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»Voices led to stalemate and lots more hot air

»Friday, May 14,2010

The Copenhagen accord reads like the opening statement of a climate change summit, not its outcome. It sets reasonable objectives — such as the need to keep the temperature increase below 2C — but fails to explain how it will achieve them.

The summit’s most important task was to set emission targets and on this it utterly failed. Delegates spent two weeks debating a range of numbers, some representing modest ambition and others based on wishful thinking.

Yet the accord contains no targets, only an agreement for each country to submit more suggestions by the end of next month.

Rich countries came to Copenhagen to offer poor nations a large sum of money in return for their signatures on an agreement which avoided any significant sacrifices to Western standards of living. Many developing countries were willing to accept the bribe but not all. Fingers are now pointing at the two biggest polluters, the US and China, for their failure to move beyond their opening bids on emissions.

However, a few more percentage points from either country would not have made any significant difference. The summit’s whole approach was flawed because it was based on each country dreaming up numbers and tossing them into the ring, with no overarching mechanism for assessing whether they were comparable to the efforts of others.

All 192 countries were agreed that the atmosphere could only safely absorb a finite amount of greenhouse gas and that mankind had already used up most of its carbon budget. Yet delegates spent almost all their time arguing about the process of the negotiations rather than the principle of how to divide that budget up.

The UN prides itself on the inclusive nature of its meetings, and during the summit defended the right of the tiny state of Tuvalu to block progress for hours on a point of order. The desire to ensure every voice was heard resulted in stalemate, with delegates vying to outdo each other.

Lumumba Di-Aping, a Sudanese delegate, took an early lead by saying “$10 billion is not enough to buy us coffins”. He delivered a knockout blow in the summit’s dying moments by comparing the accord with the Holocaust.

President Obama has been accused of trying to impose the will of five nations on the rest of the world. In truth, Copenhagen might have ended without any statement at all had Mr Obama not ignored the process by holding exclusive talks with China, India, Brazil and South Africa. Many small nations protested that they only learnt of the accord when watching President Obama announce it at a press conference.

But the fate of the planet depends on the actions of a handful of big emitters, not on observing UN protocol.

The feverish atmosphere inside Copenhagen’s Bella Centre was inimical to peaceful, constructive negotiation. Many poor nations depended on Greenpeace, WFF and other groups for advice and support, but the close involvement of these groups in the process resulted in an unhelpful blurring of diplomacy and environmental activism.

Gordon Brown is right that the accord represents a first step towards saving the planet from dangerous global warming. Whether more steps are made next year will depend on finding a better way of negotiating.
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