A rough guide to Copenfailure (part 2)

by | Dec 4, 2009

Yesterday I published a post looking at how the Copenhagen climate summit might fail. Today: why it might fail.  David and I have identified seven main drivers that could potentially lead to breakdown at Copenhagen – either alone or in combination with each other – as follows:

The US runs out of timeSuppose that other countries judge that Healthcare looks set to pass early in the new year, leaving the Senate clear to agree a climate bill not long afterwards. In this scenario, while a deal isn’t doable at Copenhagen, countries could still leave the summit believing prospects are good for a follow-up (a ‘bis’ in the jargon) – with no need for significant changes of approach or tactics. (Conversely, if countries think that healthcare is far from being settled, they might judge that with mid-terms looming during 2010, US assurances of domestic climate legislation are not credible – leaving Obama looking weakened.)

There isn’t enough shared awareness. In this scenario, the problem is simply that Parties weren’t frank enough with each other ahead of Copenhagen. While an ambitious deal does remain feasible, much more robust engagement is needed to bash out the fundamentals – especially between the US and China. (An alternative variant of this scenario would be that Parties’ willingness to deal becomes drowned by the sheer level of detail, so that the summit concludes with little clarity on who supports each element of an eventual deal.)

The fundamentals unravel. The US does its best to kill Kyoto. China won’t budge on targets (however fuzzy). The EU is incoherent, weak or simply unable to impose clarity. The G77 continues to slow the pace of negotiations, staging boycotts or walking out. Every time one outstanding issue seems solved, another pops up elsewhere in the text. Delegates leave Denmark unable to see even the outline of a deal.

China yet to come of age. China acts true to type as “a big power with a medium power mindset, and a small power chip on its shoulder” (the phrase is the Economist‘s). It plays to the G77 gallery, while failing either to make the UNFCCC process work for it or to take on a leadership role that could prod the US towards a deal.  Or, on a similar note…

The G77 turns toxic. The G77, which came close to an eleventh hour split at Bali, has a turbulent time at Copenhagen, with the ‘national survival’ faction and ‘economic growth’ factions at each others’ throats. Unity is maintained by lashing out at Annex 1 countries.

Blockers prevail. Saudi Arabia flies in under the radar to stop the talks reaching an endgame (the general suspicion in the climate process is that instructions from Riyadh tel negotiators to do as much as they can to undermine a deal without going so far as to be identified publicly as the cause of a failure). Or Russia plays its customary volatile role. Or Canada responds to the logic of its terrible domestic position on emissions.

But here’s the one that’s arguably most likely, and maybe most worrying:

Neither the US nor China are ready to deal seriously. The US and China could agree between themselves to settle for a low-ambition deal, maybe based on national ‘pledge-and-review’ rather than on binding targets and timetables – in the process leaving Europe and other proponents of a serious deal outflanked and on the sidelines.

More on that in the next post. But for now, here’s something to reflect on: 

According to the last IPCC report, stabilising global average warming at 2.0 – 2.4 degrees C means that CO2 concentrations must be limited to 350-400 ppm, and concentrations for all greenhouse gases at 445-490 ppm.

In fact, though, as an analysis out this morning from Climate Analytics and Ecofys shows, the emission commitments and pledges put forward by countries in the run-up to the summit put the world on track for CO2 concentrations of 650 ppm; total greenhouse gas concentrations of 800 ppm; and global warming of well over 3 degrees C.


  • 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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