The build-up was immense. Journalists buzzed, radios spat out perpetual analysis, and heads of state dashed to Copenhagen leaving pledges to save the planet in their wake.
And then, after two weeks of negotiations – the pinnacle of two years of international meetings – we got an agreement to ‘take note’ of the two and a half pages that make up the Copenhagen Accord.
Rarely has so much attention been focussed on such an outrageous anticlimax.
There’s no point pretending it isn’t a huge disappointment for hundreds of thousands of people, including RSPB members and staff, who campaigned tirelessly for a legally binding agreement. The head of the RSPB’s climate change team, Ruth Davis, landed herself at the heart of the negotiations, and stuck it out to the bitter end.
"The only thing worse than this accord would have been for the US and China – the world's biggest polluters – to agree on nothing,” says Ruth. “If we want to look on the bright side and rebuild hope, the good news is that they appeared to find some room to compromise.”
But is that where the good news ends?
“Apart from this fragile US-China detente, leaders managed to put together a tolerable sized list of pledges for 'fast start' money – cash that will take forward early action on climate change. This money might prove important to countries that need to protect their forests. It better had do, because many small nations signed up to this deal knowing they’d lose even this meagre offering if they didn’t.”
“These counties know that the deal they signed will prove disastrous for them, unless its ambition is immediately and significantly improved. It’s no wonder that one equated it to being offered ‘thirty pieces of silver’, while another labelled it a ‘suicide pact’.”
“Long-term finance looks good on paper, but there are no legal obligations or time-lines, and nothing to distinguish existing investments by private companies from new, additional, public finance. This is disappointing. We’ve a commitment to set up a task force to examine innovative ways to get cash to those that need it most, but we’ve no idea how long this will take. Gordon Brown has pledged to help set up this new body. Let’s hope he injects into this project the energy he tried to bring to Copenhagen’s chaos.”
A deal built on real carbon cuts
But the money story is only one part of the tale that Copenhagen tells. Ruth continues:
“Promises of money are a start, but this summit was supposed to be a deal built on deep cuts in carbon dioxide emissions from industrialised countries. All year, the chatter about a Copenhagen deal has omitted these targets, or they’ve been inadequate. And, surprise surprise, they are still missing or inadequate.”
“Getting these figures right would have meant fewer coal fired power stations, and fewer gas-guzzling cars. But we seem unable to bring these figures to the table. Rich countries have a new deadline to arrive at an agreement, but this seems unlikely to resolve the issue. Particularly as the EU – now a self-styled ‘climate leader’ – refuses, disgracefully, to move from its current offer of a 20 per cent cut.”
Just what did they sign up to?
Ruth points to the paragraph written into the Accord about adaptation to climate change as an example of how poor it is, and the clear chaos in which it was negotiated:
“The commitment on adaptation was intended to focus resources on the world's most vulnerable people and places. But at the last minute, the Saudi negotiators managed to pull a trick that they hadn't achieved in two full years of 'real' negotiations. They put compensation for lost oil revenues – euphemistically known as 'response measures' – on the same status as support for drought stricken farmers in Uganda, or flood management in Bangladesh! We can only guess that many of the leaders who accepted this change didn't even know what it meant.”
Ruth believes that this last lesson, coupled with the appallingly low ambition of developed countries, is the one we should learn from Copenhagen.
A chaotic race for the bottom
“We can’t blame Heads of State. They flocked to Copenhagen, partly because we asked them to. As leaders, they’re bound to try and 'fix a deal' if they’re set up to do so. It's instinctive. But that deal is unlikely to be anything more than a chaotic race to the bottom – the simplest thing they can all agree on – if their officials and representatives have not been given a proper mandate to negotiate something meaningful first.”
“That mandate has been lacking all year. The result at Copenhagen was a woeful lack of ambition from developed countries, while vulnerable countries, whose very survival was at stake, became increasingly desperate. They began to wield the only weapon they had – that of their role in the UN process – to mount a protest. They refused to move forward with the talks until more had been offered. Precious time was lost, and accusations flowed thick and fast.”
Ruth points out that these schoolyard politics were ripe for manipulation by those whose main interest was in preventing an outcome.
“The traditional bad guys like the Saudi Arabians had clear motives, but others were less obvious. China, India, and others were prepared to let the US off the hook on an ambitious, legally binding emissions cut, if it meant they in turn could avoid such obligations in future, whatever their economic status. This fear apparently drove the Chinese to insist on the removal of a global emission reduction goal at 2050, to the disgust of the European Union.”
Is there hope for keeping a deal alive?
“The victims in all this are painfully obvious,” says Ruth. “The poor, the environment, and the good name of the United Nations, which so many vulnerable people rely on as the place where their voice should be heard. Over recent months this institution has been turned into an obscene flesh market, with whole countries bought and sold in order that super-powers can indulge in macho posturing for the benefit of sceptical or bored domestic audiences. Refusing to take action to tackle climate change appears to have become a badge of national pride.”
But somewhere underneath all this mess, she insists, remains the deal that we were trying to do.
“It’s the one that negotiators across the world had worked so hard on, as far as their mandates permitted. It’s the deal that still contains the right framework, checks and balances, institutions and processes to get on with tackling this threat to our common future.”
“A new institution isn’t required to negotiate this deal. We need leaders to treat the existing UNFCCC negotiations with the respect and seriousness they deserve. We don’t need them to turn up for 24 hours, cobble together an inadequate and iniquitous accord, and then head back to their home countries brandishing bits of paper.”
“We need them to send their officials back to work with the ambition, the freedom and the remit to deliver a just, safe and inclusive future for every country on the planet.”
Ruth insists a deal is still alive – just. It’s simply buried under the two weeks of deliberation, posturing, deal-making and grandstanding that delivered the Copenhagen Accord.
It’s been a strange day so far in the Bella Centre. Most observers, including the majority of NGOs, have now been excluded, leaving only a handful of us 'on the inside'.
Gone, therefore, are the life-sized tree suits, the dancing polar bears, and the 'atmospheric space cake' (tasty but perhaps not so exotic as it sounds). Instead, politician stride across acres of carpet accompanied by little thicket of microphones, aids and journalists.
It seems calm enough, but at the same time, everyone knows that the talks have been moving from challenging, to tough, to downright grim, for days now. Acrimonious disputes about the legal shape of a new treaty - should such a thing be signed - have eaten up trust and patience, and above all, time. Many fear it’s now too late to sign a substantial deal.
In this atmosphere, it’s tempting to see any new development as the longed-for light at the end of the tunnel, if for no other reason than that we are all pretty keen to go home.
So maybe my relief on hearing Hilary Clinton announce a new US offer on climate finance was an over-reaction. Maybe this move will not be enough to break the deadlock. But like many people here, I refuse to give up hope. If the US can come forward with money, surely now the EU can put its long-delayed 30% emission reduction target on the table? And then, it will be 'game on.'
Gordon Brown has thrown huge personal energy into securing the support of the US, EU, Japan and others for significant new resources to help people and ecosystems in the developing world adapt to climate change, to protect forests and kick-start clean energy projects.
Now that he's got that ball rolling down the hill, maybe he can go and knock some heads together in the EU office down the corridor. So little time, so much to do! But if the Prime Minister can pull this off, it will be the best use any man or woman ever made of 24 little hours.
Yesterday, for the third day running, environment and development groups awarded the 'Fossil of the Day' to the USA at the UN climate talks. The RSPB joined others from the Stop Climate Chaos coalition outside the US Embassy in London to sing carols and submit a letter to the US Ambassador. Together, we called for the US to throw its weight behind binding, science-based targets in the negotiations for a new climate treaty.
Australia was nominated as today's Fossil for reportedly pressing the vulnerable Pacific island nations to water down their climate-related demands. It was off to the Australian Embassy in London for the RSPB's hardy campaigners, to make a peaceful statement of protest.