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Assessing Copenhagen: one step forward, not two steps back

By Stephen McGrail - posted Friday, 8 January 2010

It is increasingly clear that the response to Copenhagen (COP15) will be as important as the event itself. Central to this is whether COP15 is viewed as an isolated event or as part of an historic, extraordinarily complex process of change. The real question is: are we closer to a new global deal? There are also a number of additional questions we must ask when assessing COP15.

The first question we need to ask is, should the inability of political leaders at COP15 to reach a legally-binding agreement be condemned as a failure? This view, which argues that the Copenhagen Accord is empty words and national self-interest prevailed, is fast becoming the standard one among green groups and other observers who had extremely high hopes.

An alternative perspective is surprisingly provided by Tim Flannery. Dr Flannery says we shouldn’t “undersell” the Accord and describes it as “a significant step forward”. Similarly, the head of the body that ran COP15 (the UNFCCC), Yvo de Boer, described it as “impressive” and “politically incredibly significant”.


Research conducted by Futureye in September found that COP15 was being re-positioned as a step in the negotiating process. Similarly, in a piece co-authored for the Guardian in the early stages of COP15, Dr Flannery contended that “Copenhagen can only be a beginning”. This is in contrast to the public perception of Copenhagen being the penultimate moment - i.e. a now or never situation.

Our research found that while the social pressure on political leaders was rapidly rising, and “all the ducks are in a row” (or appeared to be), significant issues made a major breakthrough extremely unlikely. In other words, no one expected a “fair, ambitious, and legally-binding agreement”. The likely scenarios we termed “motherhood statement” (a political deal patched together at the last minute) and “foundation” (a broad “architecture” laid out for a new post-2012 agreement). The reality is we got a bit of both.

Consideration of the issues indicates both the complexity and significance of the negotiation process. These issues include necessary equity considerations and the complex relationship between domestic politics and international processes. The latter goes both ways. Domestic realities constrained the negotiating of key countries (e.g. the US which would only agree internationally what it thinks can be achieved domestically and, thus, would not go beyond measures currently debated in the US Senate). Others such as the new Liberal leader, Tony Abbott, argue international processes should lead domestic policy development.

The second question we should ask is what did Copenhagen achieve? Those saying “nothing” are making a mistake of perception. The Futureye study suggested that we should pay particular attention to the US and China, tentative steps made towards more international co-operation, and equity issues. Yes, Obama did only spend one day in Copenhagen but we saw much better engagement from China and the US (who produce over 40 per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions). We appear also to be seeing improved relations between developed and developing nations (particularly progress regarding the involvement of emerging economies such as China, India, and Brazil in mitigation). Moreover, Obama has publicly supported a post-2012 legally-binding agreement. To see the US Head of State directly negotiating with emerging “BRIC” economies, and 119 world leaders seriously discussing a truly global response, is also very encouraging.

With respect to the Accord, it leaves a number of important questions unanswered. But it does contain the first public commitment from countries from around the world to the goal of limiting warming to a maximum 2 degrees above pre-industrial levels. If further adopted in a legal treaty, this would require major changes over the next decades, in the words of the Accord, “consistent with science and on the basis of equity”: stabilisation of 450ppm of carbon dioxide equivalent (according to the Garnaut Climate Change Review), and emissions peaking globally around 2020, then rapidly falling. The Copenhagen Accord, in the words of de Boer, also provides “the ingredients of an architecture that can respond to the long-term challenge of climate change”.

Finally, what is the prospect for a new global deal and how should we respond to COP15? The despair being expressed by activists and others pushing for more ambitious goals is a stark contrast to positive assessments by the likes of Flannery and de Boer. I think the protestors claiming “COP15 = business-as-usual” miss some vital aspects of the process of change.


Dr Flannery’s initial response suggests he recognises that the last thing we need is a political crisis. That is, a serious breakdown at the international level and in co-operation caused by conflict over the response to climate change. If such a breakdown was to occur in 2010, in addition to other crises being tackled (i.e. the financial crisis, and rapidly emerging ecological and non-renewable resource problems - what has been termed the “triple crunch”), global action in the short-to-medium-term will be severely constrained.

This also suggests that the necessary response to COP15 is to avoid overly moralistic critique, celebrate any success (however small), and try to paint an outline of constructive paths forward. Combine necessary idealism with equally necessary realism and a systemic perspective.

The environmental movement’s response to-date has been full of outrage. At the grassroots level we are likely to see far more adversarial environmentalism in 2010. That is, a shift away from recent towards collaboration and co-operation (seeking to be part of processes of change, or “inside the tent”) to greater conflict (demanding change, “outside the tent”) and direct action. If it occurs this is concerning because it is probably more likely in the short-term to lead to a political crisis than a breakthrough.

While the difficulties faced at Copenhagen do raise questions regarding whether we will get a significant new global deal on-balance we now appear closer to reaching it. President Obama is right to point out that “our ability to take collective action is in doubt”. But it always has been with respect to climate change and all other global problems. All eyes will now be on the 2020 targets that must be submitted by February 2010 and preparation for Mexico (COP16). But, overall, we are closer to a post-2012 agreement and this should be recognised in Australian politics and business.

COP15 and the broader sustainability agenda suggest important progress on the bigger picture issues that climate change is intertwined with. That is, the need to develop a more responsible social relationship to the future - which is central to the overarching policy goal of “sustainable development” - and to live within ecological constraints.

Overall, the talks should be recognised as a step forward and responses should be aimed at avoiding taking two steps back. A sense of urgency is essential but our response to COP15 must also nurture these tentative, but crucial, shifts.

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About the Author

Stephen McGrail is an independent consultant, lecturer at Swinburne University in the Faculty of Business and Enterprise, and Associate of strategic advisory firm Futureye.

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