Copenhagen: a successful failure

The Copenhagen climate-change summit has been widely portrayed as a failure. But in a deeper and longer perspective COP15 is an important milestone, says Joe Smith.
Joe Smith
12 January 2010

Most media commentators and policy analysts have savaged the United Nations and policymakers for their inability to reach a convincing deal at the Copenhagen summit on 7-18 December 2009. But I came away from two weeks in the Danish capital holding a glass half-full – in part because, luckily for humanity, the climate-change last-chance saloon seems to have no fixed closing-time.

Many environmentalists whipped up the rhetorical tempo in the months before the conference by using such phrases as the “last chance to save the earth” and the “most important meeting in the history of humanity”. In doing so they both deprived themselves of a narrative in the event of the apocalypse (which, in their terms, arrived) and presented themselves with a communications headache. The ill-judged tactic has left work to do to regain public and political momentum.

But the news is not all bad. For COP15 was not a one-off, but also just one more stage in the four-decade-long evolution of environmental politics: another step on the road in terms of what it means for humanity to take its habitat seriously as a non-renewable resource. And there are four ways in which it can be considered a positive step.

The activist ecology

The leading renewables specialist Godfrey Boyle – a colleague on the Open University delegation at Copenhagen - attended the first United Nations environment conference in Stockholm in 1972. That meeting marked the beginning of a formal renegotiation of the place of the natural world, upon which we all depend, within international politics. The meeting was marked by charges from the developing world that the rich world was seeking to “pull the ladder up behind them”, and halt economic growth in the south in order that elephants and tigers would still have a home to roam in.

The first reason for hope lies here. Only a few years ago it would have been impossible to imagine China, India, Brazil, South Africa and the United States sitting down even to start a conversation about how they would all work to contain and ultimately reduce global emissions of greenhouse gases; yet these were the very parties that tapped out an accord that would give COP15 attendees a modest something to take home.

These countries bring very different experiences of the last century to the negotiating table. If the American 20th century is marked by triumphant consumerism and political hegemony, for others this was a period of revolutions, ethnic conflict, jarring post-colonial settlements and massive population movements. In this light, the Chinese and Indian achievements of 1990-2009 in terms of poverty-alleviation and the creation of substantial middle-classes are startling. That political leaders from these countries are taking part in discussion of global restrictions on fossil-fuel use or the control of sovereign forest-resources is even more surprising. However feeble the statements, the fact remains that COP15 saw all the key players sit down and take this topic seriously - collectively - for the first time.

The second source of optimism comes from encounters with the “Youngos” (the UN acronym for youth NGOs), particularly those from the developing world. The last COP I attended was COP 7 in Marrakesh (2001). There were young folks there from indigenous communities in the north and from the developing world, but there was quite a strong sense that they were being scripted and directed (and certainly funded) by northern NGOs: part of a staged performance of concern, complete with costumes that would play well with news-media picture-editors to enliven the portrayal of an important but dull UN meeting.

It was very different this time. I talked with groups (more accurately networks) from China and south Asia, many of which were meeting for the first time: indicator-species for a much richer ecology of activism, research, learning and entrepreneurialism than I could have dreamed of. All of the young people had really got their head around the science and policy and had a sense that climate change would permeate their personal and professional lives for years to come. They were ambitious, demanding, smart and carefully optimistic.

The success of excess

The third source of optimism came from a very different generation and category: “Bingos” - that is, business NGOs. Again, the contrast with events of one or two decades ago, when most enviro-business were thick with the odour of fresh green paint, is revealing. Greenwash is still prominent, but there is more edge in the business-oriented side these days. It comes in part from an acceptance by the suits that the protestors out on the streets have a very serious point about the state we are in. That intellectual battle has been won amongst a very large portion of the business community, and the signatures of around 1,000 companies on the Copenhagen communiqué creates vital political space around the issue.

But that edge also comes from an emerging sense of a game-changing transformation of the business environment that goes far beyond home-insulation and lightbulbs. There are very big fortunes to be made (and perhaps as many to be lost) if Barack Obama and his friends really do manage to rewire the political economy of energy. There was a sense at Copenhagen that corporations are starting to run some very big thought-experiments about how they might operate and profit in a fossil-fuel-constrained world.

The fourth reason for a positive outlook is derived precisely from the chaotic nature of the gathering, from the epic queues ensnaring delegates to the heavy policing. But both elements were some kind of measure of success. Protesters had cycled, trained, walked (and yes, flown) from all over the world to put some heat under the negotiations. Inside the conference-centre the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change had prepared for 15,000 - yet 45,000 turned up. The UN, having organised a “conference of the parties” – a formal procedure for painstaking collaborative development of policy amongst all UN member-states - suddenly found that 120 heads of state or government wanted to attend and hold a summit alongside (on top of?) the well established policy process.

The ties that bind

Those queues were instructive: live-time not dead-time. In one I passed a fascinating hour with a guy from a US steel firm, a Nepali engineer who is working to get micro-renewables into rural communities, a Chinese campaigner and a British business consultant. On climate-change science and policy we all had much more to agree about than not. We also agreed that 20th century institutions were struggling with this 21st century problem.

The view that many promoted in the run-up to the meeting - that this one event must and would throw up a historic agreement, a turning-point solution – was always too easy and too lazy. The truth is that we are engaged in a marathon not a sprint. And the events at Copenhagen, both inside and outside COP15, suggest that we do seem to be gathering a working global majority in support of a new way of thinking about economy and ecology.

The Chinese government has had a bad press in the wake of COP15, so I’ll give the last word to a Chinese policymaker who suggested that climate change meant that the west’s concern in the 20th century with individual rights would have to give way to a commitment in the 21st to collective rights. Perhaps that simple yet momentous idea must reach the centre of the next forty years of international environmental politics if the world’s citizens are to weather global environmental changes without the massive loss, waste and suffering that is threatened.


Joe Smith is senior lecturer in environment at the Open University

Also by Joe Smith in openDemocracy:

A global declaration of interdependence” (18 June 2006)

An earlier version of this article was published on the Open University discussion platform


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