This is not how it was supposed to be. Ever since the 2007 Bali Climate Change Conference where participating nations decided on a two-year process to a binding agreement, all eyes and hopes focused on Copenhagen. Not even the noises coming out of Washington and Beijing about a political deal being the only possible outcome, could dim expectations. “We will not die quietly” declared the Maldives President Mohamed Nasheed.
In preparation, African negotiators developed a common position based on fidelity to the Kyoto protocol, the only international instrument that imposed legally binding emissions reduction targets on the developed countries, and its extension beyond 2012; and the mandate of the Bali Action Plan. They demanded that rich economies reduce emissions to at least 40% below 1990 levels by 2020 and at least 80% below 1990 levels by 2050. The developing world’s efforts would be voluntary and contingent on transfer of technology, capacity-building and financing at $200 billion a year by 2020. A further $67 billion a year would help them adapt to the changing climate. (At a meeting with their Asian, Caribbean and Pacific counterparts, the figure was upped to 1.5% of rich country GDP by 2015 over and above the 0.7% already promised as Overseas Development Assistance.)
At Copenhagen, however, African resolve caved under pressure from the West. Head of the joint delegation, Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, who had declared his readiness "to walk out of any negotiations that threaten to be another rape of our continent” now accepted the West's offer of a start-up fund of $30 billion over the next three years rising to $100 billion by 2020 - almost a third of what the Common Position had demanded. "Because we have more to lose, we should compromise and be flexible with (other countries)," he whimpered.
All pretense at a common front was abandoned on the last day of the Conference. As negotiations dragged on, 2004 Nobel Peace Prize winner and respected environmentalist Wangari Maathai warned against signing a deal that was neither “inclusive” nor negotiated in a “transparent” manner. Then came word of a deal made in private by just 5 countries, including South Africa, one of the nations selected to spearhead Africa's Common Position.
The “Copenhagen Accord”, however, was exactly what Africa did not want. It dispensed with the demand for a legally binding agreement, opting for a voluntary emissions reductions regime. There was no extension of Kyoto beyond 2012 meaning that industrialized countries would not be bound to cut emissions after that year. Developing countries would only get a fraction of the funds they needed to adapt and find a cleaner path to development and there were no guarantees that the money wouldn’t come out of existing aid commitments which meant aid for education and health care could be diverted to pay for flood defenses. As Tuvalu negotiator Ian Fry opined, poor nations were “being offered 30 pieces of silver to bargain away our future”.
While the deal "recognized the need to keep warming below 2 degrees but does not commit to do so,” observed Oxfam’s Jeremy Hobbs. In any case, after a group of scientists analyzed the emissions reduction commitments made by individual nations prior to and during the Copenhagen conference they found that they would lead to approximately 3.9°C warming by 2100. Considering that Africa gets one and a half times hotter than the global average, this means the mercury will rise to 6C on the continent. No wonder Lumumba Dia-ping spoke of “an incineration pact”!
Even worse, a new study suggests that increases in atmospheric CO2 could have significantly larger effect on global temperatures than previously thought. A relatively small rise in CO2 levels was associated with substantial global warming 4.5 million years ago when the global temperature was 2 to 3 degrees Celsius higher than today despite CO2 levels being similar. In the words of Mark Pagani, associate professor of geology and geophysics at Yale and lead author of the study, “since there is no indication that the future will behave differently than the past, we should expect a couple of degrees of continued warming even if we held CO2 concentrations at the current level,”. The Copenhagen Agreement clears the way to raising them.
Given that developing nations were being offered a very, very bad deal, one would expect that they wouldn’t take it. One would be wrong. President Nasheed, of “We shall not die quietly” fame, whose country will be one of the first to be swallowed up by the rising sea, declared that the best chance of survival now lay in accepting what was on the table and then working to make it much more ambitious -- and legally binding -- by the end of 2010. Bangladeshi prime minister Sheikh Hasina, termed it “a reasonable conclusion” even though her country has been worst-hit by global warming and a mere 1M rise in sea level could turn 20 million of her subjects into climate refugees.
In the 1992 Rio Earth Summit, climate change was for the first time identified as one of the world's major problems and 2C established as a threshold level of temperature increase. 17 years later, the rift between rich and poor, between those who have continued to benefit from pollution and those suffering its consequences, still militates against a unified global approach to the problem.
Perhaps the best legacy Copenhagen could hope for would be if the Accord, flawed though it is, reaffirmed a global consensus on the need to do something about climate change. After all, “no one was arguing with the science,” as Prof. Mathai observed. If that is the case, then wealthy countries would have been put on notice that they could face a serious insurrection in 2010 if they do not come through with a more ambitious deal.