Copenhagen closes: too little, too late

coplogoThe Copenhagen climate conference finally wrapped up in the wee small hours of Sunday morning NZ time (3:26pm Saturday in Denmark), with delegates agreeing to “take note of” a “Copenhagen Accord” [PDF here]. The agreement sets no legally binding targets, establishes no follow-on framework for Kyoto, only “recognises” the need to stay under 2ºC, and that parties “should cooperate in achieving the peaking of global and national emissions as soon as possible”. On the plus side, the accord does provide for assistance to developing countries of US$30 billion over 2010-12, and commits to a “goal” of US$100 billion a year by 2020. The meeting ended after an all night plenary session in which a group of developing countries including Bolivia, Cuba, Sudan and Venezuela blocked progress because of the lack of binding targets for the developed world.

Although late drafts of an agreement included references to 80% cuts by 2050 for developed countries, this disappeared from the final text. All the Accord requires is that developed countries “commit to implement individually or jointly the quantified economy- wide emissions targets for 2020″, with these targets to be appended to the agreement by the end of January 2010. Developing countries can do the same, for their preferred emissions targets. This will all be reviewed by 2015, and in a nod to the small island nations, the review will consider strengthening the goal to a 1.5ºC limit.

The final deal was stitched together by the US and China, in a meeting with India, Brazil and South Africa, and effectively imposed on the rest of the world. Here’s how BBC environment correspondent Richard Black describes it:

Ministers and scientists and campaigners who dedicated huge swathes of the last year to making a tough deal happen watched aghast as Chinese and US leaders and their entourages flew in, took over the agenda and emerged with what was basically their own private deal, with leaders announcing it live on television before others realised it had happened.

As you’d expect, leaders from EU countries and the developing world that really don’t like this deal have been assuming rictus grins and telling us it’s a “good first step”.

New Zealand’s climate change ambassador Adrian Macey was equally unimpressed, describing the process as “appalling” in the Herald this morning. Sudan’s environment minister said the weak deal would commit Africa to a holocaust, and Ian Fry, spokesman for Tuvalu said it would spell the end of his country. More reaction at the BBC report & analysis, Telegraph, Guardian (editorial), New York Times, and Stuff.

My take? Copenhagen was always going to end with a deal of some sort, because too many leaders had too much mana invested in the process for there to be an overt collapse. However, the deal that’s been done — essentially a private affair between the US and China, imposed on the rest of the world and accepted only because something is better than nothing — delivers little in the way of concrete progress. Unless the momentum that built up before COP15 began can be maintained through the next year, and targets agreed and implemented in some sort of credible fashion, then the prospects for emissions peaking early enough to give the world a chance of staying under 2ºC will be essentially zero.

What are we left with? I suspect this process will bumble on for years, with many fine words and minimal action. One report suggested that China’s real position was that it would prioritise economic growth until climate impacts grew too severe, then go for rapid adaptation. If that’s true, then we’re all toast. Nothing really transformative will be attempted until the effects of warming are so severe that the world will be plunged into a wartime response to the issue. That’s when the climate commitment — the 30 years of warming in the pipeline — will really bite. I fear that the only interesting questions now are how soon, and how bad will it be?

14 thoughts on “Copenhagen closes: too little, too late”

  1. .

    Some say the world will end in fire,
    Some say in ice.
    From what I’ve tasted of desire
    I hold with those who favor fire.
    But if it had to perish twice,
    I think I know enough of hate
    To say that for destruction ice
    Is also great
    And would suffice.
    Robert Frost

  2. “Sudan’s environment minister said the weak deal would commit Africa to a holocaust…”
    Christ’s balls…Orwell couldn’t make this stuff up. Remind me again why we’re supposed to be ashamed that genocidal dictatorships are lecturing us about “holocausts”, and are supposed to pay our “debt” to Sudan…Cuba…Venezuela

      1. Please explain what is equitable about NZers paying more for food, fuel, electricity, and basically everything, in order to pass the money on to Sudan’s junta to buy AK-47s to machine gun more Dharfurians into mass graves. Is that what they mean by “carbon offset”?

  3. Here’s a geopolitical perspective from

    China’s position ultimately is not driven by ideology, but by its geopolitical situation: namely, its rapid economic growth and dependence on the consumption of carbon-intensive coal.

    A massive split exists between developed and developing nations on the question of climate change policy, based on their divergent interests and different structural factors in their economies. Developed countries’ economies tend to be driven by services and consumption, with technologically advanced and relatively energy-efficient industrial sectors that produce high-value added goods.

    Developing states, meanwhile, are still undergoing industrialization. Their economies are driven by industry and exports and rely on industrial sectors that are less technologically savvy and more energy-intensive. Beijing took the lead in pressing the case for developing nations (despite its crucial financial differences from those poor nations that staged a walk-out in protest at Copenhagen on Dec. 14). Beijing argues that the developed countries historically have contributed the most carbon emissions, so the burden lies on them not only to dramatically cut their emissions but also to provide funds and technology to assist developing states. Without greater aid, says China, the developing world cannot be expected to make greater sacrifices.

    China offered to reduce carbon intensity (carbon emissions calculated against gross domestic product) by 40-45 percent — essentially a do-nothing move, allowing carbon emissions to continue increasing but ostensibly at a slower rate — invoking the Kyoto protocol, which did not demand hard carbon emissions cuts from developing states.

    Beneath China’s claim of exemption from making hard emissions cuts lies a fundamental reality: China’s hardwired dependence on coal for 70 percent of its primary energy demand. China is the world’s largest coal producer and consumer (producing 42.5 percent and consuming 42.9 percent of the world’s total in 2008). Moreover it holds roughly 14 percent of the world’s coal reserves, which means coal — unlike oil and natural gas — can be mostly domestically sourced, which gives coal a strategic advantage as an energy source. Half of China’s coal consumption is used for power generation, contributing about three-fourths of feedstock for power plants. About 36 percent of its total coal consumption goes toward manufacturing, with textiles and food processing consuming the most.

    While Beijing has made a concerted effort to promote natural gas consumption in the energy mix and reduce coal dependency, China’s economic fundamentals rest on coal consumption. The political influence of the coal industry, combined with regional dependencies on the industry, make it extremely difficult politically to restructure. China’s overall energy consumption grew 7.2 percent from 2007 to 2008, even given the slowdown in the latter part of 2008.

    With consistently high rates of growth, coal is for the foreseeable future the only energy source that can reliably meet China’s rising demand, and China continues building new (and inefficient) coal-fired power plants apace. China contributes about 21 percent of global carbon emissions and 41 percent of global coal-produced carbon emissions; 82 percent of China’s emissions come from burning coal. This strongly constrains Beijing’s ability to compromise on its energy policy.

    Maintaining strong economic growth is essential for China. With a population of 1.3 billion, including more than 700 million rural citizens, most living in poverty, China has both an enormous amount of labor to employ and enormous disparities in wealth. Beijing must manage the economy to continue to create new jobs and rising incomes — otherwise social stability, and potentially the regime itself, would be at risk. Rapid economic growth is fueled by coal, and the coal sector is labor-intensive. This means Beijing cannot afford politically or economically to slow its coal consumption through stringent restrictions on carbon emissions.

    Therefore, Beijing is unwilling to embrace emissions cuts without major incentives, like access to high technology that could help transform its energy infrastructure, boost efficiency and reduce pollution, a major problem in China. China also wants access to new clean technology that its manufacturers can replicate and export more cheaply than China’s competitors. The foundations exist for a bilateral agreement between China and the United States (even if tacit) for the United States to provide just such incentives.

    Hence the rift at Copenhagen. With China and the United States contributing the most to global carbon emissions and neither willing to make a greater sacrifice without first getting greater concessions and guarantees from the other — for instance, Washington wants a way to monitor and verify Beijing’s efforts — it has become clear that other states would not be able to implement a forceful international treaty.

    Any progress will ultimately be held hostage to this American-Chinese dispute: the United States will not agree to a global climate treaty without China, and China cannot join unless there is some means of ending Chinese dependence on coal or reducing coal emissions through technology.

  4. So they agreed how much money they needed, but not what they needed to do?

    The USA has said it will not contribute to a fund that goes to China. I presume that if China funds itself then the amount of money required is a lot less.

    They have not agreed what cuts are needed from developed nations and what are needed from developing nations, I presume if a higher percentage of the cuts come from the developed world then less money is needed.

    I think it should be obvious that no thought what so ever has possibly gone into the 100B a year by 2020. It just sounds like a good big number, and hey 2020 is 10 years away, who of us will still be prime minister / president at that time anyway??

    I find it highly unlikely that any super calculation has gone through all the emissions scenarios and abatement costs and calculated a nice round number like 100!

    So what did we get out of this PR stunt that is called Copenhagen (apart from increased air travel), no agreement on emissions cuts, but a agreement on how much funding is needed to finance whatever emissions cuts we do one day decide. Great! Just shows what happens when you ask 196 countries to reach agreement and then add 35,000 journalists and interest groups types to the mix! “Umm, arr, we agree 100 is the right number! Yes, that is it, 100 billion per year by 2020. That is what we will do. Happy? Good.”

  5. Actually R2 there has been quite a bit of consideration given to just what it might cost to get humanity as a whole and the planet back into an equitable sustainable equilibrium. its a bit more than the $100B under discussion here but it includes that. You can see what sort of money would be required here:
    Bryan has reviewed Lester Brown’s Book “Plan B” – its up to its 4th version already. It takes a holistic view to not only Climate Change but also Social and Community Development world wide. It probably isn’t your cup of tea. But it you might like to read it to see that what is proposed isn’t actually all that frightening – and indeed there are huge possibilities for all should such a way be followed.

    1. All nice and dandy too have a figure for what it may cost to do x, y, and z in theory. But until you define x, y and z in reality it does not make sense to commit too funding, unless they committed to a minimum amount?

      Its like designing the welfare state, and saying, “before we decide if we will have unemployment and social health care lets agree that the top tax rate should be 40%. Now, lets decide what the best things to spend this money on are…” (or Labour Government, we don’t wont to have tax cuts, so we better work out how to spend this surplus… working for families, KiwiSaver, expand state services…)

      There will always be waste if the spending is pledged first and then the money is appropriated later. A corporate does not make a budget by saying, we will spend $10 million in total, now how will we spend it. A bottom up approach is used. Until we know targets and scope of financing it is impossible to state a figure.

      “In the context of meaningful mitigation actions and transparency on implementation, developed countries commit to a goal of mobilizing jointly USD 100 billion dollars a year by 2020 to address the needs of developing countries.” – however we have not defined the needs of developing countries (well for climate change, I’m sure some would say the needs of developing countries are endless for social equity)

  6. R2D2 all you show is that you haven’t bothered to acquaint yourself with the economic analysis that is the everyday work of bodies which concern themselves with the welfare of poor developing countries. Bodies like Oxfam don’t come up with figures that have no basis in reality. As Macro points out Lester Brown has been working on such budgets for years. So has Jeffrey Sachs. And Nicholas Stern. And countless other institutions. Knuckle down and do some reading. There are a lot of serious-minded people who work hard in this area. The politicians won’t be offering more than they recommend. And if giving money away worries you so much think of it as compensation owed, not aid.

  7. R2D2. The world is facing a terrifying future because of our endless political and economic bickering, and you want to make an issue of whether any money is going to China. I don’t know whether it is or not, and I don’t really care. All I know is that if someone soon doesn’t start some trailblazing on emissions reduction, at whatever cost need be, our grandchildren are doomed. The money so far being talked about is very minor anyway.

    1. I am not making an issue of it, it is an issue.

      My point is, there is still dispute over who will receive money, so how can we POSSIBLY know how much money is needed when we don’t know if it is for all developing countries or just the least developed?? S Korea? Mexico? Brazil? Taiwan? Saudi Arabia? Yemen? Oman? Russia? Receivers or contributors or neither?

      1. If you were to read some of the analysis instead of spending your time constantly finding fault – you would find that it is all budgeted. And yes there would be some money going to China (more in the development of greener technologies) – the quid pro quo being that they would be required to be monitored like everyone else. As Bryan says, the need is to get on with the task. Too often the emphasis is on self-interest (of countries, companies, and individuals) the driver behind the so called “free market”. This attitude has lead us to the situation we are now in. It’s time for a fundamental change, to one where we start to think about the other person first – the other country first – and what we can do to help them. Ironically I think this is what this season is about.

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