A rough guide to Copenfailure (part 1)

by | Dec 3, 2009

With three days to go until Copenhagen begins, there’s increasing awareness that the likeliest scenario is that Copenhagen will fail to produce a robust deal on climate change.  So here at Global Dashboard, we thought we’d run a series of  posts that start us out on thinking about what comes next. If Copenhagen isn’t destined to succeed, then what are the ways in which it could fail?  Which failure scenarios leave us in better shape for success at a later date? What does success actually look like? And how can we get there from where we are now?

So let’s start with how it could go wrong.  We think there are three ways that the summit itself could fail – and two additional ways in which it could fail over the longer term. Start with what could go wrong in Copenhagen:

– First, we could see a Bali #2­in other words, talks conclude with a high level political declaration that’s spun as a breakthrough, but that actually has little more content than the Bali Action Plan that negotiators agreed in 2007. All the tough issues would be deferred to a COP15 bis follow-up conference, or indeed to COP16 in December 2010 – or for that matter to an ongoing process like the Marrakech talks that followed Kyoto to hammer out the technical ‘rule book’.

– Second, we could find ourselves facing a Bad Deal – a situation in which a headline deal (with actual numbers) is agreed, but ambition is far below what’s needed to put the world on track for average warming to stay below two degrees C.

– Third, we could end up in a Car Crash – a scenario in which the talks end in outright collapse, with or without a commitment to keep talking.

As important as how the summit itself could fail, though, is the question of what happens next. One possibility is that failure at Copenhagen leads to a breakthrough, which is then followed by smooth and successful implementation (Good Deal). But two rather less attractive scenarios are also possible:

– First, the process could become the Multilateral Zombie that we talked about in our paper (pdf) on climate institutions earlier in the year: so despite efforts to resurrect the process at a COP15 bis (or later in the process), the requisite political will never materialises, and the UNFCCC process becomes a zombie – staggering on, never quite dying – just like the Doha trade round before it.

– Alternatively, it could succumb to Death by Climatocracyin which an apparently ambitious deal fails during implementation, with inadequate attention paid to the supporting institutional infrastructure, and the deal slowly collapsing under the weight of its own complexity.

In our next posts, we’ll look at what might prompt a slide into any of these scenarios, and at what policymakers and campaigners can do about it.

But for now, one parting thought: not all failures are equal. Some outcomes boost the prospects of eventual success. Others, as discussed above, push the climate process towards semi-permanent dysfunction, an equilibrium that may only be shifted by future climate catastrophe. 

It’s time to start looking failure in the face – and asking which kind of failures could be used as the springboard for meaningful action, and how.

Find Part 2 of this series here.


  • Alex Evans

    Alex Evans is founder of the Collective Psychology Project, which explores how we can use psychology to reduce political tribalism and polarisation, a senior fellow at New York University, and author of The Myth Gap: What Happens When Evidence and Arguments Aren’t Enough? (Penguin, 2017). He is a former Campaign Director of the 50 million member global citizen’s movement Avaaz, special adviser to two UK Cabinet Ministers, climate expert in the UN Secretary-General’s office, and was Research Director for the Business Commission on Sustainable Development. He was part of Ethiopia’s delegation to the Paris climate summit and has consulted for Oxfam, WWF UK, the UK Cabinet Office and US State Department. Alex lives with his wife and two children in Yorkshire.

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