Page last updated at 01:53 GMT, Monday, 21 December 2009

Harrabin's Notes: After Copenhagen

In his regular column, BBC environment analyst Roger Harrabin offers his thoughts on the outcome of the UN climate summit in Copenhagen.


If the climate was a bank they would have saved it, said Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez. But it is not. And they have not.

A young woman giggles beside a snow-covered "Cool Globe" part of an exhibition about combating global warming  in Copenhagen, 19-12-2009
The deal brings the globe's big polluters in a single accord

World leaders know they are taking a massive risk with the climate. They know what they need to do to reduce the risk to a scientifically acceptable level.

But they will not quite do it because they are hemmed in by economic and political risks.

That is why the Copenhagen summit leaves the world well short of the emissions cuts believed to hold temperature rise below a danger threshold of 2C.

It also leaves the debris of a crash between the shattered monolith of the United Nations and the juggernaut of the great powers. The future of the UN's role in international climate deals is now in doubt.

Was it a total disaster? No. On the plus side, the Copenhagen Accord brings the existing big polluters together in a single accord with the emerging economies which will produce 90% of the new emissions by 2050. It lists the actions of each major player for all to see.

This is a real achievement - and essential for US President Barack Obama to make his climate policy saleable in the US Senate.


But the overall outcome left many people deflated, even disgusted.

To understand why, you need to cast back to the Rio Earth Summit in 1992 where I witnessed world leaders pledging to keep emissions below a level considered dangerous.

After 17 years of talking, with science advisers clearly defining the "danger" threshold as a 2C global temperature rise, a new generation of world leaders in Copenhagen agreed in a woolly phrase to combat climate change "with a view" to staying below that 2C mark.

Greepeace activists demonstrate against the climate deal in Copenhagen, 19-12-2009
Many activists were angered by the deal that emerged at Copenhagen

What is more, they failed to mention that their offers on emissions so far fall well short of the benchmark they themselves defined.

Lord Stern, one of the main architects of the financial part of the Copenhagen deal, hopes that the non-binding accords from Copenhagen could be ramped up over time to produce the emissions cuts that scientists recommend.

But given the low level of ambition from many of the world leaders in Copenhagen it is hard to see why or how they would so radically change tack. It is equally hard to see how the level of anger and mistrust resulting from the institutional wreckage will easily be healed.

To small countries most vulnerable to climate change, this vague accord hatched behind closed doors between the US, China, India, Brazil and South Africa is morally repugnant.

Many accepted it with bitter resignation because they think that the $100bn offer of climate finance by 2020 is the best they will get.

Never mind that the source of the cash is uncertain, the sum is half of what some UN bodies consider necessary, and it is less than a sixth of the annual US defence budget.

No matter that assuming inflation at 2.5%, it will be worth $78bn by 2020. No matter that poor nations cannot guarantee that the money will not come from aid budgets they were due anyway.

Those small countries are swallowing the painful reality of global power politics.

It was the worst of times for a conference like this. The leaders arrived carrying the recession on their shoulders. The two key players, the US and China, were also burdened by a weight of expectation from conservatives back home.

Right-wingers in the USA who are either sceptical of climate science or climate policy (or both) have constrained President Obama's ability to offer deeper emissions cuts.

Meanwhile Chinese Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jiabao has been under fire from his own old guard, who consider climate change a Western plot to keep China down.

And when the Americans played to their domestic audience by rebuking China in Copenhagen, it left Mr Wen scrabbling to save face with a widely condemned display of intransigence, which no doubt looked like strength to viewers in Beijing.

The Chinese are being widely blamed for rudeness and bad behaviour at the conference. But they arrived believing they held the moral high ground, with Chinese per capita emissions one sixth of those in the US.

Then they suffered the bizarre indignity of having their main negotiator blocked by security from the first three days of the conference (this looks odd - can we imagine this happening to the US chief?)

By the time Mr Wen arrived, his delegation was in a febrile state, fending off blame from the world for failing to budge. At the same time President Obama - who brought nothing new to the table - escaped without criticism from his European allies, according to people inside the negotiating rooms.

Mr Wen told UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown he had come to sign a document, not negotiate, and was pilloried. Mr Obama did the same and largely escaped thanks mainly to superior spin.


So what happens now? There will be further climate negotiations through the year within the UN climate process and almost certainly in forums like the G20 too.

President Barack Obama makes a statement after his return from the Climate Conference in Copenhagen 19 December 19 2009
President Obama spent less than 24 hours in Copenhagen

But world leaders will surely never again agree to meet on this issue in parallel with the UN negotiating process. It was too bloody and it will have muddied many of their reputations. And some leaders will want to take climate change off the UN completely.

The unique two-track nature of the event in Copenhagen was at the heart of the problem. The Danes were never able to reconcile the formal UN negotiating process with an informal gathering involving more than 100 presidents and prime ministers.

The Danes invited people identified as key players into meetings, leaving a bevy of presidents kicking their heels in humiliation and fury.

You only have to see some of the South American bodyguards skittling bystanders in the crowded conference foyer to know these are men who expect to be centre stage, not watching pay-per-view in the hotel room.

The denouement of the conference appalled many observers, with President Obama striking a deal with the big four developing nations and presenting a fait accompli to the White House Press Corps before stepping back on his plane.

Official UN delegates in the plenary hall were outraged by what they considered a flagrant contempt for procedure. And it took another overnight session for most of the rest of the delegates to sign up to the take-it-or-leave-it offer.

A steering group of key nations, presumably representing the big emitters along with key "climate victim" blocs like the African Union, Small Island States and Least Developed Countries may be invited to work on a stronger text for later in the year under Mexican presidency.

That group would feed back a negotiating text to the next big climate meetings in summer or December - or both. But countries like Venezuela and Bolivia would doubtless accuse the big powers of co-opting poor nation "stooges" into the steering group.

And the USA would still be bound by Senate policy on climate, and China would still be bound by its pride and its feeling that it has been treated unfairly.

If there is to be a legally binding treaty - maybe later in the next year - it will presumably need to be couched within the UN. But even such a treaty might not be enforceable. Canada breached the last legal climate agreement by a mile and got away with it.

More and more people doubt the ability and will of politicians collectively to tackle the issue. So climate scepticism looks increasingly attractive.

A survey a while ago showed that 18% of scientists thought the Intergovernmental Panel had exaggerated. This gives hope. Sadly 17% of scientists thought the IPCC had under-stated the risk, and the rest thought they had got it right. Which does not give hope.

One veteran of these talks told me: "All these leaders have signed up to climate policies and targets, but they don't realise the scale of the clean industrial revolution that we need to undertake if we're going to protect the climate. They think they can do some version of modified business as usual. They haven't got a clue."

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