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Chaotic endgame in Copenhagen


The Copenhagen climate change summit has been an extraordinary intergovernmental conference. Its first week largely played out as consciousness-raising global theatre, with dramatic displays of brinkmanship both within and outside the conference.

Even the most hardened and cynical international diplomats would have realised that Copenhagen's agenda and style transcend the usual stereotyped North-South political and economic divisions, and the accompanying developing country post-colonial resentments of the North's wealth and power and condescension. 

From the young people who descended en masse on the conference came a different, global stewardship message: that this conference is above all about the present leadership generation's shared responsibility to protect, as best it can, the climate security of coming generations everywhere.

This new message of international solidarity got through: I cannot recall any conference where NGO activism is playing such a major constructive role. Unlike in world trade conferences, the young activists in Copenhagen know that this conference has to be encouraged to make progress; derailment is not a desirable outcome.

The conference shrugged off the peripheral challenge of the climate sceptics' counter-conference. 'Climategate', a deliberate criminal hacking into ten years of climate scientists' emails in a desperate last-ditch effort by carbon lobbies to cast doubt on climate science, was quickly sidelined.

An effort to break the traditional North-South mould, mounted by low-lying small island states, foundered. Everyone understood that the final deals, if achievable, would be struck between the US representing the North, and China representing the South. If Tuvalu goes under, so will the heavily populated deltas of mainland Asia.

With broad agreement on a two degrees maximum safe global average temperature increase, the coinage in the main game was threefold: What were fair emissions targets for the North and the South? How much money would be pledged by the North for mitigation and adaptation in the South? And what compliance mechanisms?

China played its strong hand deftly and tactfully. Before the conference, it had pledged to reduce its emissions intensity to 2020 by 40 per cent. The massive scale of China's expanding renewable energy, nuclear energy, and cleaner coal-burning infrastructure lent credibility to this pledge. As a command economy, China was trusted to deliver on its stated targets.

The US played from a weaker base. The sincerity of the Obama administration's commitment to the negotiation was unquestioned: but his huge problem of securing Congressional approval was equally understood. Obama had to bring home an outcome which he could present to Congress as successful national interest diplomacy, thereby persuading Congress to back his Copenhagen commitments. Thus questions of compliance, and the language of developing countries' commitment to emissions reduction targets, assumed great importance.

The conference stalled in the second week on vexatious procedural issues symbolising a resurgence of the old North-South mutual mistrust. Would last-minute diplomatic solutions be found to these dilemmas? Probably. At conferences like this, an atmosphere of crisis is necessary for the final deals to be achievable. Failure seems impossible because so much is at stake here, yet there are many past examples of failed international trade and disarmament conferences.

Australia has played an uneasy Western supportive leadership role, its credibility damaged by its past record of self-interested trade negotiations-style gamesmanship. Australian green groups assiduously publicised shonky official carbon counting practices in land clearing, and Australia's pursuit of internationally tradeable carbon emissions credits, and carbon capture and storage credits.

Australia was exposed as saying: we are rich enough to buy all the offsetting credits we want, so that we can go on burning as much coal as we want — not an ethically attractive message. But it escaped the odium heaped on Canada's environmental-fossil government, intent on exploiting Canada's fragile tar sands and shales.

The likely outcome at Copenhagen — though I cannot predict its detail — will be pronounced by the US, EU and China as interim progress. This would surely require Rudd to increase Australia's 2020 emissions reduction target from 5 per cent to 15 per cent, the intermediate target level envisaged in the ETS bills.

This will transform the political dynamic at home. Rudd will at last have a real ETS bill to fly with: the 5 per cent ETS 2020 target was a shameful albatross which had lost all public credibility. Yet Abbott will attack a 15 per cent ETS target for costing a lot more. Will Rudd be able to carry allied business groups to support a 15 per cent target?

Rudd will claim — as an active Friend of the Chair — that Australia materially contributed to the degree of success achieved in difficult circumstances in Copenhagen. He will not want to come home defining Copenhagen as a failure: thus, hopefully, the notorious 5 per cent will be left behind.

This likely Copenhagen conference outcome would in all likelihood leave ETS cap-and-trade as the mechanism for global carbon reductions most favoured by Western market economies. James Hansen's blunt criticisms of ETS as a corruption-prone bankers' casino went unheeded: except that Stern and Gore now grant that ETS will need to be supplemented at some point by carbon taxes, and by forms of direct action or regulation. Slowly, the global debate will inch towards greater realism. And over time, this will impact on Australia's domestic debate.

Copenhagen is not the end of this story: barring an unlikely total breakdown, it will be recognised as a useful early step on the hard road to greater global climate security for our children. Importantly, the US and China will be seen as jointly leading the world towards a safer climate future.

The journey will continue next year, in poor, polluted, overcrowded Mexico City — and what better venue to concentrate delegates' minds?


Tony KevinTony Kevin is author of Crunch Time: using and abusing Keynes to fight the twin crises of our era (Scribe 2009).

Topic tags: Tony Kevin, copenhagen, climate change



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Existing comments

The large corporations whose minions make up the numbers of Australia's Greenhouse Mafia have done well from the principle, "privatise (sequester?) the profits, socialise (emit?) the costs". No wonder they want to play a CPRS game at Wong's Casino.

The prognosis you offer, however, gives cause for optimism. This diplomatic process may eventually offer some hope.

In particular, I am encouraged that the G77 is demanding that emissions be constrained so that temperature rise does not exceed 1.5 deg C.

A 2 deg C rise will allow sufficient methane emissions from permafrost melting to trigger a runaway greenhouse; that is, you can't get a 2 deg C rise; T rise is either limited to 1.5 deg, or it goes to >5 deg C automatically.

Let's keep hoping.

David Arthur | 18 December 2009  

Tony would be well aware that since 1990 and the end of the Soviet empire, Russia's carbon emissions have decreased by more than one-third. Yet Russia still stands at number five in the emission stakes, just behind the big three,and India. Does Tony seriously believe that those economies which are currently the biggest emitters will not soon be surpassed in emissions by developing countries like India or re-developng ones like Russia?
Allowing the big polluter economies like the EU, the US and China the role of moral leadership in pronouncing "the likely outcome" of Copenhagen, is like recruiting junkies to shut down crack houses.

The great shame of developed nations is their historical failure to make just contributions to developing ones. The UN target for developed nations' contribution to foreign aid is a minuscule 0.7% of GDP. Australia's contribution will stand at less than 0.5% by 2010 (less than $2 billion). Now because "our grandchildren" are threatened by global warming it is proposed that we spend $12 billion over the next ten years to "save the planet". Australia never gave a toss about "their grand children" until "ours" became endangered.

Claude Rigney | 20 December 2009  

It seems the summit on the whole offered some positives and some hope, since it is so extremely important that everyone involved, politicians, big corporations and everyday people take responsability for the future of next generations and do not just simply think of the bottom line.

Maria Prestinenzi | 23 December 2009  

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