After Copenhagen: new world disorder

By Gareth Renowden 23/12/2009

coplogoIt’s a bit like reading the runes — trawling through reactions to the events of the last couple of weeks, trying to work out what the Copenhagen Accord means. I don’t mean a parsing of the words, though translating the language of diplomacy is never trivial, but what the various parties to the Accord, and the rest of the world, think it means — and crucially, what that implies for future action to reduce emissions.

For background, read this excellent BBC analysis of Copenhagen, and Joe Romm’s interesting take at Climate Progress (which refers to Bill McKibben’s reactions at Grist, plus there’s a more considered McKibben article at e360), but the article that really helped to crystallise my thoughts is Mark Lynas’ insider’s account of the final phases of negotiations:

To those who would blame Obama and rich countries in general, know this: it was China’s representative who insisted that industrialised country targets, previously agreed as an 80% cut by 2050, be taken out of the deal. “Why can’t we even mention our own targets?” demanded a furious Angela Merkel. Australia’s prime minister, Kevin Rudd, was annoyed enough to bang his microphone. Brazil’s representative too pointed out the illogicality of China’s position. Why should rich countries not announce even this unilateral cut? The Chinese delegate said no, and I watched, aghast, as Merkel threw up her hands in despair and conceded the point. Now we know why — because China bet, correctly, that Obama would get the blame for the Copenhagen accord’s lack of ambition.

Lynas’ key point is that China holds the real power in any negotiation. As the new superpower on the block, it is beginning to flex its geopolitical muscle. As the world’s biggest emitter, it knows that no solution is possible without it. The US administration knows if that if China is not part of an emissions deal, the chances of passing domestic legislation to cut emissions are small. Everybody needs China, and China knows it.

At the same time, the UNFCC process relies on building consensus. Every country has a say, every country can delay, demur, or derail proceedings. If national interests don’t align, only the weakest of deals can be done. Copenhagen Accords, in other words. That leads to the essence of Joe Romm’s argument: if the big emitters act together outside the UN process, the problem is well on the way to being solved.

Obama launched the Major Economies Forum on Energy and Climate back in March (a follow-on from a Bush initiative designed, ironically, to delay action), and it includes all the key players: Australia, Brazil, Canada, China, the European Union, France, Germany, India, Indonesia, Italy, Japan, Korea, Mexico, Russia, South Africa, the United Kingdom, and the United States. That mix covers just about all the necessary bases: the rich developed nations, the rapidly growing developing countries, and Brazil and Indonesia, where deforestation is a huge issue. China’s position would not necessarily alter simply because of the change of venue, but the process of deal-making might be easier.

One small feature is missing: the rest of the world, the 170 or so countries not invited to the table. That includes Burkina Faso, Tuvalu — and New Zealand. The poorest nations, and particularly those most likely to feel the impacts of climate change, will have to rely on what amounts to goodwill. $100bn a year in 2020 is on the table, but would that still be the case if the MEF were to a deal in their own interests? For New Zealand, which has always relied on and advocated a multilateral approach to global issues, any influence we currently have would vanish. Lke the rest of the world, we would have to like it or lump it.

That’s why much official reaction to Copenhagen has centred on the need to follow it up with binding commitments to emissions reductions, to sign a better deal in Mexico at the end of 2010. Unsurprisingly, the UN wants the UNFCC process to continue — and I would guess that the vast majority of the UN’s membership agrees. But realpolitik is king, big economies wield the power, and a political structure that evolved to manage a balance of power during the cold war years of the 50s and 60s is beginning to look irrelevant when confronted with this global tragedy of the commons.

Here’s the big question. We have an urgent need to cut emissions, to stabilise and then reduce the atmospheric greenhouse gas load. The numbers are clear enough, the danger is pressing. Events in Copenhagen suggest that we lack the global political apparatus to deliver those emissions reductions in the timescale required, so should we look around for something else that can do the job? Ends or means? The balance between the two is what will emerge over the next year.

Two things will influence the direction the world takes: the perception at international level of the seriousness of the climate problem, and the position adopted by China. My feeling is that until there are severe and undeniable impacts, the collective will for action — especially in the absence of strong leadership — will remain weak. Unless and until the Chinese show signs of taking strong action within some sort of international framework, significant emissions reductions look like pie in the sky. And we’re looking like char siu.