Wednesday 06 Oct 2021 | 22:23 | SYDNEY
Wednesday 06 Oct 2021 | 22:23 | SYDNEY

Passion and banality: Copenhagen kicks off

8 December 2009 08:58

Fergus Green is the co-author a new Lowy Institute Analysis, Comprehending Copenhagen: A Guide to the International Climate Change Negotiations. He is in Copenhagen with an NGO that is assisting Pacific Island countries in the negotiations.

After years of expectations, months of pre-negotiations and weeks of prognostications, the Copenhagen Climate Change Conference finally got underway today in the Danish capital. The conference – formally entitled the 15th Conference of the Parties (COP15) to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) – brings together delegates from 192 countries, who will attempt for the next two weeks to thrash out a new agreement to tackle climate change.

The agenda is bulging with complex and divisive issues: sharing the burden of global emissions reductions, financing clean development and climate change adaptation in the developing world, curbing deforestation and expanding international carbon markets.

Negotiators will be watched eagerly by the more than 15000 activists, businesspeople and journalists who have converged on Copenhagen's Bella Centre, along with millions more following developments from their televisions and computer screens around the world.

Day 1 was dominated by large, formal opening plenary sessions of the COP and its associated 'ad hoc working groups'. As we move deeper into the conference, negotiations will fragment into smaller groups where most of the real work will get done. Ministers will mostly arrive on the weekend or early next week and world leaders (currently over 100 heads of state and government have indicated they will attend) will aim to bring the negotiations home in the latter part of week.

Not quite the Beijing Olympics

UN climate change conferences are not known for their lavish opening ceremonies and the Danes did not depart from precedent. Of course, their options were always going to be limited by the grim subject-matter, and the two creative pieces – a video of a small child's climate change nightmare and a performance by the Danish Girls' Choir – were suitably lugubrious.

'Climategate': Pachauri strikes back

Though its delivery was hardly inspirational, the speech by IPCC Chairman Dr Rajendra Pachauri was notable for its punchy content. As head of the UN's chief climate science assessment and information agency, Pachauri took the opportunity both to highlight the scientific observations and projections that ought to guide the negotiations and to defend the rigorous processes of the IPCC and the climate science community in general in response to the senselessly over-hyped hacked emails scandal (which has been inappropriately dubbed 'climategate').

Pachauri highlighted the dire consequences of unchecked climate change for the environment and for humans, based on past observations and future projections. While welcoming the recent acceptance by the G8 countries of the need to limit global temperature rise to 2°C above pre-industrial levels, Pachauri also delivered a subtle rebuke to the developed world by reminding us of the scale of mitigation required to reach that goal and noting that the consequences of achieving even that seemingly ambitious goal would still be devastating to many communities.

Saudi Arabia – a determined fossil

But Pachauri's fervent defence of the legitimacy of the scientific processes that inform climate policy was never going to assuage the perennially intransigent Saudi delegation. Speaking on behalf of the OPEC group, the Saudi delegate seized on the email scandal, claiming it tainted the entire edifice of climate science, demanding an independent international investigation into the incident and its implications for climate science, and warning that countries could not be expected to make economic sacrifices unless they had absolute confidence in the underlying science. 

The contrarianism of the Saudis was not limited to matters of climate science. In sharp contrast to the evident determination of other countries to reach agreement swiftly, the Saudi Ambassador urged countries to deliberate cautiously and slowly and to be ready to postpone agreement on anything until all subjects are resolved (including their supercilious demand that developed countries pay OPEC countries for the effect of climate policies that hurt their oil-export dependent economies).

While the Saudi intervention made the opening statements of other country blocs sound positively enterprising, in fact these were also gloomily true-to-form and mostly lackluster. Sudan (for the G77 & China) assumed its rhetorical role of the victim, accused developed countries of trying to shift the emissions reduction burden onto the developing world, and staunchly resisted any attempts to require developing countries to commit to emissions reduction obligations.

The liveliest intervention was by Grenada (for the Alliance of Small Island States), which highlighted the moral imperative to ensure the survival and prosperity of vulnerable small island nations through an urgent and ambitious agreement that would result in precipitous emissions reductions and large aid flows for adaptation. Interestingly, Grenada rejected the prevailing resignation to the adequacy of a 'political' agreement, warning that if a comprehensive, binding agreement did not emerge from Copenhagen, AOSIS countries would 'consider their options'.

'Let’s get it done' (or let's obfuscate?)

Overall, day one of COP15 was marked by the contrast between the palpable determination among the thousands of officials, delegates and observers who packed the halls of the Bella Centre, and the cumbersome banalities of consensus-based, UN multilateral diplomacy that seem custom-built to suck all of the energy and creativity that such an expectant political atmosphere might otherwise spawn.

The determination for success was expressed most fervently by the indomitable Danish Climate Change Minister (and incoming COP President) Connie Hedegaard. Hedegaard's refreshingly direct speech, typified in her no-nonsense mantra of “let’s get it done', captured the desire to move beyond grandstanding and obstructionism and to achieve immediate, substantive results in Copenhagen.

One sensed, however, that many delegates would have been more comfortable with a less ambitious proposal from Ms Hedegaard to hold consultations regarding the potential establishment of an Ad-Hoc Working Group on 'Getting It Done' – the AWG-GID – the work program of which might include discussions about an agreed vision for the 'doing' of 'it'.

Such head-bashing procedural inanities were also on show on the first day, exemplified by the failure of the PNG delegation to generate consensus for a proposed decision to overturn the rule that requires decisions to be made by consensus (unsurprisingly, the Saudis spoke out strongly against this proposal, which would have deprived them of the only mechanism that ensures the relevance of their ludicrous demands).

If negotiators manage to channel the boldness, creativity, energy and determination abundant in Copenhagen and encapsulated by Hedegaard, the negotiations may well be a success. But if they seek a two-week refuge in procedural technicalities and zombie-like recitations of entrenched positions, it might be time to move to higher ground.

Photo by Flickr user Australian Science Media Centre, used under a Creative Commons license.