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Copenhagen: the fall of green statism

By Jeremy Gilling and John Muscat - posted Wednesday, 27 January 2010

Now we have the Copenhagen deniers. These are people who won't accept that the UN’s climate change process has been derailed. The highest emitting nations refuse to be bound by an enforceable treaty. Instead of bedding down a replacement for the near-defunct Kyoto Protocol, they asked for a rain check.

If the grandly named Copenhagen Accord is “a first step”, as President Obama put it, what were Rio (1992), Geneva (1996), Kyoto (1997), Buenos Aires (1998), Lyon (2000), The Hague (2000), Marrakech (2001), New Delhi (2002), Milan (2003), Buenos Aires (2004), Montreal (2005), Nairobi (2006), Vienna (2007), Bali (2007), Bangkok (2008), Ghana (2008), Poznan (2008), Bangkok (2009) and Barcelona (2009)?

Apparently these earlier meetings of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change were just for cocktails. And the list doesn’t include the eleven or so gatherings since 1998 of the Convention’s “subsidiary bodies”, all held in Bonn.


Copenhagen wasn’t meant to be just another UNFCCC meeting. It was the Conference of Participants (the Convention’s supreme body) where member nations were to sign off on a successor to Kyoto, which only covers the period to 2012. Their failure to do so means the process is in disarray. Consisting of 12 short clauses, the Accord is little more than a face-saving device full of vague and unenforceable aspirations. The final clause calls “for an assessment of the implementation of this Accord to be completed by 2015”, so the world won’t have a binding operational treaty for some time, if ever.

Copenhagen wasn’t a first step; it was the last step. It marked the end point in a long cycle of top-down, bureaucratic, multilateralism launched at the 1992 Rio Earth Summit. This all came unstuck in the very different world of 2009.

The geo-political rifts on display at Copenhagen can’t be papered over with the diplomatic equivalent of a Hallmark greeting card. Essentially, the UN process is hostage to a standoff between the two largest emitters and their respective camps. On the one hand there’s China (for which read the Communist Party, whose grip on power depends on high rates of carbon-spewing growth) and so-called rapidly industrialising countries like India, Brazil, South Africa and Indonesia. On the other there’s the United States (for which read representatives of energy-producing regions in Congress, which must ratify any treaty negotiated by the President) and most of the developed world.

Negotiations are rarely successful when both parties can only lose. Climate talks are about the apportionment of pain and blame, with benefits flowing to a third category of poorer countries, so the prospect of a workable compromise between the major camps is remote. Expect emissions to go on rising.

Australia counts for little in all of this and was rebuffed at Copenhagen. Our 1.4 per cent contribution to global emissions has zero impact on the climate.

Despite all the guff about Copenhagen being “a first step” or “a good beginning”, the collapse of the UNFCCC process changes everything. Absent a binding multilateral instrument, or the realistic prospect of such an instrument, the rationale for government-level, legislative and tax-funded initiatives disappears. The contention that we must enact a framework complementing the Kyoto Protocol and succeeding protocols, and demonstrate a credible intention to achieve prescribed emission targets, has been swept away.


Bizarrely, our government persists with the argument that early action is essential to avoid the higher costs of delay. This claim rests on the assumption that acting now will prevent adverse climate effects. But that assumption was demolished at Copenhagen. Assuming the IPCC is right, only action by the major emitters, not Australia, can avoid such effects and they aren’t playing ball.

If this is really about climate change, the government should call a moratorium on climate-related legislation and spending until the international position is clearer.

Of course, individuals, firms and organisations in the private sector are always entitled to act on their own initiative, should they feel strongly about the issue. There just isn’t a rationale, or moral justification, for coercive state action.

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First published in The New City on January 12, 2010.

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About the Authors

Jeremy Gilling is a co-editor, along with John Muscat, of The New City, a web journal of urban and political affairs.

John Muscat is a co-editor, along with Jeremy Gilling, of The New City, a web journal of urban and political affairs.

Other articles by these Authors

All articles by Jeremy Gilling
All articles by John Muscat

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