Copenhagen summit a failure of stupendous proportions

The French have an expression for it: leaving “par la petite porte,” by the side door. It usually denotes an uncomfortable departure, for reasons ranging from boredom to disgrace.

COPENHAGEN — The French have an expression for it: leaving “par la petite porte,” by the side door. It usually denotes an uncomfortable departure, for reasons ranging from boredom to disgrace.

The saying was particularly appropriate as heads of state left Copenhagen recently, slinking away into their state aircraft to make their personal contributions to increased carbon emissions — without fanfare and with only the thinnest of press coverage.

The entrails of the Copenhagen summit are there for all to read, a document printed on five pages, only three of them featuring continuous text. It is largely a string of platitudes that distinguishes itself by avoiding any verifiable goal, textual or numerical, beyond leaning upon individual action to hold global warming to a maximum 2 degree Celsius until the year 2020.

The last two pages are a gut-wrenching metaphor for the whole process: a three-column table, followed by a two-column table, with every single box, save for the headers, blank symbolizing a failure of stupendous proportions.

The first table is a list of 40 industrialized countries, the so-called Annex I countries, which are to voluntarily inform the UN by the end of 2010 of their individual goals in reducing carbon emissions, expressed as a percentage measured against a reference year of their own choosing. In the second, non-Annex I (i.e. developing) countries express the actions they propose to take on their own initiative.

There is no mention of sanctions for non-compliance because there are no specifics with which individual countries must comply.

We are light-years from the vaunted binding treaty that was to save the planet. How did it come to this? What, exactly, went wrong?

One could spend all day listing the reasons, but in many ways the Copenhagen summit was scuppered by a perfect storm of denial of responsibility, world financial mayhem and lack of political courage, all this against a background of stunning organizational incompetence.

In the context of the negotiations, we talk about the developing countries as a homogeneous group, but nothing could be further from the truth.

That group encompasses the world’s poorest, but also includes China, India and Brazil, countries that, even during a world financial crisis, display dazzling rises in Gross Domestic Product

The three countries are heavy polluters, with more than a quarter of the world’s emissions for 40 per cent of the world population and 10 per cent of its GDP. It must be said that China dwarfs the other two, and is now the world’s largest polluter (21 per cent) in absolute terms, though the United States maintains that title expressed in per capita figures.

All three countries argue that they cannot be held to hard emissions targets, as this would stunt their economic development. They argue that global warning is the creation of the Annex I countries and that it is for those countries to solve. Intransigent in debate, it must be said that these three countries are likely celebrating the failure of Copenhagen, a result to which they contributed.

It has been clear all along that, were the process that began in Kyoto in 1997 to succeed, the developed world would need to invest substantially both at home and in developing countries. Enter the world financial meltdown of 2008 when the milk that would nourish the fight against global warming turns sour. Funds to invest in reducing greenhouse gasses dwindle, and the focus of the administrations of industrialized countries becomes, as they see it, a choice between the growth of their respective economies and attacking the problem of global warming.

This is where the question of political courage arises. Where are the world’s leaders ready to risk their offices to convince electorates that vanquishing global warming justifies further suffering despite the financial crisis? The list is depressingly short.

If it appears that the European Union comes close, never forget that the European Commission, an administrative, unelected body, principally determines European policy.

The technocrats of Brussels can take unpopular positions, secure in the knowledge that a disgruntled electorate cannot transform them into unemployed at the next election.

However, don’t look to the European model as a blueprint.

A policy aimed at the reduction of greenhouse gasses, backed by years and volumes of research, is a no-brainer for a technocrat. But give the European Commission more complex problems, such as those weighing on food safety or consumer issues, and history proves that the harmony apparent for carbon emissions reductions can quickly degenerate into cacophony and even absurdity.

If the possibility of a useful Copenhagen agreement ever existed, it was extinguished from the beginning by the United Nations summit management that wouldn’t have been able to organize a group hangover at the Carlsberg brewery.

Few summits of our lifetime have had the luxury of preparation like Copenhagen, following on from the Kyoto treaty and the 2007 Bali conference. Goals were pre-defined. Nonetheless, well before the Copenhagen meeting began, as the fabric of the world’s economies came under strain, the cracks between the principal forces became increasingly apparent.

Incredibly, however, 11 of the first 12 days of the Copenhagen summit were taken up with speechmaking — verbiage that could have been distributed in written form, leaving time available for, say, filling in those blanks in the tables.

The result: a text that doesn’t even make clear what the next steps are. Perhaps the follow-up to Copenhagen, if there is one, should take place in the Maldives.

That will at least give the decision a modicum of urgency, as putting it off too long might require that the summit be held underwater, as was that country’s government’s most recent cabinet meeting.

A bonus would be that breathing through their scuba regulators, delegates would have little choice but to keep idle verbiage to a minimum.

Robert Gallagher is European correspondent for the Troy Media Corporation.

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