Understanding Copenhagen

By Ibrahim Ceesay, Gambia
I spent eight weeks travelling Europe with a group of 13 AVAAZ climate activists from five different continents, organizing for a better Copenhagen. In the past days I’ve been trying to make sense of what happened in the final moments of that journey. The story of Copenhagen began in Bali, Indonesia two years ago. After an intensive two weeks of negotiations, 192 countries, including the Bush Administration, signed on to the Bali Roadmap, a plan to complete a binding global climate treaty in Copenhagen. The Bali Roadmap was a political agreement acknowledging that the evidence for the planet’s warming is “unequivocal”, and that further delays in reducing emissions would further increase risks of “severe climate change impacts.”
Fast forward to 2009 – after two years of high level negotiations and new peer-reviewed scientific findings warning that climate change is accelerating faster than previously anticipated, the stakes had been raised for Copenhagen. In the first week and a half of the negotiations, leaders from small island states like the Maldives and Tuvalu and from African countries already being thrust into water-related conflicts from extreme drought resisted threats and bribes from developed countries as they insisted on an ambitious and fair legal treaty committed to containing warming below 1.5 degrees C. Tensions ran high and the talks were deadlocked as rich nations and emerging economies blamed each other and the most vulnerable.
After nine hours of direct negotiations from world leaders on the final day, a weak agreement was reached by a diverse group of interests. The three-page ‘Copenhagen Accord’ is by all accounts far short of the ambitious and fair legal treaty promised in Bali. While it does finally tie emerging economies like China and India in with the United States under the same climate agreement, it also puts most of the hard decisions down the road another year.
At most the Copenhagen Accord can be called another baby step forward, when the world needed a bold leap. The reason for this colossal failure of leadership was a No Ambition Coalition of the United States and China. Held hostage by fossil fuel lobbyists and an addiction to a 20th century growth paradigm, China held out against a legally-binding outcome and international verification of emission targets while the United States refused to budge from their weak emission targets.
The most important measure to judge the outcome of Copenhagen is scientific. Scientists have warned that exceeding even 1.5c of warming would lead to the displacement of low-lying nations, extreme droughts throughout Africa, and risk reaching irreversible climate tipping points.
There is cause for hope coming out of Copenhagen. Firstly, 133 Heads of State, having travelled to Copenhagen to reach a deal, are now directly accountable for achieving significant action on climate change. Secondly, the international climate movement showed up like never before in Copenhagen and around the world.
The Climate Movement Has Arrived
We saw the world’s largest demonstrations on climate change – 100,000 in the streets of Copenhagen on December 12th, 90,000 across Australia on the same day, and 3000 events around the world. We saw one of the largest petitions in history – 15 million for a fair, ambitious, and binding global treaty. We saw a spirit of collaboration amongst NGOs unlike any seen before within the climate movement.
350.org, Avaaz.org, and TckTckTck pulled off three international days of climate action in the course of three months, with more than 10,000 total events in 181 different countries. Thursday December 17th marked a “Hunger for Survival” global fast for climate justice where over 10,000 people worldwide gave up food in solidarity with three people who had consumed nothing but food and salt for 43 days to call attention to the urgency of climate action. Despite all but 300 individuals getting kicked out of the Bella Center for the two day Heads of State Summit, the presence of civil society in the negotiations remained powerful.
How the U.S. and China Ruined Copenhagen
The coal and oil lobbies have a stranglehold on national politics in China and India. The U.S. is by far the largest historic emitter of CO2. The average U.S. citizen emits four times as much CO2 as the average Chinese person. However, a couple years ago China overtook the U.S. as the largest national emitter of CO2. China now builds two new power stations every week.
For months before Copenhagen, President Obama and his top negotiators warned that the U.S. wasn’t going to offer anything stronger than the emission targets being debated in the U.S. Senate of 17% below 2005 levels by 2020 (4% below 1990 levels). These targets pale in comparison to targets from other developed countries like Japan (25% below 1990 levels by 2020) and the EU (20%). However, they do represent the first time the U.S. has had real emission targets to offer at an international climate conference. U.S. negotiators also warned a month before Copenhagen that a legally binding outcome would not be possible in time for this conference and that long-term finance for developing countries was off the table.
A month ago China committed to voluntarily reduce its ‘carbon intensity’ 40-45% below 2005 levels by 2020. This figure is less than it sounds like. Carbon intensity means emissions relative to economic growth. China warned that they were not willing to give up national sovereignty to have their targets monitored by an international body unless the developed world (read: United States) did more to reduce their own emissions and finance technology transfer and climate adaptation in the developing world. China remained strongly opposed to the calls of the developing world for a legally binding treaty that would bind all nations to common but differentiated emission targets.
In Copenhagen, backed sometimes by India, China ultimately ended up opposing a global peak year for emission reductions and vetoing a goal of reducing emissions 50% by 2050 for all nations and 80% by 2050 for developed nations (even though this wouldn’t apply to China in today’s framework).
China, the U.S. and the rest of the world were playing a game of chicken for two years – one pointing the finger at the other, refusing to act first.
Hope on Climate Finance
After days of deadlock, a glimmer of new hope had been infused into the process on Thursday afternoon. U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton made a surprise appearance, offering a proposal for $100 billion/year climate finance for adaptation and technology in developing countries by 2020, of which the U.S. would pay its “fair share”. This was half of what the Climate Action Network International and several experts argued was necessary to adequately avert climate catastrophe. But it was significant because it was the first time the U.S. had offered anything beyond a three-year ‘quick start’ finance package.
Clinton made it clear that the funds would only be made available if China would agree to “transparency” in reporting its emission reductions. At the end of the day the U.S. only put $3.6 billion over the next three years on the table, with a suggestion that more could come later if approved by Congress. Japan promised $11 billion and the EU $10.6 billion over three years. China ultimately agreed to some transparency and international “consultation” for its targets.
“Friends of the Chair” Process Produces a Document
With 132 other heads of state present in Copenhagen, President Obama arrived on Friday morning December 18th. For two weeks vulnerable nations had been insisting on emission targets and climate finance strong enough to ensure their survival and developed countries had continued to refuse to offer anything new, leaving the talks in deadlock.. As a result, there was no text with any kind of consensus to base negotiations on by Friday morning.
In an attempt to materialize a deal, the Danish Prime Minister began holding a series of “Friends of the Chair” meetings with 28 different countries representing the Least Developed Countries, the emerging economies, and key developed nations. A few members of the G77 (a formal group of 130 developing nations) complained that the process was undemocratic and that the agreement was not strong enough.
In the early afternoon on Friday President Obama gave an underwhelming speech, saying that words were less valuable than action, but again failing to offer any new proposals. At that moment it became clear that Copenhagen would not produce anything close to a fair, ambitious, and binding outcome.
Leading up to Friday, the climate movement had tried every angle to get around the problem of low ambition from the US and China. Groups targeted Japan on finance and the EU on targets, hoping if they came out with something strong, it would budge the big players. Avaaz.org employed voices from the Global South to pressure China to support a legally binding outcome that was measurable, reportable, and verifiable. Nothing worked.
Following Obama’s speech, with a weak outcome certain, youth and NGOs began making banners that read “Climate Shame” and cutting out masks of more than 20 world leaders most responsible for a weak deal. We picked countries who had won the “Fossil of the Day” award throughout the two weeks for doing the most that day to block progress on a strong treaty.
World Leaders Begin to Negotiate
Inside the negotiations U.S. President Obama, Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao, Brazilian President Lula da Silva, South African President Jacob Zuma, and Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh were leading bilateral and multilateral meetings to come up with an agreement. Afterwards a UN Assistant Secretary for General Policy Robert Orr described the process on Friday in a press conference
“I’ve worked in the UN for a number of years and national government for a number of years. I’ve never seen leaders truly negotiate. It’s usually pre-arranged, pre-cooked. And the text goes to the leaders and they nod at each other and they agree. This was not the case. Leaders were drafting. Leaders were caucusing. Leaders were doing things that most of them probably hadn’t done for a few years. I think President Lula at one point said, ‘it makes me feel like a labor union leader again. I remember collective bargaining.’”
After President Obama’s afternoon speech China, apparently spurned, sent lower-level ministers to meetings with Obama and other heads of state as a show of power. Heads of state were forced to wait around as the Chinese delegate made telephone calls to his “superiors”. Unlike other countries China didn’t need a deal out of Copenhagen to save face. I heard one account by a member of Climate Action Network China that the priority of 90% of Chinese people going into Copenhagen was for their government to not give in to U.S. pressure, even if it meant risking a global agreement. As a result, China was able to get other nations to strip the final agreement of its emission targets.
Working frantically for hours, the “Friends of the Chair” process produced the Copenhagen Accord, which finally had the support of the major emitters, emerging economies, and most of the developing world. However with no firm targets, lack of detail on financing, and no deadline for completing a legally binding treaty, the Accord did not achieve the support of a handful of nations in the final hours. As a result, the Conference of the Parties “took note” of the agreement instead of making it a formal decision.
Life in the Final Hours
At 1 p.m. in the morning on the final night, over 150 voices were fighting through the bitter cold, surrounded by police outside the Bella Center. President Obama had just delivered his closing speech announcing the Copenhagen Accord and delegates and media from all over the world were deciding how to swallow the bitter compromise that had been reached.
“1.5 to Stay Alive – Don’t Sign the Deal!” “Climate Shame! Climate Shame!” The chants bellowed through the night air as three of us blew on our hands, attempting to live blog the events on our laptops. As the clock reached 2:00, word came from inside the conference that the EU had not yet decided whether to sign onto the political compromise that had been announced by the U.S., China, India, South Africa, and Brazil. Our chants continued – “EU Don’t Sign! EU Don’t Sign!”
All of us could see the writing on the wall that night. We knew the deal was all but finished, but we knew we had to fight. News outlets were already starting to spin the story as Obama coming in at the last second to rescue a deal. It was important to show that the world was not satisfied with a weak agreement and that leaders had failed in their duty to lead post-Bali. At 2:30 we got a text message with some words from UK Climate Minister Ed Milliband – “it’s youth and connected mobilization that put the pressure to get anything, especially 130 leaders here. Stay strong.”
Forty minutes later Bolivian delegate and representative to UN came outside to greet us. Looking tired and worn, he said, “it looks like we have lost this battle, but we will win the war because of the strength of the youth.”
After hearing the result of the talks, one member from Africa wrote “It takes a lot to get an elephant moving, but when you do it is hard to stop…the elephant is moving…”
Not Done Yet
The Copenhagen Accord represents a stark failure of leadership resulting from low ambitions and hard lines taken by China and the United States. The price of carbon fell days after the end of negotiations as businesses warned that Copenhagen had failed to signal global limits on carbon emissions. Moving forward, the climate movement must bring the fight for strong carbon limits back to the United States, passing a strong climate law through the Senate, and find a way to convince China to support a legally-binding treaty with strong emission targets in 2010.
In short, the task ahead is to make the elephant move in the right direction, and fast. Our future depends on it.
The author is a Global Youth Climate Activist and National Coordinator- Children for Children Organization (CFCO)

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