capitol on being able to win,” Paskal says.

“Now they’re going to have to go back to their capitals and think long and hard on how future international negotiations will go.”

‘Climate reparations’

The Copenhagen Accord did have victories, including the first significant climate fund for poor nations. The accord promises to deliver $30bn of aid over the next three years and to raise $100mn in yearly climate financing for poor countries by 2020.

There is also a deal to help developing economies convert to green energy and low-emission fuels.

Evo Morales said rich countries owe poor nations ‘climate reparations’ [GALLO/GETTY]

But the climate fund did not win the trust of all developing countries, some of whom say the money is not nearly enough.

Evo Morales, Bolivia’s president, declared that rich countries owe poor countries billions of dollars in “climate reparations” and demanded the creation of a “climate change tribunal” for countries who do not stop polluting.

“That framing is never going to fly, at least in the US congress,” says Geoff Dabelko, the director of the Environmental Change and Security Program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington D.C.

“The question is whether these initial financial commitments are seen by developing countries as an incremental step that moves towards figures they see as sufficient.”

The next opportunity for a treaty will be the 2010 UN climate conference in Mexico City. That may be an opportunity to solidify what did not happen in Copenhagen, though many of the same challenges will face leaders there.

In the US, for instance, the climate bill that would set targets for lower US emissions is stalled in the senate and may not make it out this year, since many American legislators are already weary from a vicious political fight to reform healthcare.

Regional focus

If there continues to be an international stalemate on a binding climate accord, countries may try to find regional ways to deal with carbon emissions as well as more immediate environmental issues, such as polluted water supplies, says Paskal of Chatham House.

She also says countries should consider sharing information and ideas on how to adapt to global warming-induced changes such as rising sea levels and more severe storms.

Poor countries like Bangladesh have innovated to handle the chronic floods and storms there but “if you have a flood on the US coast you get Katrina,” Paskal says, referencing the 2005 hurricane that killed at least 1,836 people and displaced thousands, mainly in greater New Orleans.

“The developed world is going to suffer way more severe impacts than is being acknowledged,” she says.

“For example, if Miami is hit by a category five hurricane, which is not unlikely, the implications will be staggering both economically and socially, and yet there are very few plans in place to deal with it.

“People think these are just problems for the developing world, but they’re not. It’s going to affect everyone.”

Source: Al Jazeera

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