After Copenhagen: How Can We Move Forward?

For all its complexity, the core of this problem can be stated simply enough: What kind of a climate transition would be fair enough to actually work?

First, a confession: This is not another enumeration of confident judgments. I will not tell
you that Copenhagen was an unmitigated failure. Or that this failure
was Obama's fault. Or that, as is the new fashion, China was the
ugliest of them all. I will not say that the South's negotiators made
impossible demands. Or argue that the United Nations' process is
unwieldy and obsolete. I will not claim that only domestic US action
really matters. Nor will I talk of a "North-South impasse" or a
"US-China polluters pact," two popular formulations that misleadingly
imply an equal division of blame.

I will say this: Almost two decades after I started working on
climate change, I was happily astounded to witness the crystallization,
on the streets of Copenhagen, of a grassroots movement that was both
energetic and sophisticated, and to see global civil society groups
working in solidarity with the leaders of the world's poorest and most
vulnerable nations to press a collective agenda. And I can tell you
something else: Our chances of preventing climate catastrophe rests in
large part on the ability of this new alliance to communicate to the
world's richest and most powerful peoples that the emissions emergency
is, above all things, a crisis of justice.

As everyone knows, the Copenhagen talks failed to catapult us into
the ambitious global mobilization we need to reduce greenhouse gas
emissions. But this was never going to happen anyway. What did happen,
as the veteran Bangladeshi policy activist Saleemul Huq put it, was "a
shaking of the traditional pieces of the global geo-political puzzle
and their landing in a new and unfamiliar configuration." In this
sense, the question of success and failure is moot. The real question
is whether the new configuration offers us fresh ways forward.

This question cannot be answered by the usual logic of environmental
campaigning. Now is a time for reflection - not for pushing forward one
more meeting, one more demonstration, one more demand. Of course we
need action, and we need it fast. But we also need strategy, because
Huq's "unfamiliar configurations" are going to settle in the midst of
another big year that will culminate with another major December
climate showdown, this time in Mexico City. If 2010 is major, 2011 and
2012 promise (or threaten) to be just as important, as do the other
years in the brief time ahead - the post-Copenhagen era in which we
must begin to act.

The Copenhagen summit marked a pivot in world history, a defining
moment - if not a decisive one. The climate negotiations saw the debut
of a new geopolitics. In it, China looms large, the United States
appears weakened (though still with the ability to do great harm or
good), Brazil and India are rising, the European Union looks
progressive but ineffectual, and a chorus of smaller states have been
emboldened to defend their interests in the face of an existential
crisis. As for that "second superpower" - world public opinion - it is,
frankly, divided against itself. Seen in this way, the end of 2009 may
well mark the real beginning of the twenty-first century, in the sense
that 1914 and the start of World War I are commonly taken to mark the
real beginning of the twentieth. The hope must be that our new century
won't be as hot and brutal as the last one was cold and bloody.

Copenhagen was about far more than the climate
talks. To make sense of it, look at it as a milestone in a process
that's still unfolding. The negotiations did not just occur in the
official meeting halls of the Bella Center. They took the form of
countless debates that happened in the NGO "Convergence Center" on
Copenhagen's Norrebro, on countless internet comment boards, in civic
spaces around the world. The critical debates of Copenhagen spanned the
entire globe and a huge swath of opinion. Justice and science, realism
and necessity, capitalism and democracy, the cost of affluence and the
rights of the poor - it was all in play, encoded in the chants and
banners of the estimated 100,000 people who clogged Tivoli Square on
December 12 demanding meaningful action. And - most importantly - these
debates were a key background to the blow-by-blow negotiations
occurring among nation-states.

This surely is one of the core achievements of Copenhagen. Were it
not for the "street heat," even the provisional possibilities of the
new situation would not be ours. The massive demonstrations outside the
summit halls, the activist flash mobs within the conference, the
demonstrations, and constant in-your-face pressure - this and much more
had an effect not just on the tone of the negotiations, but on the
substance as well. Even after civil society groups were ejected from
the Bella Center, their demands echoed in the formal negotiating rooms.
The green movement showed itself to be far clearer on the logic of
climate justice than it was even a year ago. The ubiquitous placards
calling for an accord that would be "fair, ambitious, and binding" were
the right ones. The demonstrators showed smartness and savvy wrapped in
a sense of urgency.

The point is that, as a focus for public education and movement
building, Copenhagen was an incalculable success. Everyone - from
Barack Obama to Lumumba Di-Aping, the Sudanese chair of the South's G77
negotiating bloc, to you and me - knows a hell of a lot more about
climate change and its politics than we did a year ago.

Not that we didn't already know that we face a planetary emergency.
This has been obvious for years. The difference now is that - thanks to
the global campaign, and
Mohamed Nasheed, the President of the Maldives, and a whole lot of
terrified scientists - we know that we know it. And we know it in an
altogether appalling manner. We know, at least in outline, what will
happen in Africa, though we may wish we didn't. And Tibet. And the
Australian grain belt, and Florida, and the southern oceans, and of
course Greenland. We've talked about the bogs, the permafrost, and the
risks to forests. We've heard, finally, about the threats to people: We
know how they will suffer, how they will die.

Copenhagen did not deliver the stringent targets and
commitments needed to support the fair and ambitious climate accord the
protest banners demanded. But this, fortunately, isn't the end of the
story. We can also ask if Copenhagen was a failure when compared not to
what is necessary, but rather to what was possible. We can explore
whether (this is a key twist) it opened new possibilities, or at least
prevented new possibilities from being foreclosed.

Clearly there were successes in Copenhagen. The emergence of a
semi-organized bloc of "Most Vulnerable Countries" (the acronym is
MVCs) is news that will stay news, and not just because of the tension
between the MVCs and "emerging economies" like China and India. The
larger issue is that the MVCs have come to know themselves as frontline
states, and in so doing have irrevocably transformed the global
politics of climate crisis. It goes without saying that, in the coming
battles, the most vulnerable will reserve much of their ire for the
wealthy countries of the North.

Witness the open letter that South African Archbishop and Nobel
Prize Winner Desmond Tutu sent on December 15, after a walkout by the
unified African bloc led to a sudden halt in the official negotiations.
The Africans aimed to pressure the wealthy countries into honoring
their obligations to accept stringent new reduction targets, and Tutu
wished to make the stakes quite clear. His letter was blunt: "If
temperatures are not kept down then Africa faces a range of devastating
threats such as crop yield reductions in places of as much as 50
percent in some countries by 2020.... A global goal of about two degrees C is to condemn Africa to incineration and no modern development."

On that same note, the effectiveness of the 350 campaign is another
Copenhagen achievement. By the end of the two-week melee-cum-jamboree,
112 countries had endorsed the demand to stabilize carbon dioxide
levels at 350 parts per million (it's now at 387 ppm,
and rising.) The 350 ppm target, which once seemed so obscure, had by
the end of the talks become an expression of plain speech. And, at
least among the activists, it had almost entirely supplanted the 2degC
temperature target as the measure of climate stabilization. This
happened thanks to the determined efforts of thousands of
citizen-activists across the globe who had made the number the
cornerstone of their campaigns.

As a goal, 350 ppm is hard to explain without recourse to charts and
other technical idioms. Suffice it to say that in Copenhagen 350
emerged as the alternative to reduction targets that would condemn
low-lying and island states and other "most vulnerable" areas to
near-certain apocalypse. The "official" target, as agreed by the G8 and
many others, is commonly expressed in terms of a global emissions
reduction to 50 percent below 1990 levels by 2050, a target that is
often said, especially by politicians, to be "2degC compliant." But
that's stretching the arithmetic. More precisely, the G8 supports a
slack and politically expedient emissions pathway that the vulnerable
countries and their allies are determined to cast aside. The vulnerable
nations didn't settle for a "more honest" 2degC target, but instead
counterattacked with the slogan "1.5 to Survive." This was a call for a
350 ppm target, which has perhaps a 50-50 chance of holding the warming
below 1.5degC, and something like an 85 percent chance of keeping it
below 2degC.

The Copenhagen Accord
(.pdf, ~150k), of course, did not open the road to 350. What it does is
provide a process by which governments can step forward to publish
reduction pledges. This will be a very big deal, but evaluating these
pledges will be complicated. What, after all, should a national
emissions pledge be compared to? A projection of business-as-usual
emissions? If so, which one? A measure of per-capita "emissions
rights?" If so, what to do about the fact that the "atmospheric space"
is already exhausted? Should historical responsibility come into play?
If so, starting when? How should the obligations of rich countries be
compared to those of poor? And what about the rich people within poor
countries? Or for that matter the poor people within rich ones?

These questions are not easy. They are further confused by the matter of domestic vs.
international obligation. Should the United States - which tops the
charts in measures of capacity, responsibility, and per-capita
emissions - be able to do its fair share within its own borders? Or
does it have obligations to more vulnerable countries around the world?

Then there's the problem of loopholes. These are critical, because
the United States and other wealthy countries have built plenty of them
into their emissions reductions projections. The critical loopholes are
surplus allowed emissions (so-called "hot air" from the collapse of the
Soviet economy in 1990), forestry and agricultural credits (calculated
from bogus baselines), and of course "non-additional offsets" (which
represent reductions that would have happened anyway). If they're
allowed to stand, then the wealthy countries will have to do almost
nothing at all.

The bottom line is that the fundamental impasse over North-South
"burden sharing" - who does what, when, and where, and, most
importantly, who pays - is still unresolved. The crux of the problem is
that we in the wealthy world are simply not carrying our own weight.
Consider just a simple comparison between the United States and China.
Since 1850, the United States has emitted some 350 gigatons of CO2,
according to the US Department of Energy; during that same time, China
has emitted about 125 gigatons. Now take the two countries' pledged
emissions reductions by 2020. China is promising to cut 2.5 gigatons of
CO2, , or a 40 percent improvement in energy intensity; the
United States, for its part, has committed to cutting only 1.25
gigatons. In short, our historical responsibility for climate change is
greater, yet the Chinese are the ones undertaking the larger obligation.

Since the summit didn't succeed, the inevitable question becomes, "Why not?"

One possible answer is that, as the street protesters had it, we
need "system change not climate change": Our governments, in thrall to
corporate interests, are incapable of organizing a decisive response to
the climate crisis. Another explanation is that the United States was
willing to undermine a multilateral agreement with the cynical goal of
avoiding real emissions commitments while, if possible, looking good. A
third possibility is that the Obama administration, desperate to break
Senate Republicans' hold on climate policy, was willing to take any
deal, no matter how weak, as a way to "unlock" the Congressional
stalemate. Jamie Henn of captured this point of view when he
quipped to me, "This isn't a negotiation; it's a hostage crisis."

Alternatively, Copenhagen's failure may have been China's fault.
This explanation, alas, has become quite popular. It demands
discussion, beginning with a widely read, and rather fantastically
misleading article titled "How Do I Know China Wrecked the Copenhagen
Deal? I Was in the Room," by Mark Lynas, a reporter-activist who was
part of the Maldives' negotiating team. Here's Lynas' key paragraph:

To those who would blame Obama and rich countries in general,
know this: it was China's representative who insisted that
industrialized country targets, previously agreed as an 80% cut by
2050, be taken out of the deal. "Why can't we even mention our own
targets?" demanded a furious Angela Merkel. Australia's prime minister,
Kevin Rudd, was annoyed enough to bang his microphone. Brazil's
representative too pointed out the illogicality of China's position.
Why should rich countries not announce even this unilateral cut? The
Chinese delegate said no, and I watched, aghast, as Merkel threw up her
hands in despair and conceded the point. Now we know why - because
China bet, correctly, that Obama would get the blame for the Copenhagen
accord's lack of ambition.

It's easy to see why Lynas's fly-on-the-wall account is so
compelling, particularly to Westerners primed to see China as an
implacable mercantilist threat to their preferred style of capitalism.
Certainly Lynas's conclusions are much in line with the North's
strategy of hiding behind the emerging economies. But caution is in
order here. It's important to go to the core of China's inflexibility,
which, as Lynas subsequently put it, is that "Copenhagen has opened up
a chasm between sustainability and equity." How so? Because, although "NGOs
that ideologically support equity defend the right of developing
countries to increase their emissions for two to three more decades at
least," in fact, "there is no room for expansion by anyone."

This, alas, is almost true. The central fact of our
carbon-constrained future is that China - along with India and South
Africa, Brazil and Mexico, and indeed the entire "emerging" world -
stands at the edge of an impossible future. These countries are
expected to constrain their carbon emissions while at the same time
(here's the punch line) pulling hundreds of millions of their citizens
out of poverty. Yet the only model of modern prosperity that they have
to work with is one based on huge per-capita emissions. No wonder they
balk at demands from the North.

In order to halt catastrophic climate change, the major emitters
must act decisively. All of them, at once. But this will only be fair,
and indeed it can only happen, if the wealthiest among us pay for most
of the action. That, however, is politically impossible (see: US
Senate). And it's impossible, in part, because the debate about "fair
burden sharing" that has raged among climate negotiators during the
last few years has not reached the public consciousness. We do not know
our duties. The Northern climate movement has quite failed to explain
the structure of the global problem to its home constituencies. The
term "climate justice" might be well understood by green NGO-istas and,
say, Bolivian president Evo Morales, but that doesn't mean that most
people get it.

What exactly is this "global problem"? First, that
we've reached the limits to growth, and done so in a world that's
bitterly divided between haves and have-nots. Second, that despite
decades of warning, the wealthy nations have neglected to demonstrate
that low-carbon development is possible. Third, that the industrialized
countries have stonewalled, rejecting the demand for meaningful
reduction commitments. And finally, that China - which, despite its
faults, has lifted hundreds of millions of people from poverty - has
emerged as the chief voice of a bloc that refuses to choose between
developmental justice and climate stabilization.

The situation is easy enough to visualize. Consider the "G8 style"
emissions pathway that provoked China's backroom confrontation with the
North. The details of this pathway are that: 1) global emissions peak
soon (about 2020) and decline by 2050 to 50 percent below 1990 levels;
and 2) Northern emissions simultaneously decline to at least 80 percent
below 1990 levels. Now ask yourself - why might China's rejection of
such an offer be reasonable? The answer lies in arithmetic: The
remaining global emissions budget is so small that, despite a
relatively ambitious program of Northern emission reductions, Southern
emissions must still peak soon after global emissions, and then drop
almost as rapidly. Further, they must do so while the people of the
South are still struggling to escape poverty, and more generally to
invent new, dignified, and sustainable models of life. The climate
crisis is, in other words, a crisis of development.

I want to be very clear here: The problem is not that poverty
alleviation or sustainable development are impossible in a
carbon-constrained world. The problem is that they have not been
pioneered, that the only proven routes up from poverty still involve an
expanded use of energy and seemingly inevitable increase in fossil-fuel
use. Which is why it's almost impossible for the South to imagine an
equitable future in which its emissions precipitously decline. The
South is concerned that an inequitable climate regime will force a
choice between developmental justice and climate protection. And justly

This brings us back to China, which despite its wealthy enclaves is
a deeply impoverished country. The targets that the Chinese insisted on
expunging from the Copenhagen Accord have developmental implications.
The South in general has made it quite clear that it will not allow
itself to be trapped into sacrificing development for climate
protection. More specifically, the Chinese have repeatedly insisted
that the North accept an aggregate reduction target that is at the
"upper end" of the 25 percent to 40 percent range (from the 1990
baseline) by 2020. Yet the North was attempting to enshrine a global
emissions reduction pathway without making any such short-term
commitment. Given the North's refusal to accept stringent targets, what
(other than explaining themselves coherently) should the Chinese have
done differently? The answer is not obvious.

The wheel is still in spin. As Copenhagen passes
into history, the politics of climate obligation may well shift in
significant ways. For one thing, although the rich countries may have
succeeded in sidelining the Kyoto Protocol (we don't know yet) they did
not manage to remove the presumption that it's still their move. Nor,
despite Copenhagen's adoption of a pledge-based system, was the
momentum of the UN
negotiations broken. Copenhagen reaffirmed the need to devise a formal
global accord that's fair, stringent, and capacious enough to contain
both the United States and China - while stabilizing Earth's climate

To get there will require admitting a few difficult truths. Like the
fact that the United States did a great deal to poison the Copenhagen
waters and that, going forward, it may do even more. And that there
will be no breakthrough until the wealthy countries pursue stringent
domestic reductions, and help to underwrite the larger transition as
well. The fact that the South's biggest emitters have, to a small
extent, stepped outside the G77's overall ranks does nothing to change
this underlying reality. The new game is one in which the players as
well as the rules belong to a still-emerging world. China's end-game
posture makes this clear enough.

The toughest admission will be that of national obligation, of duty.
If we in civil society are to do better than our putative leaders, we
must escape the "dysfunctional system" frame that spreads the blame
around so thinly. More precisely, we're going to have to actually work
out a coherent way of assigning responsibility for the fundamental
deadlock in the international climate negotiations. This gives us a
clear mandate: We must fight for a framework within which all
countries, but first of all the wealthy ones, make the commitments
demanded by the science, by their own record of emissions, and by their
fiscal capacity to act. If we're to assign responsibility, we must also
assume it.

Copenhagen, for all its disappointments, marked a turn. The need for
an emergency mobilization is obvious, and with it a set of challenges
that can no longer be denied. These will get clearer in the years
ahead, but the essential situation is before us: With the atmosphere's
ability to absorb carbon critically limited, we face the greatest
resource-sharing problem of all time. For all its complexity, the core
of this problem can be stated simply enough: What kind of a climate
transition would be fair enough to actually work?

The climate problem is and remains a justice problem. It's more than
this, of course, but justice is nonetheless the key. If we fail to
solve it in time, it will be in large part because we refused to see it
as such.

© 2023 Earth Island Journal