Magazine

Copenahgen cop out

It’s not often one witnesses historical failures on a grand scale, but there isn’t really any other way to describe the outcome of the Copenhagen climate conference, which held the attention of the world for a fortnight in the run-up to last Christmas. Three months on, we can take stock of where we are, post-Copenhagen, in the effort to tackle global warming – and the conclusions are not very comforting.
The conference was billed as the most important international meeting since the end of the Second World War – nearly 120 heads of state and government attended it – and it was meant to put the world firmly on a cooperative path to controlling climate change, which many scientists and policymakers consider to be the gravest threat human society has ever faced. It was to do this by constructing a successor agreement to the Kyoto Protocol, the current international climate treaty, under which the rich industrialised nations bound themselves in 1997 to cut their emissions of the carbon dioxide that is causing the atmosphere so dangerously to warm.
Copenhagen was meant to produce a new emissions-cutting pact, which would involve all the countries of the world, including the US (withdrawn from Kyoto by George W Bush in 2001), and which would itself become legally-binding, with the aim of cutting the world’s emissions to half of their 1990 levels by 2050. This might be sufficient, the scientists think, to hold global warming to a rise of no more than two degrees Celsius – just about the most that human society can cope with.
It didn’t happen. Worse, the negotiations, which had been going on for two years, ran completely into the ground. The main problem was that agreement in the UN climate process has to be by consensus, and there were 194 countries involved; it proved quite impossible. A key obstacle was the suspicion felt by the poorer developing nations, which were being asked to cut their carbon emissions for the first time, but which want to let their emissions continue to expand as they try to grow their economies and bring their peoples out of poverty.
By the Wednesday of the second week, two days from the end, when world leaders began to arrive, the talks were deadlocked with no hope of resolution; a diplomatic disaster was looming. So the heads of state and government sat down and sketched out a face-saving agreement of 12 paragraphs: the Copenhagen Accord.
 In it, all countries pledge to act to combat climate change, and to try to keep the global temperature increase to below two degrees – both are firsts, and welcome – yet all the vital detail about how to do it is missing: there are no targets agreed for emissions cuts, no aim to cut global CO2 by 50 per cent by mid-century, and no provision to make the agreement legally binding. Instead, nations were simply asked to volunteer CO2 cuts of whatever size they thought appropriate, and these were written into the accord at the beginning of February.
They will not be enough to halt climate change. It is a very long way short of what the world needs, and a very long way short of what the world had so fervently hoped for. We now have a climate agreement of sorts, and talks will continue, let it be said, to make it better; but for more than 20 years, since concern about climate change became an international issue, the hope has been that all countries could eventually come together in a common human interest and follow the path that science has set out to tackle global warming effectively. This has proved to be too difficult, and it is a tragedy.