Taking the temperature of Copenhagen’s climate

WILL BROWN reflects on the disappointing outcome to the climate change talks in Copenhagen

The USA can’t commit to meaningful cuts in carbon emissions; China and other developing countries refuse to budge before industrialised countries have addressed their historic legacy of pollution; the small island, least developed and African nations insist on the need to do something to avert threats to their existence; and the Europeans make positive but ineffectual noises from the sidelines. Wonderful Copenhagen in 2009? Yes, but you could almost be talking about any climate negotiation from the past twenty years – Marrakech, The Hague, Bali, Kyoto or Rio.

The depressing fact is that ever since the first climate change agreement – the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) – back in Rio in 1992, the main contours of international climate politics have remained stubbornly in place. Back then, US President George Bush Senior established the family tradition by declaring that the USA would not commit to cuts in CO2 emissions and that America’s way of life was not up for negotiation. Back then, China, Brazil and other leading developing countries argued that principles of justice meant that industrialised countries had to cut their emissions before anything was asked of developing nations.

Today, the same standoff between principles of justice, the realities of self-interest and the ticking clock of environmental damage, remains. Now, as in 1992, the result was an agreement with no legally enforceable limits on emissions, roundly condemned by all and sundry.

True, the UNFCCC eventually give birth to its deformed, half-dead offspring, the Kyoto Protocol which did contain binding commitments from some countries. As is well known, the USA signed but never ratified that treaty and the large developing countries signed only because they had to make no cuts at all. It thus left the two largest global polluters (the USA and China) outside its remit. Even its most ardent supporters, the northern European states, have shown an inability to reach even their modest targets and the Kyoto treaty contains no effective mechanism with which to punish those who fail their obligations.

So what of the fiasco that was Copenhagen? In recent years, important shifts have occurred in climate politics, which raised hopes that Copenhagen might have delivered some kind of step forward. The science around climate change is much more well established, despite the spoiling noises of the oil industry and their media mouthpieces like Fox News and the dreadful dailies, Telegraph and Mail. And there is more widespread political agreement that something should be done.

However, despite these shifts, the pace of political change, particularly in China and the USA, is slow, leaving the two unmoving objects of climate politics – US Congressional opposition and China’s veto power – in place. Without significant change here, progress at the international level will be very difficult.


It is true that climate politics in the US have changed a great deal since Bush Junior’s much-criticised exit from the Kyoto Protocol in 2001. The USA finally has a president who takes the issue seriously and has brought the country actively back to the centre of international negotiations.

Nevertheless, within the US political system, the President’s freedom to act on the international stage is highly constrained by the need for Congressional approval, something environmental critics and other countries seemingly fail to register. George Monbiot even managed to note the critical importance of the US Senate then simply wished it away, singling out President Obama as the person to blame for the failure in Copenhagen. Such critics speak as if the President could freely choose to sign up to whatever he wanted. He cannot. More accurately, whatever the US President agrees to has to be ratified by Congress, something that has not escaped past US Presidents, from Wilson to Clinton.

While the politics within Congress, including the Senate, have changed, and there are now serious discussions around a US climate change bill, there is still considerable opposition. Perhaps more crucially, even those in Congress who favour binding emission reductions baulk at the prospect of the US agreeing to them without China and other large developing countries committing to some action as well. This was the crux of the Copenhagen impasse.


Like the USA, China has belatedly begun to recognise that it has some interest in having cuts to carbon emissions, partly for reasons of energy security, partly because of the likely effect of climate change on its agricultural sector and coastal cities. However, this is tempered by the view that action against climate change, in the medium term, should be the sole responsibility of industrialised countries. There is some justice to this argument: climate change has largely been created by rich countries and in terms of per capita emissions they still dwarf China’s.

But there is also a heavy dose of self-interest in China’s objections. If oil is part of the architecture of the US economy, for China it is coal. No less than the US, China’s current stance is formed with its eyes on economic growth and nurturing its global power. There are many countries that pollute much less, and will suffer much more, than China, and are ill-served by its obstructionism.

On top of this, China’s opposition to any meaningful verification measures, without which no international treaty has ever been successful, served both to meet its aim of avoiding any verifiable binding commitments at all and to protect the regime against the ‘intrusion’ of independent scrutiny of its internal affairs, something the Communist Party has never accepted.

Together, these concerns put China in the extraordinary position, in the final hours of Copenhagen, of insisting that any significant targets on limiting temperature increases or emissions be removed from the final declaration. As reported by Mark Lynas not only did China not want to sign up to commitments for itself, it didn’t want other countries to make any commitments either, for fear it would lead to increased pressure down the line on China to adopt binding targets. If this remains part of China’s strategy, it is difficult to see any possibility of progress beyond a series of broad, voluntary, individual and unverifiable promises.

While criticism of the politics around climate change in the US is entirely apt, China’s stance is extremely risky. As well as using up scarce borrowed time, environmentally speaking, it may also squander an opportunity to make limited but real progress. In a dangerous game of chicken, China seems to calculate that if it continues to play hardball, the US will eventually give in.

But current political circumstances in the USA might be as good as they will get for some time: there is a President in favour of an international agreement on climate change and the Democrats control both houses of Congress. This will not last. In all likelihood the Democrat grip will be severely weakened by the Congressional mid-term elections later this year and a second Obama term is far from certain. Whatever the issues of justice, the developing countries may have missed an opportunity to strike a limited, pragmatic deal with the US in Copenhagen.


For their part, the Labour government strove to make Copenhagen a success, and Ed Miliband is credited (though some wouldn’t use that word) with ensuring the final declaration was in fact agreed. Gordon Brown, too, has been forceful in arguing for large financial transfers to the less developed countries, though as ever, some argue more could and should be done. The weakness of the government’s position, and that of the EU more generally, is that their domestic performance on cutting emissions is so poor, particularly when placed against some of the grander statements that both the UK government and the EU have made. It will take more than gimmicky boiler scrappage schemes to convince other nations that the UK is serious about achieving the huge cuts in emissions that it says it wants to see.

Another lesson to take from Copenhagen is that it is high time for western NGOs and other commentators to recognise that their traditional understanding of international politics (in short and with little simplification, ‘industrialised and western = venal and bad; developing and rural = noble and good’) will no longer wash, if ever it did. The very grouping together of developing countries – in this of all issues – looks increasingly anachronistic, though it serves political purposes for various governments (allying with China provides leverage for the weakest states, siding with the least developed provides ideological and moral cover for China’s intransigence). Whether this alliance will prove tenable in the long term, remains to be seen. It is hard to see how China’s refusal to cut emissions can really benefit those who will be hit first and hardest by climate change.

But perhaps the key lesson, and what is weakest in the NGO-environmentalist criticism, is any attempt to reconcile the gulf between arguments of justice and the realities of international politics. It is no good acting as if the latter simply did not exist. Certainly, it is important that arguments about justice – whether couched in terms of historical responsibilities, or in terms of per capita CO2 emissions – are made and reiterated. But an international emissions regime in which there is an even distribution of CO2 emissions per head is simply not attainable in the near future. It is politically, not to mention physically, unachievable in the short term and possibly never this side of a technological revolution. Moreover, because of their volume, climate change cannot be curtailed without cuts in China’s rate of emissions, regardless of issues of justice. Nor is the international political landscape – multiple states acting in their own self-interest – likely to alter anytime soon.

As ever with progressive politics, what is needed, and what is most difficult to achieve, are steps that deliver tangible progress but which also begin an inevitably slow process of bridging the gulf between present day realities and environmentally effective and socially just outcomes. Some elements of this are beginning to feature in the negotiations – large transfers of financial resources to assist the poorest countries adapt to climate change are an essential first step, regardless of any other actions. An agreed goal for mitigating climate change – whether 2oC or 1.5oC – signifies some progress from 20 years ago, when a vague goal of avoiding ‘dangerous’ climate change is all countries would commit to.

Beyond this, further progress will probably require a division within the developing country block, and the larger, heavily polluting countries will have to give some ground while protecting the interests of the least developed and most vulnerable. In this context, developing countries’ insistence at Copenhagen on keeping the Kyoto deal in play, looks like a major mistake.

But the really serious work will involve looking for some limited common ground between China and the US. While something may be achievable through better handling of international negotiations than was displayed in Copenhagen, the real battles will be fought in the internal political environments of these two powers, as well as others. When states’ national interests are as deadlocked as they currently seem to be – when there is only limited agreement about ends, never mind means – then international cooperation will be similarly limited. It may take much more sustained campaigning on climate change, as well as wider economic and technological change, to change governments’ views of what is in their national interest.