Late Night Thoughts on the Copenhagen Accord


The first time I walked into the UNFCCC negotiations – which wasn’t so long ago (Bangkok in October), but long enough ago that I feel like I’ve had a little bit of a run-up on Copenhagen – my first thoughts were ‘what a crazy way to run the world’.

So many hours and words were spent by people rehearsing well trodden points, and discussing clauses and sub-paragraphs, while putting all the really serious stuff about how much money, how strong targets, and who and how to monitor it into forests of square brackets, to be resolved at some later date.

Well the later date came, and here we are, the world leaders pulled at the 200 page document, took out the square brackets holding it all together, and it turned out there was nothing there – a bare ten pages of accord on the things that five big nations – old powers, and new powers could agree on – and the rest presumably can like it or lump it. And three of those pages, were almost blank.

Disapointment, and despair, and blame is already swirling around the internet, and I am sure the Bella Centre and bars of Copenhagen. Of course, there has been fierce expectation management over the past month pushing our hopes up and down, and down, and up a little and back down on a daily basis that folks are not only feeling a bit seasick already, but have been preparing for failure (or finding the right way to fail) for quite some time. (Maybe I should have taken that ride on the Tivoli fairground after all).

Still there was the hubris of hope – this is too big to fail, there is so much at stake, so many world leaders coming, so many individuals staking so many hopes, so many organisations betting the farm, so much time spent to get here, and so little left before affordable, achievable opportunities to stay this side of catastrophic tipping points slip out of our hands.

But at the 11th hour as Obama, looking tired, and unsure of himself, awkwardly tried to speak to the US electorate and the watching world at the same time saying ‘nothing binding’, ‘ start from scratch – don’t talk about what was said at Kyoto, at Bali’, it became clear quite how little ‘accord’ had been achieved. We appear to have an agreement of sorts, which recognises the scientific case for keeping temperature rises to no more than 2c, but does not secure the commitments to emissions reductions necessary to reach that goal. There is precious little to celebrate there, and certainly nothing to warrant staying for a triumphant signing ceremony and he retreated quickly to Air Force One.

What can we say other than, we failed, and were failed by our leaders? My cousin who is 18, and more optimistic than me says ‘a little progress is better than no progress at all’. Well, that’s one way to get out of bed tomorrow morning.  The other is ‘well, what did you expect?’

My second thought when I began wandering the UNFCCC halls was ‘I am never going to be a climate diplomat’ and I stand by that. If I was chair of this thing, I thought as I tried to make sense of it all, I would tell the negotiators – ‘this is not an Ebay auction – can you put your money, targets and commitments to action on the table now? If not go home and send someone who can’. Looking at those blank boxes in the appendices of Accord headed ‘Quantified Emission Reduction Targets for 2020’ (developed countries) and ‘Nationally Appropriate Mitigation Actions of Developing Countries’ I wonder if it represents just that step.

My third thought as I bounced about between plenaries, working groups and side events over the past few months, watching people mainly talk to themselves, and people ask the same question in every side event and not listen to the answer, was that this is not a system that is designed to help people, nations and institutions learn and to build trust, in fact it is quite the opposite.

So what did we expect? With trust a dwindling commodity, and without real numbers on the table, in a single place, comparable, official and recognised, what realistic hope was there ever of crafting a comprehensive legal deal? In the game of ‘nothing is decided until everything is decided’ no one was ever going to win.

(Despite the heroic attempts of many I have had the pleasure of working with, to build trust , get some solid numbers into the public domain and rally public support).

So, frustrated as I am with Obama and the rest, I can also see how frustrated they are with this process they have inherited. Maybe it is fit to fail, so that we can get on and start playing a different game: the game of you show me yours and I’ll show you mine, of collaborating and competing at the very real business of adapting to climate change impacts, protecting forests and decarbonising energy supplies, and finding ways of enabling more and more people to be safe, happy, healthy and entertained but using less stuff.

So I guess the challenge for tomorrow morning is whether we can get the necessary disappointment, blame and recriminations over quickly enough and with enough shreds of trust left to get on with the very real business of the next industrial revolution. Perhaps a massive snowball fight would do it?

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