From Copenhagen to Flopenhagen through Hopenhagen

Viking negotiation style, stalling working groups, a farcical finale. Is there anything positive that came out of COP15?
Olivia Sage
8 January 2010

The Copenhagen Conference of Parties (COP15) held from 7 to 19 December 2009 marked (or was supposed to) the culmination of a two-year negotiating process launched in Bali at COP 13 in December 2007, to enhance international climate change cooperation and extend the Kyoto Protocol commitment period. The Conference's high level segment held from 16 to 18 December and attended by close to 115 world leaders represented one of the largest gatherings of world leaders outside of New York. The conference was subject to unprecedented public and media attention, and more than 40,000 people, representing governments, nongovernmental organizations, intergovernmental organizations,  media and UN agencies applied for accreditation at the conference.

Those who had hoped that the Copenhagen Climate Conference would be able to “seal the deal” and result in a fair, ambitious and equitable agreement, setting the world towards a path to avoid dangerous climate change are extremely disappointed. Negotiations took place over the two weeks at the level of experts, Ministers and Heads of State, but saw hostility to compromise, ill will and many controversies. Leaked documents, a lack of transparency, a disorganised, unclear and undemocratic process, an unwillingness to move out of a conditional mode to converge on an agreement, and a lack of regard for the work achieved since 2007 by the two ad hoc working groups launched in Bali - all these characterised the fortnight-long negotiations. A lot of precious conference time was wasted discussing process, how to conduct consultations, what text(s) should be used as a basis for final negotiations; even old unresolved matters in the climate negotiations were revived such as the adoption of rules of procedures; the insistence of Tuvalu to formally consider proposals of protocols under the Convention also delayed the proceedings. 

The Conference ended in complete disarray when the results of a political agreement entitled the 'Copenhagen Accord' - not recognisably based on the outcome of the international negotiating process - went out all over the world, backed by press conferences from some Heads of State including Presidents Obama and Sarkozy, before the formal closing plenary meeting. When the media reported that Heads of State had been able to “seal the deal” some negotiators were outraged as they felt they had been hijacked by a parallel process. However, almost everyone participating in the negotiations openly admitted that the celebrated Accord was “far from a perfect agreement.” The exceptional procedure under which the Accord came out (described below) led to a reluctance to analyse its legal and operational implications.

The closing COP plenary lasted nearly 13 hours, and witnessed acrimonious statements, including references to suicide for Africa and analogies to the Holocaust. Even though most negotiating groups supported the adoption of the Accord as a COP decision in order to operationalize it as a step towards “a better” future agreement, some hardliners including Venezuela, Bolivia, Cuba opposed the Accord, reached during what they characterized as an “untransparent” and “undemocratic” negotiating process. With the help of UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon, the Parties agreed to adopt a COP decision whereby the COP “takes note” of the Copenhagen Accord. The Accord itself therefore has no official status. A procedure to indicate support to the Accord has been established.

How can the Conference be characterised?  Its historical significance lies in the fact that it brought together the majority of the world’s leaders to consider climate change; that mitigation actions were pledged by developed and developing countries, as well as provisions on finance and technology made; and that a temperature limit of 2 degrees Celsius was mentioned. Something might come of the fact that Heads of States actually worked on texts, negotiating down to the level of commas. However no quantum leap in international governance was made. Most delegates felt that only a “weak agreement,” had come out of an event which had raised high expectations given its size, the money spent, the people in attendance, and its coverage in the media. It was the first time in the history of a COP that movement in the conference premises was so difficult, because of the many activities organised by all kinds of youth and civil society movements. The crucial failure of Copenhagen lies in the lack of practical implications given that the Copenhagen Accord has not been formally adopted as the outcome of the negotiations.

Another very unfortunate and unprecedented fact about Copenhagen was linked to the host government's level of ambition. Organizing and orchestrating an event of COP15's size led to restrictions that impinged on the conduct of business and either made life difficult for all participants or simply left them out. A lack of knowledge or deep comprehension of the functioning of international UN Conferences, an inability to manage cultural differences, and differences in starting points led to mistrust and lack of confidence that could not be overcome, as did the unfortunate decision to change presidents during the Conference. A certain Viking way of conducting business led to a rejection of proposals by the presidency and did not comply with UN ways.

This time those invited to the table also went beyond the classical North-South divide, including small island states, emerging countries, and some of the most vulnerable countries. Africa was more vocal and less sensitive to blackmailing. The same argument went round and round: if you start first, we’ll follow. Also highly damaging to the prospects for an acceptable result was the immobility brought about by the two-track negotiation and the chicken-and-egg argument of whether to negotiate details before seeing the full picture. One ad-hoc working group took the fact that it needed to know what was going on in another group as an excuse for not making progress. Another somewhat similar excuse was to wait for Presidents to play the role of super-heroes who would solve the remaining issues. However, at the 1992 Rio Earth Summit heads of state had given their blessing to an instrument that had been adopted a few months earlier and that had worked.

The UN climate negotiating process has been heavily criticised for its lack of vision and functionality, requiring unanimity to take decisions. Is this at all achievable among 192 countries? Copenhagen has been described as a festival of diplomatic powerlessness and sovereigntist blindness. It is easy to use the UN as a scapegoat in order to escape one’s own responsibility. For what is the UN but the assembly of States ?   

To end on a positive note, the progress achieved in the past five years cannot be overlooked. In other words, long-term discussions have evolved from the Convention Dialogue and the Bali Roadmap to the Copenhagen Conference, where, for the very first time, the majority of the world’s leaders gathered to frankly and seriously discuss climate change – now commonly recognised as a serious threat to humanity. Adaptation and mitigation by developing countries is no longer unmentionable. Agreement was reached on mitigation actions by both developed and major developing countries, and billions of US dollars were pledged for short- and long-term finance. It is obvious that the Copenhagen outcome highlights that an enormous amount of work remains to be done before people can safely believe that the world has seen a turning point in the fight against climate change. The future will tell us whether the political and public profile created in Copenhagen can be translated into a binding and ambitious international agreement on climate change.

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