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The time to act is now”… or later: The rapid talking down of expectations for Copenhagen signals a lack of commitment on the part of industrialised countries


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In place of divide and rule tactics, a fundamental change of direction is needed to expand their targets and dump the market-based approach.

It's official! The COP15 will to be the place to "seal the deal" for global action on climate change. No, actually it will be a "historic moment". No, perhaps it will be a "turning point". Or further, it will be one of a "few turning points". In less than two short months before the UN climate talks were due to kick off in Copenhagen, the official language changed subtly yet dramatically to convey the effective relegation of the summit, touted to be the biggest environmental gathering in history, to a talk shop.


This dynamic downgrading of the language echoes shifts in the negotiating process that came to the fore at talks in Bangkok last September. As Brian Tokar, Director of US-based Institute for Social Ecology, writes:

'For the first time, European Union representatives echoed the US refusal to make any future commitments under the framework established by the Kyoto Protocol. While previous UN climate meetings have been aided by the Europeans' insistence on scientifically meaningful emission targets, this change in position - perhaps a result of (US President) Obama's "improved" diplomacy - significantly shifted the focus of the talks and raised the level of acrimony to new heights.'


Tokar suggests that the cracks in the process had appeared far earlier than this, with industrialised countries pitted against each other in their attempt to shift responsibility for cutting emissions to the tune of 45 per cent or more of 1990 levels by 2020, as required by the science. With consensus on targets becoming a dimmer prospect, it could only be expected that industrialised countries would turn their focus to the Majority World countries they term "major emitters" - including India, China, Brazil and South Africa - to force them to commit to reductions, which are absent by design from the Kyoto Protocol (KP). Many Southern countries have since deplored the "divide and rule" tactics that they feel were aimed at a breakdown in talks so that the KP would be abandoned in favour of a new framework being brokered.

By the time the Barcelona talks rolled around in early November, African delegates were at a point where they halted the KP negotiations for a day and a half out of frustration over rich countries´ lack of progress or concern at the plight of those most affected by the ravages of climate change. Mutterings of a new "political framework" sub-agreement by United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) President Yvo de Boer had slipped the attention of the Africans as they sought in good faith to consolidate a position in late October that would contribute to the conclusion of a fair and ambitious deal. The decisive blow was finally delivered in Singapore just two weeks before Copenhagen when Obama and Danish Prime Minister Rasmussen announced that a legally binding climate treaty would not be signed in December and would, in fact, take up to another year to negotiate.

But killing the KP - whose first commitment period expires in 2012 - is perhaps only a manufactured fault line in the grand scheme of things, Copenhagen-wise. Most outstanding is that, for all the rhetoric, the simple message is that a deal, or legally binding international agreement as was initially promised under the Bali Action Plan (BAP), will not be made at this meeting. On the eve of Copenhagen, De Boer laid down the ground rules in a press briefing comprising three layers of action: fast and effective implementation without delay; ambitious commitments to cut or limit emissions accompanied by adequate finance; and agreement on a shared long term vision. He also appeared to concede to the developing countries' insistence that the KP be continued beyond 2012 to ensure that signatories would be held accountable to commitments made.

But the devil is, as always, in the details of these assertions. While some laud the political agreement as a more considered, incremental approach to tackling climate change, the defining issue of our time, others may see it as a blatant ploy to lower international aspirations. Martin Khor of the South Centre labels it a "climb down" to a "collection of national efforts and peer review by parties to the UNFCCC of the national performances in the new agreement. This low-grade framework is widely termed ‘pledge and review'." Despite this, Khor considers that a political declaration in the form of a decision of the Conference of Parties (COP) has "legal status and effect, and locks in the framework and parameters of the future negotiations". In effect, he states that Copenhagen must point in the direction of a deal, even if it is not actually made here.

But this may be easier said than done. An African civil society member tracking the negotiations recently argued that there are no guarantees that these pledges can be easily translated into a legally-binding agreement. After all, the BAP had a clear mandate that was violated and assurances for a successful outcome with this process are likely to be even weaker. Furthermore, the failure of industrialised countries to meet their KP commitments or be given sanctions for non-compliance presents an even bigger quandary besetting this new arrangement.

These undercurrents could play a significant role in ensuring that any pre-agreement made in Copenhagen remains weak. The US is still waiting for its domestic legislation to be passed. The Waxman-Markey and Kerry-Boxer bills have carbon trading at their centre, which would help the US avoid taking real domestic action, while the linking up of such schemes internationally is likely to feature strongly in any future global agreement. Historically, the US has heavily influenced the international climate agenda - it was fundamental in pushing carbon trading in the KP before backing out of signing it. The emission cuts it proposes of 17 per cent below 2005 levels, which translates to 4 per cent of 1990 levels, also do not bode well for committing the country to ambitious emissions reduction targets. This is likely to detract from - yet again - the emergence of consensus positions.

Lim Li Lin of the Third World Network suggests that the costs of foregoing the KP in favour of developing a new climate treaty from scratch may prove unfeasible, especially if the worst features of Kyoto - namely the carbon trading system - will in any case be retained. But clearly, one of the most vital points of contention will be that real action as needed will be delayed by intractable politicking, resulting in a bad deal, at a time when the Earth and its most vulnerable peoples and ecosystems can least afford it. Timelines for tipping points are looming and entire island cultures face extinction.

The "chance to seize the political terrain back from business-friendly half measures, such as carbon offsets and emissions trading, and introduce some effective, common-sense proposals - ideas that have less to do with creating complex new markets for pollution and more to do with keeping coal and oil in the ground", as author and activist Naomi Klein argues Copenhagen should be about - looks unlikely to be siezed. What looks more likely is a political declaration that James Hansen, who heads the Nasa Goddard Institute for Space Studies, has aptly described as "so fundamentally wrong" that it would be better to start again from scratch.

Written by: Trusha Reddy, Senior Researcher, Corruption and Governance Programme, ISS Cape Town



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