Copenhagen's Train Wreck: Neither Ambitious, Fair, nor Binding

By Tim Costello 12-21-2009

In cold, sleeplessness and utter frustration, Copenhagen's delegates witnessed a depressing conclusion of the glacial-speed negotiations on climate change. What started with such high hopes after Bali 2007, promising ' an ambitious, fair and binding deal', ended in a train wreck.

Of course, the political spin is that we narrowed the gap between the huge national-interest differences, and we have a way forward. But even Obama's facility for words could not hide the truth - "we have made a meaningful and unprecedented breakthrough here in Copenhagen...(but) this progress is not enough." Indeed. Neither ambitious, fair, nor binding. It failed consummately by its own measurement.

More scathing was Ian Fry, the negotiator for threatened Tuvalu whose tears had electrified the plenary and who believes that the Accord's poorly defined emissions would lead to the tiny island nation being inundated without promised funding now on offer solving anything. His summation: "In biblical terms it looks like we are being offered 30 pieces of silver to betray our future." Between these sentiments was probably the more realistic opinion of my own Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd, "some will be disappointed by the amount of progress, (but) the alternative was, frankly, catastrophic collapse."

So what did we leave with? A Copenhagen Accord that was not endorsed by the Conference - only 'noted'.

The draft said we would keep global warming below 2 degrees (which scientists tell us only gives a 50% chance of avoiding natural catstrophe) but it does not identify a year by which emissions should peak. The rich nations pledges do not yet add up to keeping us below 2 degrees. On a 1990 baseline, Europe is the stand out with a 20% cut by 2020- Australia 15% and the US 4%.

Countries under the Accord are asked to spell out in the next five weeks - by Feb 1, 2010 - their pledges for curbing carbon emissions. But the deal does not spell out penalties for any country that fails to meet its promise. There is no deadline for transforming the Accord's objectives into a legally binding treaty when everyone expected, at very least, the text would demand a treaty before the end of next year.

Neither does it endorse the goal of halving the world's carbon pollution by mid-century, thanks to objections from China and India.

On verification, the pledges of rich countries will come under scrutiny under the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change but developing countres like China will merely submit national reports on their emission pledges under a method that ' will ensure that national sovereignty is respected' - for this, read lack of transparency and trust.

Two bright points did emerge - some developing nation leaders reached their hands across to the West, Ethiopia in particular, which helped keep the dying embers glowing. And the announcement by Hilary Clinton of the US support for $100 billion/annum funding for poor nations by 2020 - although details unclear - also lifted flagging spirits. In the end, both moves were too late to rescue the miserly outcome. The UN's two snail-paced years for progress were largely rewritten into a hasty saving of face, barely keeping the global process alive.

The skeptics dancing on the skeleton of this train wreck are more chilling.

How can a world that desperately needs international leadership to address what 130 leaders (and 194 nations) from the political right , centre and left all regard as our planet's greatest danger, rejoice in its failure? This is not just an environmental mess. It is a humanitarian disaster, and for the world's poor and the unborn we must try again. Amongst the citizens in the West, the political divide is no longer right or left but "expanders versus restrainers". Between those who say keep our carbon fuelled lifestyles and profligate use of energy, and those who say we must consider our neighbour, restrain, and move to low-carbon economies whatever the pain of adjustment.

Tim Costello is CEO of World Vision Australia.

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