COP 15 - Review and analysis

Article, 21 January 2010

By Saleemul Huq, Achala Chandani and Simon Anderson

Before COP15 there was widespread optimism that even if the outcome was not legally-binding, it would include strong positives for the 100 or so developing nations that have done least to cause climate change and are most at risk – the Least Developed Countries, Small Island Developing States and most of Africa.

They sent larger, more experienced delegations than to any previous session of the Conference of the Parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). Civil society groups in these countries and around the world joined together in a global chorus that demanded a fair and equitable response from the rest of the world’s leaders.

The most vulnerable countries hoped for a binding agreement that would limit temperature increases to 1.5 degrees rather than the 2 degrees favoured by the G20. They wanted an agreement on how to support adaptation to climate change in their countries, with significant funding pledges and technology transfer from industrialised countries, and a ‘REDD’ deal that would pay forest nations to reduce emissions from deforestation.

However, they had little to bring to the table – no cash to offer and minimal emissions to reduce. Instead they appealed to morality by insisting that parties take seriously the task ahead of them because it was the right, if inconvenient, thing to do.

At some points the vulnerable countries urged a halt in the negotiations until developed countries announced their full pledges for reducing greenhouse gas emissions and for funding action in developing nations. These requests were seen as tactics for holding up the negotiations but they were the only ways for the vulnerable nations to get their voices heard.

In the weeks and months before the conference, many heads of state claimed in speeches that they knew how urgent their task was and that they were committed to acting. But time proved them to be weak in their will. They were not prepared to look beyond their narrow national interests and accept the burden of responsibility that true leadership brings. Instead they focused on saving face and scrambled to come up with something they could present as a deal.

Towards the end of the COP15 negotiations, the talks were going on in two completely separate processes. First, negotiations among all 192 parties to the UNFCCC continued. Second, and behind closed doors, a select group of about 25 world leaders came up with the Copenhagen Accord, into which most of the vulnerable countries had very little input. As 25 Parties agreed to the Accord, President Obama told the US media that a deal had been struck. The only trouble was that it had yet to be presented to and adopted by all 192 countries there, so his announcement was premature to say the least!

The Accord is weak. It is not binding and has no targets for reducing greenhouse gas emissions (countries that signed it have until 31 January to list their voluntary actions in its appendix). The low level of ambition will make preventing dangerous climate change increasingly difficult. What countries have so far proposed will commit us to a 3 to 3.5-degree temperature increase, and that is just the global average.

The Accord does propose short-term funding for adaptation in vulnerable countries but lacks essential details such as where this money will come from, if it will be new and additional to existing aid, or its form — loans or grants. Regardless, the target figure of US$30 billion over three years from 2010 to 2013 is not adequate for 100 vulnerable countries with about one billion citizens. This three year sum is about the same amount that JP Morgan Chase bank is expected to announce this week it will spend on salaries and bonuses in just the current year.

As to the long-term finance, developed countries pledged to commit to a goal of mobilizing jointly US$100 billion a year by 2020 to address the needs of developing countries.

However, the Accord does not say how much of this money would be allocated for adaptation in vulnerable countries (as opposed to mitigation actions in less vulnerable countries such as India and China). Nor were there any no assurances that the proposed US$100 billion would not come from existing aid commitments.

Moreover, this amount is just half of what vulnerable countries require to adapt in the long term. This is also a promise that could easily be broken promise unless it comes from public sources that could guarantee the funding is delivered to developing countries. This would not be the case with money from private sources. On top of this, the Accord makes no special provisions regarding technology transfer for the vulnerable developing countries.

The UNFCCC operates by consensus and to adopt any decision, all parties must agree. In the end parties agreed only to note the existence of the accord, rather than adopt it as some vulnerable countries strongly resisted its adoption.

In many ways what happened in Copenhagen during two action-packed weeks was a shaking of the traditional pieces of the global geo-political puzzle and their landing in a new and unfamiliar configuration.

China, India, Brazil and South Africa formed a new block called BASIC which may be the death knell of the G77/China block of 130 developing nations as we have known it so far. As the BASIC group took on the industrialised nations, the most vulnerable countries were squeezed out of the process. Gradually they began to compromise.

Prime Minister Zenawi of Ethiopia, representing Africa, made a deal with President Sarkozy of France where he dropped the 1.5-degree target in exchange for a promise of funding for Africa. This split the Least Developed Countries (most but not all of which are African) and left the small islands as the only nations hanging on to the 1.5-degree target.

Cracks may be appearing in the negotiating blocks of the developing world, but earlier in the year President Nasheed of the Maldives initiated a new group of vulnerable countries that transcends the traditional blocks of Least Developed Countries, Small Island Developing States and Africa. In 2010 President Tong of Kiribati will host the next meeting of that new group which is set to grow in strength and unity.

The biggest failure in Copenhagen was one of leadership. It was a failure of powerful leaders to realise that COP15 was not about money or politics but about the future security of their own grandchildren. For true climate leadership we should start looking South.

This article first appeared in Stakeholder Forum's 'Outreach' magazine Jan 2010