Friday, December 25, 2009

The Copenhagen Accord and the frustration of the developing nations

THE Copenhagen Climate Conference has been both frustrating and encouraging. Despite across the board acknowledgement by all the 193 attending nations that global warming is a common and impending threat to mankind, the Conference failed to adopt a binding agreement. Instead, the outcome of two weeks of intense negotiation has been a non-binding document named Copenhagen Accord, ironically put together by five of the biggest polluters, namely the United States, China, India, Brazil and South Africa and brokered by the US President Barak Obama. It has been more frustrating for majority of the developing nations because they went to Copenhagen following two years of hard work since the Bali Conference in 2007, confident that they had been able to place before the big polluters enough scientific evidence to encourage them to adopt a binding document on global warming.

It has been encouraging because, despite the failure of adopting a binding accord, all the attending nations showed the eagerness to tackle global warming voluntarily. The UN Secretary General called the Accord an “essential beginning”. He welcomed it and said that it contained progress on all the key elements that could lead to the adoption of a treaty at the next UN climate conference in Mexico City in 2010. Additionally, some of the big polluters such as the European Union and Japan announced voluntary reduction of emission before going to the Danish capital. The EU agreed to cut emissions by 20% compared to 1990 levels; Japan by 25%. China agreed to reduce its “carbon intensity” by 40-45% while India, Brazil and South Africa also agreed to reduce their emissions by setting voluntary targets. The United States, where the Congress has been considering legislation to cap carbon emissions for the first time, provisionally made commitment to reduce emissions by a weak 3 to 4%.

Obama did not waste any time upon landing in the Danish capital and got involved with the negotiations that had been going on for two weeks prior to his arrival and was going nowhere. He huddled together with 18 other world leaders in an unscheduled meeting within the hour of arriving in Copenhagen in an attempt to rescue the conference from falling apart. In the plenary, in his eight minutes long speech, he expressed his frustration and anger stating that “our ability to take collective action is in doubt”. He highlighted the fact that his administration has started an “ambitious” plan to cut emissions. He put on spot China that he said has become world's number one polluter. He emphasized that an agreement must have three key elements related to global warming: mitigation, transparency and financing. He explained clearly where the major polluters must be subjected to verification to the emission reduction commitment. Using his diplomatic skill, Obama deflected the onus on China and other developing countries such as India, Brazil for their contribution to global warming and the need to subject these countries to mandatory verification on their emission reduction commitments. He cleverly avoided responsibility of the US for global warming. He also did not make specific US commitments for addressing the problem of global warming.

The path to adoption of a binding declaration at Copenhagen was bogged down on the need to set specific target to bring down global warming; the need for mandatory monitoring; and fund for assisting the developing countries meet the challenges of climate change. The majority of the developing countries wanted to set the target of reducing global warming within 1.5 degree celsius. However, the developed countries led by the United States and backed by China, India and Brazil, wanted the target to be within 2 degree celsius. China opposed the mandatory monitoring requirement. In the end, the Copenhagen Accord was able to include all the three crucial issues on a compromise, which majority of the nations accepted with disappointment as the best solution under the circumstances. Some of the developing countries, in their frustration, expressed extreme views and said they have been betrayed. The Declaration includes (1) the recognition to set the climate rise limit to 2 degrees ; (2) to provide developing nations 30 billion US dollars over the next three years to combat climate change; (3) raise another US$ 100 billion by 2020 for them for sustainable efforts to combat global warming; and (4) a mechanism for monitoring and verifying reduction of emission.

Despite the frustration of many developing countries and an universal recognition by nations rich and poor about the dangerous consequences of global warming, negotiations were made extremely complex because pitched against global warming have been equally forceful issues about development such as poverty alleviation and socio-economic enhancement. For instance China and India, antagonists in many UN forums and even bilaterally, have common objectives that do not make it easy for them to make the commitments needed and demanded by the majority of the developing nations in terms of greenhouse gas emissions. China is the 3rd richest country in the world on criterion of GDP but poorer than 132 other nations. India is the fifth richest on GDP but poorer than 166 other countries on per capita. They are now being called upon to undertake obligations that the western countries did not have to take when they were developing and becoming rich, both in terms of GDP and per capita. Between them, they have nearly 2.5 billion people whose economic future are at stake here and stand to be jeopardized in the face of global demand for keeping the world from warming dangerously from greenhouse gas emissions.

President Obama also stamped his diplomatic skills during the conference. He did not let a Chinese snub deter him from his goal to leave Copenhagen without an agreement where he would play a major role. In a group meeting of 18 nations, where all other countries were represented at the highest level, China sent a Vice Minister instead to flag the point that it opposed mandatory verification of emission cuts. He also did not wait to be invited to attend a closed door meeting among China, India, Brazil and South Africa. In fact, it was his brokering the five nation document that provided the impetus for the Copenhagen Accord when it looked like it would end without any document at all; that would have been disastrous. Although, among the world's leaders, his stay at Copenhagen was the shortest, his impact upon the Conference surpassed those of all others. The US President, whose popularity rating is sinking, could use his role in Copenhagen to shore up his ratings.

Politics make strange bedfellows. Copenhagen Conference has proven that international politics make even stranger bedfellows. Nations that have a very well documented history of conflict and disagreement brokered the Copenhagen Accord. The five are also the biggest polluters. Even at the plenary and group negotiations in Copenhagen, they spoke against one another bitterly, with the US openly accusing China as the biggest polluter. Yet on self interest, they came together. One way of looking at the silver lining of an otherwise dark cloud would be to see that the Copenhagen Conference has brought the biggest polluters together and have thus placed them on a spot. The world would now be watching them. The US, which under President Bush had dismissed the threat of global warming, has come into the climate negotiations under Obama as seriously as all the other nations. If the threat from climate deteriorates, the accusing voice against them would become stronger. Thus, in a way the UN Secretary General's hope that a binding agreement could be achieved soon may not be farfetched. For the time, the victims and the potential victims in the developing nations can only hope that the promise of funds to mitigate their sufferings would not remain empty words.

Published in The Daily Star, December 26, 2009

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