After Copenhagen: How Can We Move Forward?

For all its complexity, the core of this problem can be stated simply enough: What kind of a climate transition would be fair enough to actually work?
Placards in Copenhagen

Protest signs in Copenhagen's Parliament Square.

Photo by Matthew McDermott

First, a confession: This is not another enumeration of confident judgments. I will not tell you that Copenhagen was an unmitigated failure. Or that this failure was Obama’s fault. Or that, as is the new fashion, China was the ugliest of them all. I will not say that the South’s negotiators made impossible demands. Or argue that the United Nations’ process is unwieldy and obsolete. I will not claim that only domestic U.S. action really matters. Nor will I talk of a “North-South impasse” or a “U.S.-China polluters pact,” two popular formulations that misleadingly imply an equal division of blame.

I will say this: Almost two decades after I started working on climate change, I was happily astounded to witness the crystallization, on the streets of Copenhagen, of a grassroots movement that was both energetic and sophisticated, and to see global civil society groups working in solidarity with the leaders of the world’s poorest and most vulnerable nations to press a collective agenda. And I can tell you something else: Our chances of preventing climate catastrophe rest in large part on the ability of this new alliance to communicate to the world’s richest and most powerful peoples that the emissions emergency is, above all things, a crisis of justice.

As a focus for public education and movement building, Copenhagen was an incalculable success.

As everyone knows, the Copenhagen talks failed to catapult us into the ambitious global mobilization we need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. But this was never going to happen anyway. What did happen, as the veteran Bangladeshi policy activist Saleemul Huq put it, was “a shaking of the traditional pieces of the global geo-political puzzle and their landing in a new and unfamiliar configuration.” In this sense, the question of success and failure is moot. The real question is whether the new configuration offers us fresh ways forward.

This question cannot be answered by the usual logic of environmental campaigning. Now is a time for reflection—not for pushing forward one more meeting, one more demonstration, one more demand. Of course we need action, and we need it fast. But we also need strategy, because Huq’s “unfamiliar configurations” are going to settle in the midst of another big year that will culminate with another major December climate showdown, this time in Mexico City. If 2010 is major, 2011 and 2012 promise (or threaten) to be just as important, as do the other years in the brief time ahead—the post-Copenhagen era in which we must begin to act.

The Copenhagen summit marked a pivot in world history, a defining moment—if not a decisive one. The climate negotiations saw the debut of a new geopolitics. In it, China looms large, the United States appears weakened (though still with the ability to do great harm or good), Brazil and India are rising, the European Union looks progressive but ineffectual, and a chorus of smaller states have been emboldened to defend their interests in the face of an existential crisis. As for that “second superpower”—world public opinion—it is, frankly, divided against itself. Seen in this way, the end of 2009 may well mark the real beginning of the twenty-first century, in the sense that 1914 and the start of World War I are commonly taken to mark the real beginning of the twentieth. The hope must be that our new century won’t be as hot and brutal as the last one was cold and bloody.

What We Learned in Copenhagen

Copenhagen was about far more than the climate talks. To make sense of it, look at it as a milestone in a process that’s still unfolding. The negotiations did not just occur in the official meeting halls of the Bella Center. They took the form of countless debates that happened in the NGO “Convergence Center” on Copenhagen’s Nørrebro, on countless internet comment boards, in civic spaces around the world. The critical debates of Copenhagen spanned the entire globe and a huge swath of opinion. Justice and science, realism and necessity, capitalism and democracy, the cost of affluence and the rights of the poor—it was all in play, encoded in the chants and banners of the estimated 100,000 people who clogged Tivoli Square on December 12 demanding meaningful action. And—most importantly—these debates were a key background to the blow-by-blow negotiations occurring among nation-states.

Kumi Naidoo, in focusInterview with Kumi Naidoo
The South African activist says Copenhagen would never have taken place without international grassroots pressure.

This surely is one of the core achievements of Copenhagen. Were it not for the “street heat,” even the provisional possibilities of the new situation would not be ours. The massive demonstrations outside the summit halls, the activist flash mobs within the conference, the demonstrations, and constant in-your-face pressure—this and much more had an effect not just on the tone of the negotiations, but on the substance as well. Even after civil society groups were ejected from the Bella Center, their demands echoed in the formal negotiating rooms. The green movement showed itself to be far clearer on the logic of climate justice than it was even a year ago. The ubiquitous placards calling for an accord that would be “fair, ambitious, and binding” were the right ones. The demonstrators showed smartness and savvy wrapped in a sense of urgency.

The point is that, as a focus for public education and movement building, Copenhagen was an incalculable success. Everyone—from Barack Obama to Lumumba Di-Aping, the Sudanese chair of the South’s G77 negotiating bloc, to you and me—knows a hell of a lot more about climate change and its politics than we did a year ago.

Not that we didn’t already know that we face a planetary emergency. This has been obvious for years. The difference now is that—thanks to the global campaign, and Mohamed Nasheed, the President of the Maldives, and a whole lot of terrified scientists—we know that we know it. And we know it in an altogether appalling manner. We know, at least in outline, what will happen in Africa, though we may wish we didn’t. And Tibet. And the Australian grain belt, and Florida, and the southern oceans, and of course Greenland. We’ve talked about the bogs, the permafrost, and the risks to forests. We’ve heard, finally, about the threats to people: We know how they will suffer, how they will die.

Balancing the Burden

Copenhagen did not deliver the stringent targets and commitments needed to support the fair and ambitious climate accord the protest banners demanded. But this, fortunately, isn’t the end of the story. We can also ask if Copenhagen was a failure when compared not to what is necessary, but rather to what was possible. We can explore whether (this is a key twist) it opened new possibilities, or at least prevented new possibilities from being foreclosed.

Clearly there were successes in Copenhagen. The emergence of a semi-organized bloc of “Most Vulnerable Countries” (the acronym is MVCs) is news that will stay news, and not just because of the tension between the MVCs and “emerging economies” like China and India. The larger issue is that the MVCs have come to know themselves as frontline states, and in so doing have irrevocably transformed the global politics of climate crisis. It goes without saying that, in the coming battles, the most vulnerable will reserve much of their ire for the wealthy countries of the North.

Witness the open letter that South African Archbishop and Nobel Prize Winner Desmond Tutu sent on December 15, after a walkout by the unified African bloc led to a sudden halt in the official negotiations. The Africans aimed to pressure the wealthy countries into honoring their obligations to accept stringent new reduction targets, and Tutu wished to make the stakes quite clear. His letter was blunt: “If temperatures are not kept down then Africa faces a range of devastating threats such as crop yield reductions in places of as much as 50 percent in some countries by 2020. … A global goal of about two degrees C is to condemn Africa to incineration and no modern development.”

350 actionPhoto Essay :: 350 Around the World
Climate activists get creative in support of  what author Bill McKibben calls "the most important number in the world."

On that same note, the effectiveness of the 350 campaign is another Copenhagen achievement. By the end of the two-week melee-cum-jamboree, 112 countries had endorsed the demand to stabilize carbon dioxide levels at 350 parts per million (it’s now at 387 ppm, and rising). The 350 ppm target, which once seemed so obscure, had by the end of the talks become an expression of plain speech. And, at least among the activists, it had almost entirely supplanted the 2°C temperature target as the measure of climate stabilization. This happened thanks to the determined efforts of thousands of citizen-activists across the globe who had made the number the cornerstone of their campaigns.

As a goal, 350 ppm is hard to explain without recourse to charts and other technical idioms. Suffice it to say that in Copenhagen 350 emerged as the alternative to reduction targets that would condemn low-lying and island states and other “most vulnerable” areas to near-certain apocalypse. The “official” target, as agreed by the G8 and many others, is commonly expressed in terms of a global emissions reduction to 50 percent below 1990 levels by 2050, a target that is often said, especially by politicians, to be “2°C compliant.” But that’s stretching the arithmetic. More precisely, the G8 supports a slack and politically expedient emissions pathway that the vulnerable countries and their allies are determined to cast aside. The vulnerable nations didn’t settle for a “more honest” 2°C target, but instead counterattacked with the slogan “1.5 to Survive.” This was a call for a 350 ppm target, which has perhaps a 50-50 chance of holding the warming below 1.5°C, and something like an 85 percent chance of keeping it below 2°C.

The Copenhagen Accord [.pdf, ~150k], of course, did not open the road to 350. What it does is provide a process by which governments can step forward to publish reduction pledges. This will be a very big deal, but evaluating these pledges will be complicated. What, after all, should a national emissions pledge be compared to? A projection of business-as-usual emissions? If so, which one? A measure of per-capita “emissions rights?” If so, what to do about the fact that the “atmospheric space” is already exhausted? Should historical responsibility come into play? If so, starting when? How should the obligations of rich countries be compared to those of poor? And what about the rich people within poor countries? Or, for that matter, the poor people within rich ones?


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These questions are not easy. They are further confused by the matter of domestic vs. international obligation. Should the United States—which tops the charts in measures of capacity, responsibility, and per capita emissions—be able to do its fair share within its own borders? Or does it have obligations to more vulnerable countries around the world?

Then there’s the problem of loopholes. These are critical, because the United States and other wealthy countries have built plenty of them into their emissions reductions projections. The critical loopholes are surplus allowed emissions (so-called “hot air” from the collapse of the Soviet economy in 1990), forestry and agricultural credits (calculated from bogus baselines), and of course “non-additional offsets” (which represent reductions that would have happened anyway). If they’re allowed to stand, then the wealthy countries will have to do almost nothing at all.

The crux of the problem is that we in the wealthy world are simply not carrying our own weight.

The bottom line is that the fundamental impasse over North-South “burden sharing”—who does what, when, and where, and, most importantly, who pays—is still unresolved. The crux of the problem is that we in the wealthy world are simply not carrying our own weight. Consider just a simple comparison between the United States and China. Since 1850, the United States has emitted some 350 gigatons of CO2, according to the US Department of Energy; during that same time, China has emitted about 125 gigatons. Now take the two countries’ pledged emissions reductions by 2020. China is promising to cut 2.5 gigatons of CO2, or a 40 percent improvement in energy intensity; the United States, for its part, has committed to cutting only 1.25 gigatons. In short, our historical responsibility for climate change is greater, yet the Chinese are the ones undertaking the larger obligation.

The Blame Game

Since the summit didn’t succeed, the inevitable question becomes, “Why not?”

One possible answer is that, as the street protesters had it, we need “system change not climate change”: Our governments, in thrall to corporate interests, are incapable of organizing a decisive response to the climate crisis. Another explanation is that the United States was willing to undermine a multilateral agreement with the cynical goal of avoiding real emissions commitments while, if possible, looking good. A third possibility is that the Obama administration, desperate to break Senate Republicans’ hold on climate policy, was willing to take any deal, no matter how weak, as a way to “unlock” the Congressional stalemate. Jamie Henn of captured this point of view when he quipped to me, “This isn’t a negotiation; it’s a hostage crisis.”

Alternatively, Copenhagen’s failure may have been China’s fault. This explanation, alas, has become quite popular. It demands discussion, beginning with a widely read, and rather fantastically misleading article titled “How Do I Know China Wrecked the Copenhagen Deal? I Was in the Room,” by Mark Lynas, a reporter-activist who was part of the Maldives’ negotiating team. Here’s Lynas’ key paragraph:

To those who would blame Obama and rich countries in general, know this: it was China’s representative who insisted that industrialized country targets, previously agreed as an 80 precent 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.

It’s easy to see why Lynas’s fly-on-the-wall account is so compelling, particularly to Westerners primed to see China as an implacable mercantilist threat to their preferred style of capitalism. Certainly Lynas’s conclusions are much in line with the North’s strategy of hiding behind the emerging economies. But caution is in order here. It’s important to go to the core of China’s inflexibility, which, as Lynas subsequently put it, is that “Copenhagen has opened up a chasm between sustainability and equity.” How so? Because, although “NGOs that ideologically support equity defend the right of developing countries to increase their emissions for two to three more decades at least,” in fact, “there is no room for expansion by anyone.”

This, alas, is almost true. The central fact of our carbon-constrained future is that China—along with India and South Africa, Brazil and Mexico, and indeed the entire “emerging” world—stands at the edge of an impossible future. These countries are expected to constrain their carbon emissions while at the same time (here’s the punch line) pulling hundreds of millions of their citizens out of poverty. Yet the only model of modern prosperity that they have to work with is one based on huge per capita emissions. No wonder they balk at demands from the North.

In order to halt catastrophic climate change, the major emitters must act decisively. All of them, at once. But this will only be fair, and indeed it can only happen, if the wealthiest among us pay for most of the action. That, however, is politically impossible (see: U.S. Senate). And it’s impossible, in part, because the debate about “fair burden sharing” that has raged among climate negotiators during the last few years has not reached the public consciousness. We do not know our duties. The Northern climate movement has quite failed to explain the structure of the global problem to its home constituencies. The term “climate justice” might be well understood by green NGO-istas and, say, Bolivian president Evo Morales, but that doesn’t mean that most people get it.

A Crisis of Development

What exactly is this “global problem”? First, that we’ve reached the limits to growth, and done so in a world that’s bitterly divided between haves and have-nots. Second, that despite decades of warning, the wealthy nations have neglected to demonstrate that low-carbon development is possible. Third, that the industrialized countries have stonewalled, rejecting the demand for meaningful reduction commitments. And finally, that China—which, despite its faults, has lifted hundreds of millions of people from poverty—has emerged as the chief voice of a bloc that refuses to choose between developmental justice and climate stabilization.

The problem is not that poverty alleviation or sustainable development are impossible in a carbon-constrained world. The problem is that they have not been pioneered.

The situation is easy enough to visualize. Consider the “G8 style” emissions pathway that provoked China’s backroom confrontation with the North. The details of this pathway are that: 1) global emissions peak soon (about 2020) and decline by 2050 to 50 percent below 1990 levels; and 2) Northern emissions simultaneously decline to at least 80 percent below 1990 levels. Now ask yourself—why might China’s rejection of such an offer be reasonable? The answer lies in arithmetic: The remaining global emissions budget is so small that, despite a relatively ambitious program of Northern emission reductions, Southern emissions must still peak soon after global emissions, and then drop almost as rapidly. Further, they must do so while the people of the South are still struggling to escape poverty, and more generally to invent new, dignified, and sustainable models of life. The climate crisis is, in other words, a crisis of development.

I want to be very clear here: The problem is not that poverty alleviation or sustainable development are impossible in a carbon-constrained world. The problem is that they have not been pioneered, that the only proven routes up from poverty still involve an expanded use of energy and seemingly inevitable increase in fossil-fuel use. Which is why it’s almost impossible for the South to imagine an equitable future in which its emissions precipitously decline. The South is concerned that an inequitable climate regime will force a choice between developmental justice and climate protection. And justly so.

This brings us back to China, which despite its wealthy enclaves is a deeply impoverished country. The targets that the Chinese insisted on expunging from the Copenhagen Accord have developmental implications. The South in general has made it quite clear that it will not allow itself to be trapped into sacrificing development for climate protection. More specifically, the Chinese have repeatedly insisted that the North accept an aggregate reduction target that is at the “upper end” of the 25 percent to 40 percent range (from the 1990 baseline) by 2020. Yet the North was attempting to enshrine a global emissions reduction pathway without making any such short-term commitment. Given the North’s refusal to accept stringent targets, what (other than explaining themselves coherently) should the Chinese have done differently? The answer is not obvious.

James HansenJames Hansen: Good Riddance, Copenhagen. Time for Better Ideas
The world's leading climate scientist explains how Copenhagen's failure gives us a chance to get it right.

The wheel is still in spin. As Copenhagen passes into history, the politics of climate obligation may well shift in significant ways. For one thing, although the rich countries may have succeeded in sidelining the Kyoto Protocol (we don’t know yet) they did not manage to remove the presumption that it’s still their move. Nor, despite Copenhagen’s adoption of a pledge-based system, was the momentum of the UN negotiations broken. Copenhagen reaffirmed the need to devise a formal global accord that’s fair, stringent, and capacious enough to contain both the United States and China—while stabilizing Earth’s climate system.

There will be no breakthrough until the wealthy countries pursue stringent domestic reductions, and help to underwrite the larger transition as well.

To get there will require admitting a few difficult truths. Like the fact that the United States did a great deal to poison the Copenhagen waters and that, going forward, it may do even more. And that there will be no breakthrough until the wealthy countries pursue stringent domestic reductions, and help to underwrite the larger transition as well. The fact that the South’s biggest emitters have, to a small extent, stepped outside the G77’s overall ranks does nothing to change this underlying reality. The new game is one in which the players as well as the rules belong to a still-emerging world. China’s end-game posture makes this clear enough.

The toughest admission will be that of national obligation, of duty. If we in civil society are to do better than our putative leaders, we must escape the “dysfunctional system” frame that spreads the blame around so thinly. More precisely, we’re going to have to actually work out a coherent way of assigning responsibility for the fundamental deadlock in the international climate negotiations. This gives us a clear mandate: We must fight for a framework within which all countries, but first of all the wealthy ones, make the commitments demanded by the science, by their own record of emissions, and by their fiscal capacity to act. If we’re to assign responsibility, we must also assume it.

Copenhagen, for all its disappointments, marked a turn. The need for an emergency mobilization is obvious, and with it a set of challenges that can no longer be denied. These will get clearer in the years ahead, but the essential situation is before us: With the atmosphere’s ability to absorb carbon critically limited, we face the greatest resource-sharing problem of all time. For all its complexity, the core of this problem can be stated simply enough: What kind of a climate transition would be fair enough to actually work?

The climate problem is and remains a justice problem. It’s more than this, of course, but justice is nonetheless the key. If we fail to solve it in time, it will be in large part because we refused to see it as such.

Originally published in the Spring 2010 edition of .

by Gopal Dayaneni and Mateo Nube