Beyond Copenhagen...

Changes in international power relations have been blamed for the failure of the international climate negotiations in Copenhagen, December 2009. World power relations have indeed changed. Climate change is the most pure example of globalization. Redressing climate change requires a global approach, on the basis of a world consensus.

by Jan Pronk

Changes in international power relations have been blamed for the failure of the international climate negotiations in Copenhagen, December 2009. World power relations have indeed changed. China has become an economic giant. India, South Africa and Brazil are emerging economic powers. The negotiation positions taken by developing countries cannot easily be neglected. However, this had been the case already during the Kyoto protocol negotiations in the 1990s. The protocol could never have been agreed upon if the conditions set by developing countries, including China, would not have been met. These countries were granted a preferential treatment, just as has been the case in international trade negotiations since the 1960s. Developing countries promised that they would endeavor to increase energy efficiency, but they were allowed to grow their economies without binding constraints on the use of fossil fuels. Furthermore, in earlier phases of the negotiations developing countries and China were not without power. They were able to use this power at the birth of the Kyoto protocol.

Climate change is the most pure example of globalization. Redressing climate change requires a global approach, on the basis of a world consensus. Such a consensus prevailed during the negotiations in Kyoto in 1996, where the protocol was adopted, and also in The Hague and Bonn in 2000 and 2001, where negotiations on the basis of this protocol resulted in a binding legal text, which was adopted in a world meeting in Marrakech in 2001.

Power and Rights

When global problems are at stake, factors beyond traditional economic, military and political power become important. There is the power on the basis of capital, knowledge and technology. There is the power based on natural resources, be it oil, coal, or renewable energy sources. Countries with huge landmasses suitable for solar energy or for bio fuels, with large river masses suitable for hydro energy or with large forests, become powerful too. When negotiations require full consensus in order to lead to operational results, poor countries that lack all of these resources have power as well. Their cooperation is necessary. Consensus is a necessity, because majority rule is not feasible. There is no mechanism enabling a majority to enforce implementation, whichever the size or composition of such a majority. This enables smaller, poorer and weaker countries to play a crucial role in negotiations. As such, power relations are no longer traditional. But we knew that already after Rio. Climate negotiations in Copenhagen did not fail because of the emergence of new power configurations in the world of today. Did they fail because it is no longer possible to reach results within the United Nations framework?

It is indeed difficult to reach meaningful results within a UN framework, and it would be desirable to reform negotiation procedures within the UN. However, the UN as such is no hindrance. On the contrary, all negotiations on the Kyoto protocol were successfully concluded within the UN. The fact that nearly 200 countries have to sit together and talk is cumbersome, but doable. Moreover, the system of the United Nations enables countries to contain each otherís power by exercising rights. The rights embodied in various UN charters guarantee that individual nations cannot simply be pushed aside. New rights, such as the ones based on the principle of ìcommon but differentiated responsibilities' — which opened the possibility for the abovementioned preferential treatment — form another example. In the UN it is always a combination of power and rights. Outside the UN only power counts.

Copenhagen: unprepared, ill-designed, poorly led

However, UN negotiations will only result in consensus if they are well prepared, well structured and well presided over. Copenhagen failed in all these respects. The talks were not well prepared. Since Marrakech the focus was on implementation and rightly so, because the Kyoto Protocol still had to be ratified by the required number of member states. Moreover, the new instruments, including the international financial mechanisms and emission trading still had to be made operational. This notwithstanding, consultations about the next stage started too late. When finally the talks were resumed, the negotiators started from scratch. They should have focused on efforts to improve the text that had been agreed with regard to the experimental period up to 2012, so as to extend this agreement to a less experimental second period in order to meet new and more ambitious targets. However, instead of learning from the experiences during the first phase and considering possible changes, additions and improvements, the negotiators started all over again.

No wonder that at the beginning of the final talks in Copenhagen nearly every paragraph of the text to be negotiated was still between brackets. If negotiations would have been chaired well, a better result could have been obtained. The inexperienced Danish chairmanship failed. The chair did not get a grip on the talks and made some fatal mistakes, which resulted in a loss of confidence amongst some country groups. Once a chair is no longer perceived as professional and neutral, talks are doomed to fail. To some extent this was due to the structure of the talks. It is my experience that final rounds of UN negotiations should be presided by the same chair that has been responsible for the pre-negotiations. This would guarantee inside knowledge about the issues concerned and about the positions taken by various players.

Ongoing negotiations with a rotating presidency, whereby a new president — for instance a host country politician — takes office at the beginning of a summit and stays on until the beginning of the next summit, lack accountable political leadership during essential periods. A chair that is responsible for the implementation of the results of a summit and the preparation of the next summit, to be led by a new chair, will be less effective than a chair that takes over at the end of a summit and is responsible for both the preparations and the proceedings of a new summit. However, even if the climate negotiations would have been presided over differently, it would have been very difficult to reach results. It is for this very reason that the Copenhagen summit was structured as a real Summit, with a capital S. United Nations Summit meetings attended by Heads of State and Heads of Government never result in more than a statement of good intentions. The leaders come to meet each other, to deliver speeches, to launch new talks or to sign an agreement that has been reached by negotiators on their behalf. They cannot negotiate themselves. A group of more than hundred Heads of State meeting over a day or two, after which each of them has to fly back home, does not have the capacity to reach operational and binding results. Heads of State should not be considered as a Deus ex Machina, who can work miracles once negotiations are stalled. On the contrary, expectations of their arrival is bound to lead to a stalemate. Diplomatic negotiators and even ministers will be inclined to postpone reaching agreement until the arrival of their leaders taking part in the real Summit at the end. Not all negotiators will react in the same way, but many will slow down their efforts. If a negotiation requires full consensus this can lead to paralysis. 

Undoubtedly this was the case in Copenhagen. The talks failed to reach concrete results for many reasons; including the way the talks were structured: the presidency and the character as a Summit meeting. However, there was another structural default. Copenhagen was the venue of the Fifteenth Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (COP 15) and the 5th Conference of the Parties to the Kyoto protocol. Since Kyoto, talks taking place in the framework of the UNFCC and those about the Protocol have been intertwined. However, in 2005, when the Kyoto Protocol entered into force, they were cut loose. In 2007, in Bali (COP 13), it was decided that approaches to address climate change other than on the basis of the agreed binding Protocol would also be appropriate.

The adoption in Bali of a two-track Road Map led to a series of parallel talks in the run-up to Copenhagen, with different objectives. Track one implied an effort to reach a new binding global agreement on the basis of UN principles and procedures. Track two centered around a less ambitious initiative of a group of like minded countries, brought together in some kind of a 'coalition of the willing', to coordinate policies on a voluntary basis. The latter talks were led by the one and only country that had not been willing to sign the Convention: the United States. This two track approach could only result in the gradual erosion of the Kyoto Consensus. Copenhagen was thus bound to fail due to the decision taken in Bali. This, in turn, was due to the decision taken by the US not to join the consensus.

The absence of the United States, the most powerful country with the highest emissions of greenhouse gases has been the real reason why Copenhagen failed. However, many other countries can be blamed as well. China announced its willingness to reduce the fossil fuel intensity of its economy, but this reduction would fall short of what was considered necessary to keep global warming under control. OPEC countries were still reluctant to cooperate, fearing a reduction in export earnings. African countries were afraid that an effort to keep global warming limited to an average of two degrees Celsius would result in still higher temperature increases in Africa, with disastrous results for their weak and poor economies. New alliances were formed amongst developing countries, sometimes for political reasons beyond climate change, weakening the position of developing countries as a whole. The European Union, which had been a frontrunner in the implementation of the agreements reached earlier and which for that reason could have capitalized upon its credibility, was internally divided and became sidelined in the final stages of the talks. Developing countries need funds to enable them to adjust to the consequences of climate change which is taking place anyway, as well as finance and technology in order to build an adequate capacity to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions. However, most other countries were reluctant to contribute substantial funds to these ends.

Many countries, rich and poor alike, were reluctant to allow full transparency of all their policies, which other countries considered an essential condition for both market operations, funding and domestic policymaking. Countries did not trust each other anymore. All these controversies could have been mitigated, if not overcome, if the United States would have shown new global leadership. Since the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, in 1992, all nations in the world had been willing to join a global consensus. In 2001, a new American administration decided differently. The US disengaged itself from the consensus. That disengagement seemed crucial, because of the size and strength of the American economy. Many people all around the world had hoped that the American position would change with a new leadership, demonstrating a renewed engagement, a new vision and a willingness to revive a consensus on the basis of worldwide principles, rights and values. The course of events would have been different if the US would have demonstrated that it was prepared to step back from the position taken in the year 2000 by President Bush who had declared 'Kyoto is dead'. His successor, who had inspired so many young people in his own country and abroad, could have taken a different position stating for instance: 'From now we will join the consensus and commit ourselves to negotiate a new global treaty for the second phase, better than the first one'. Instead, President Obama, rather than repealing the death warrant issued by his predecessor, held a funeral speech.

Back to a single track

The strategy in place needs to be reconsidered. But it is necessary to first agree upon what is at stake. We need an agreement that meets the hopes and expectations of young people all around the world, the needs of those who are poor and the aspirations of future generations. We need effective instruments to mitigate global climate change. For this, we need worldwide cooperation — no nation excluded. We need an agreement that will provide a level playing field to private business in all countries. We need an agreement that offers different opportunities to countries in different positions. The world, finally, needs an agreement that is not voluntary, as was the case before 1997, but one that would commit its signatories to keep the promises. All is not yet lost. An agreement is still possible if nations show more flexibility and mutual trust. There are some positive signs: In Copenhagen quite a few countries showed a willingness to commit themselves to do much more than what they have been doing so far. This group includes some developing countries that are emerging powers. The willingness to change investment and production patterns seems to be more widespread than at the time than ten years ago, when I presided over COP 6. However, it will necessary to bring the two tracks together: the Kyoto track and the US track. Simply continuing two tracks will lead to nothing. We cannot continue doing business as usual on the treadmill of the agenda that is foreseen for the coming year.

The structure of the talks should be reviewed and the two tracks brought together. Merging these two tracks, showing a willingness to differentiate, to be flexible and to take each otherís concerns seriously should be the topmost political priority for the coming year. The UN Secretary General would be well advised to bring together a group of wise men and women — some IPCC scientists, some political leaders, and some experienced negotiators — and request them to help bring the talks back on a well designed single track, which allows countries to differentiate between policy instruments, provided that these will meet a common objective.

Read also: Beyond Copenhagen: A response from Mikael Roman to Jan Pronk; Not One track, Not two tracks, but a completely new track: A response from Nicola Bullard to Jan Pronk


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