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A climate con: Analysis of the "Copenhagen Accord"

By David Spratt and Damien Lawson
21 December 2009

See also: A critical response from Peter Christoff.

Originally published on on 21 Dec 09.

Climate Action Centre Briefing Note

"In biblical terms it looks like we are being offered 30 pieces of silver to betray our future and our people ... our future is not for sale." Ian Fry, Tuvalu negotiator

"This is a declaration that small and poor countries don't matter, that international civil society doesn't matter, and that serious limits on carbon don't matter. The president has wrecked the UN and he's wrecked the possibility of a tough plan to control global warming. It may get Obama a reputation as a tough American leader, but it's at the expense of everything progressives have held dear. 189 countries have been left powerless, and the foxes now guard the carbon henhouse without any oversight." Bill McKibben,

"The city of Copenhagen is a crime scene tonight, with the guilty men and women fleeing to the airport. There are no targets for carbon cuts and no agreement on a legally binding treaty. It is now evident that beating global warming will require a radically different model of politics than the one on display here in Copenhagen." John Sauven, executive director of Greenpeace UK

"So that's it. The world's worst polluters -- the people who are drastically altering the climate -- gathered here in Copenhagen to announce they were going to carry on cooking, in defiance of all the scientific warnings. They didn't seal the deal; they sealed the coffin for the world's low-lying islands, its glaciers, its North Pole, and millions of lives. Those of us who watched this conference with open eyes aren't surprised. Every day, practical, intelligent solutions that would cut our emissions of warming gases have been offered by scientists, developing countries and protesters -- and they have been systematically vetoed by the governments of North America and Europe." Johann Hari, The Independent, 19 December 2009

"I think that our prime minister has played an outstanding role ... He's been working very hard for the last few months... and he's just been fantastic all the way, he just shines at it... he's been really important through these meetings". Tim Flannery, ABC News, 19 February 2009

What is in the accord

The Copenhagen Accord could not be further from what civil society, along with most developing countries sought to achieve at this conference. There is no Fair, Ambitious and legally-Binding deal.

Instead it is a non-legally-binding three page document, drafted by United States, China, India, Brazil, Ethiopia and South Africa that says little beyond what had been discussed at previous international meetings.

Yet US President Obama and Prime Minister Kevin Rudd both held press conferences announcing the accord before it had been completed and attempted to spin the document as a historic achievement.

But the Conference of the Parties [COP15] at Copenhagen decided only to "take note" of its existence and some countries including Tuvalu strongly repudiated the document. The COP15 agreed to continue negotiating on an extension to the Kyoto Protocol and a new agreement on "long-term cooperative action." The next full meeting is scheduled for late November in Mexico.The specifics of the accord include:

Dangerous support for two degrees: "We agree that deep cuts in global emissions are required according to science, and ... with a view to reduce global emissions so as to hold the increase in global temperature below 2 degrees Celsius, and take action to meet this objective consistent with science and on the basis of equity." It entrenches further the dangerous goal of two degrees, with the goal of 1.5 degrees, now supported by over 100 countries, only given lip service in the final paragraph which discusses a review of the accord.

No peak emissions target: just says emissions should "peak as soon as possible".

No 2020 targets: the accord will just list voluntary targets by developed and developing countries, in Annexes to the accord. Countries are asked to provide their target by February 1. So there are no binding targets, just a totting up up of country promises and not even a target or goal for 2050. Based on current assessments of country promises the 2020 targets will head us towards 3.5-4 degrees, which would be a catastrophe.No 2050 targets: there is no reference to any 2050 targets.

Markets: statement supports using a variety of methods for pollution cuts, "including opportunities to use markets"

Adaptation and deforestation: General statements about need for adaptation, development and end to deforestation. There is no concrete deal on Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation, although this may be a good thing as the direction was towards offset loopholes.

Financing for Developing world: "commitment by developed countries is to provide new and additional resources, including forestry and investments through international institutions, approaching US $30 billion for the period 2010 -- 2012." "A goal of mobilizing jointly US $100 billion dollars a year by 2020", "Funding will come from a wide variety of sources, public and private, bilateral and multilateral, including alternative sources of finance." Statements by US negotiators including Hillary Clinton implied that you needed to "associate" yourself with the accord to be eligible for funds. The funds could also explain why many countries subsequently and prior to the accord very critical have acquiesced in its creation.

The promises of finances are woefully small, much lower than the demands of developing countries and civil society groups. For example, the African countries had sought sought $400 billion in short term financing, with an immediate amount of $150 billion. In the longer term they say 5% of developed country GNP is needed (approx. $2 trillion).

Governance of finance: Creation of a Copenhagen Green Climate Fund. The accord also suggests funding can be delivered through "international institutions" possibly code for the World Bank and IMF and the promise of a new fund. Civil society had campaigned for funds to be administered by the UN.

Technology: decided to create a Technology Mechanism to accelerate technology development, but with no further details.1.5 degrees delayed: assessment of accord by 2015 including scientific need for 1.5 degrees.

The only possible concrete achievement of the whole conference was the refusal to include carbon, capture and storage within the Clean Development Mechanism, staving off another loophole for rich countries to keep on polluting.


The United States won. Killing the Kyoto Protocol (KP) as the primary international climate policy instrument has been their intent for years, so the impasse which flared at COP15 has deep roots on the long road to Copenhagen.

In early October, US climate negotiator Jonathan Pershing announced: “We are not going to ratify the Kyoto Protocol. That is out”. The USA set out to destroy it at COP15, actively supported by the Annex 1 bloc, with Australia in the lead behind close doors. Obama’s climate position was described by Bill McKibben of as a "A lie inside a fib coated with spin".

Developing nations accused Australia of "trying to kill Kyoto". Australia appeared to be saying one thing in public and another privately, with the chief negotiator for China and the small African nations accusing Rudd of lying to the Australian people about his position on climate change.

Months ago the G-77, a loose coalition of 130 developing nations, accused the US and other developed countries of trying to "fundamentally sabotage" the Kyoto Protocol (KP). They were right in their fears. Instead of enforceable targets in an updated KP, the Copenhagen Accord (CA) contains only voluntary, non-binding, self-assessing targets which amount to "pick a figure, any figure, and do what you like with it" because you will face no penalty for blowing it.

COP15 failed because the US and the major economic powers did not want the KP renewed and the climate action movements within those nations did not have the power to stop them behaving this way. China appeared not to care too much what happened one way or the other. With central planning of their booming green/climate sector, they have no need of global agreements or carbon prices to drive their industry policy; they may even have a competitive advantage in seeing the process fail.

Climate multilateralism may already be dead. It is reported that US officials were boasting privately that they are "controlling the lane". Most developing nations are deeply unhappy that the CA is outside the climate convention framework, but they were bribed to sign on by the USA with threats that poor nations who refused would loose their share of the $100 billion that rich countries have (theoretically) pledged to compensate for climate impacts the rich countries themselves have caused. Unless every country agrees to the US terms, Secretary of State Hilary Clinton explained, "there will not be that kind of a [financial] commitment, at least from the United States."

The majority COP participants -- the world's small and poor nations -- were well supported by the activist movement in making heard their views about historic responsibility and the scientific imperative for deep emissions cuts, undertaken first and foremost by the developed world. At COP15, those poor nations embarrassed the rich, who have a powerful interest in a new voluntary international climate agreement without the need of the formal support of the developing nations, who will not accede to a suicide pact.

So the big polluters have reason to move the real decision-making out of the UN forums, and with the CA having exactly that status, the major emitters have an opportunity to keep it there (while leaning on the UNFCCC Secretariat to do the office work).

What happened at Copenhagen is probably the start of a process where the real politics of international climate policy-making becomes the perogative of the G20, and similar forums, where the big developed and emerging polluters can pretend to save the world (by talking 2-degree targets) while acting for 3-to-4-degree targets, and selling that as a success at home without those pesky developing nations causing trouble.

The suicidal assumption of the rich nations is that those with money can adapt to 3 degrees or more. This delusion is strongly built into the current debate at every level, from government and business to many of the NGOs in their advocacy and support for actions that are a long way short of what is required for 2 degrees, let alone a safe climate.

What has happened exposes the smouldering contradiction at heart of the international process: while the science leads to 0-to-1-degree targets, the large emitters refuse to commit to actions that will leads to less than 3-to-4 degrees because it challenges their "business-as-usual", corporate-dominated approach. The best commitments on the table at COP15 would produce a 3.9-degree rise by 2100.

For years, the "2-degree fudge" has been developing: countries could (and continue to) talk 2 degrees so long as they don't have to commit to enforceable actions consistent with a 2-degree target (and they haven't had to do that since 1997!). This contradiction has been obvious for years: from Stern to Garnaut, who were both explicit in saying that 3 degrees was the best that could be achieved politically, because doing more would be too economically disruptive. Even at Bali two years ago, the supposed 2 degree emissions reduction range for Annex 1 nations of 25-40% below 1990 levels by 2020 was relegated to a footnote.

Even as they propose actions which will lead to 4 degrees, they still talk 2 degrees. That is Rudd's strategy.

And we know that 2 degrees is not a safe target, but a catastrophe. The research tells us that a 2-degree warming will initiate large climate feedbacks on land and in the oceans, on sea-ice and mountain glaciers and on the tundra, taking the Earth well past signi?cant tipping points. Likely impacts include large-scale disintegration of the Greenland and West Antarctic ice-sheets; sea-level rises; the extinction of an estimated 15 to 40 per cent of plant and animal species; dangerous ocean acidi?cation and widespread drought, deserti?cation and malnutrition in Africa, Australia, Mediterranean Europe, and the western USA.

As Postdam Institute Director Schellnhuber, who is a scientific advisor to the EU and to German Chancellor Angela Merkel, points out, on sea levels alone, a 2 degree rise in temperature will be catastrophic: "Two degrees ... means sea level rise of 30 to 40 meters over maybe a thousand years. Draw a line around your coast — probably not a lot would be left." Recently-published research on climate history shows that three million years ago — in the last period when carbon dioxide levels were sustained at levels close to where they are today — "there was no icecap on Antarctica and sea levels were 25 to 40 metres higher," features associated with temperatures about 3 to 6 degrees higher than today.

COP15 shows that international processes cannot produce outcomes substantially better than the sum of the national commitments of major players, and in the present case a lot worse. On the latest science and carbon budgets to 2050, none of the Annex 1 countries have committed themselves to actions consistent with even a 2-degree target, so it is unrealistic to think/hope they would do so collectively in the short term, and until the domestic balances of forces change.

It is a challenge to see how they could come back in a year and make serious, legally-binding 2-degree commitments at COP16 in November in Mexico, since on equal per capita emission rights to 2050, the carbon budget for 2 degrees demands Australia and USA go to zero emissions by 2020, Europe before 2030. By dumping the multilateral approach, they have a way of avoiding that embarrassment.

We cannot blame the COP15 process for this disaster. Australia did not go to COP15 with even a 2-degree commitment on the table, for which we share responsibility. Those NGOs who tied Australian action (and the CPRS) to a successful COP15 outcome have shot themselves (and us) in the foot. The struggle now returns to the national stage.

There are disturbing parallels in the approaches some advocacy groups took to both the Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme (CPRS) and Australia's role at COP15: deliberately and systematically avoiding the conclusions from the most recent science and instead advocating a soft, incremental, 'business-as-usual" approach to policy-making. And that's what we got from Obama. By continuing to play the game of the 2-degree fudge, the talks were structured to fail, even with a "good outcome".

Urging world leaders to get together again ASAP is pointless at present with the current framing of the debate and the balance of forces, because we will only get more of the same. The dilemma is as gross as it is simple: the G77 will never accept a 3-degree deal, Annex 1 won't commit to actions consistent with a 2-degree enforceable target, and only a a safe climate target of close to a zero-degree increase will keep the planet liveable for all people and all nations.

Here in Australia, the problem we face is obvious. In 2010, much of debate is likely to be framed between no action (federal opposition/deniers) and incremental action (Labor/some eNGOs), and it is murky because both the CPRS and the Copenhagen Accord which are indefensible will be used by the opposition to whack Labor, while the Climate Institute and its NGO associates will dutifully spend the year mine-sweeping for Rudd.

How do we define and move the debate to occupy the space between incrementalism and the large, urgent, economy-wide transformations that the science demands? We can only start by putting the science first and not negotiating with planet, recognising that politics-as-usual solutions are now dead and that only heroic, emergency action has a chance of succeeding. The time for dinky, incremental policy steps has run out: it's now all or nothing, and we must be saying so loud and clear at every opportunity and organising and gathering popular support around the only strategy that can actually succeed.

It's the 1938 moment in Britain: appeasement or urgent mobilisation, Chamberlain or Churchill.

See also:, "The 2009 Copenhagen Conference 'took note' of Accord, but it did not progress beyond a talk fest" of 22 Dec 09, "Question for Climate Change Minister Penny Wong" of 21 Dec 09, "Copenhagen was a deadline without a plan" of 18 Dec 09.

Appendix 1: WHO DUNNIT? A reply to 'A Climate Con' by David Spratt and Damien Lawson

David Spratt writes:

The following is a response to the piece circulated four days ago. While I disagree with several lines of argument and will respond, I believe it is important to debate the issues, as there has been, for example, articles in The Guardian and comments:

Copenhagen's failure belongs to Obama of 21 Dec 09 by Naomi Klein.
How do I know China wrecked the Copenhagen deal? I was in the room of 22 Dec 09 by Mark Lynas.
If you want to know who's to blame for Copenhagen, look to the US Senate of 21 Dec 09 by George Monbiot.
Gutless, yes. But the planet's future is no priority of ours of 18 Dec 09 by Polly Toynbee.

David Spratt and Damien Lawson offer a pungent description of the flaws and weaknesses of the Copenhagen Accord (see also, of course, Rob Fowler's excellent treatment of the same!)

However their analysis of how this came about is based on mistaken assumptions and fictions about what happened at the COP, and a superficial and unhelpful misreading of the forces and motives that shaped the final agreement. If we are to dig ourselves out of the very deep hole we are now in, a reality check would be more helpful.

They write as if there had been no change at all in the American political scene since the rise of Bush II -- as if the underlying intent of the 'United States' is monolithic and immutable. Only if one supports this view can one say, as they do, that 'the United States won. Killing the Kyoto Protocol (KP) as the primary international climate policy instrument has been their intent for years, so the impasse which flared at COP15 has deep roots on the long road to Copenhagen.'

The stand-offs between the USA and the Kyoto Protocol, and between China and the USA, are indeed long and complex. They are in part based in the unjust and inequitable stance used by Bush (and Howard) to justify inaction until major emerging economies such as China adopted measurable and verifiable emissions reduction measures -- despite the clear requirements of the UNFCCC that developed countries lead in their actions. They also reflect the undeniable fact that China, now the planet's largest single national emitter, is moving into a position where it too must take increasing responsibility for its emissions.

Unfortunately for all of us, the balance of forces shaped by almost a decade of neo-conservativism in the USA retains a strong hold over both the US 'psyche' (look at the opinion polls) and also, more importantly, the numbers in Congress.

In particular, because the Kyoto Protocol is seen by many in the USA -- and not just those on the Right - as reinforcing the right of developing countries to not adopt emissions targets, and therefore working against US economic interests, the KP remains illegitimate in the USA. The numbers for its ratification are simply not there in the Congress at present, whatever the liberal minority might want.

So, without both symbolic and substantive movement by China at Copenhagen, there would be no chance of getting the US Congress to pass even the weak US climate Bill (with its target of minus 17% from 2005, or minus 4% at best from 1990 by 2020).

This is the ugly reality of the Bush legacy, like it or not (and there are many in the Obama administration who are deeply unhappy about this). And it was this legacy that Obama was seeking to challenge and overturn. As I will explain, there are more than a few forces happy for him to fail -- and not just climate skeptics and industry groups within the US.

So, to ignore the complex realities of US domestic politics -- as Spratt and Lawson do - is comforting if one wants to run a facile line on the 'USA's' intent, but this obstructs any consideration of domestic political blockages in the US, and how to deal with them.

Let us then turn to what actually happened at Copenhagen during the negotiations. The run-up to the COP was handled with incompetence by many parties -- with no text being put on the table for consideration until far too late in the day.

When the Danish Chair's text was 'leaked' early during the COP itself, it was seen by many as a preemptive move by a small bloc of developed countries. The leaked text heightened a tone of suspicion about backroom deals and deepened rifts between various developing and developed country groupings -- and was rejected.

So by the time we got to the last days, and high-level negotiations between heads of state, little of substance had been resolved. There was no coherent 'main text', only flimsy fabrics built around bracketed (disputed) points.

The disputes were in five critical areas, including:

  1. the over-arching goal for limiting global warming (whether 2 degrees or 1.5 degrees);
  2. individual countries' targets and their aggregate ambition by 2020 and 2050;
  3. the amount, source and security of funding for adaptation by developing countries;
  4. transparency (the verifiable measurement and reporting of mitigation measures) especially by developing countries; and
  5. the legal form of the agreement itself and its relationship to the Kyoto Protocol.

The sense already afoot before the COP began, that the best that could be achieved was a political deal and an outlined negotiating path towards a legally binding agreement sometime next year, was well entrenched.

But there was no sense -- contra Spratt and Lawson - that the developed countries, including the USA, were hostile to enforceable targets. There was disagreement about whether or not these would be embedded in a new agreement under the Kyoto Protocol, or some other single agreement -- but the two-track process that had been set in train in Bali (and related to the US's position outside the KP) could have been maintained all the way to a two track agreement (and still survives).

SO why then does 'the Copenhagen Accord (CA) [contain] only voluntary, non-binding, self-assessing targets which amount to "pick a figure, any figure, and do what you like with it" because you will face no penalty for blowing it'.

On the final day, President Obama tabled a new draft text that included a long-term warming goal (admittedly 2 degrees) and commitment to a peaking date, annexes that would require developed countries to submit targets that amounted to these broader outcomes, a verifiable record of commitments and measures to be undertaken by developing countries, and also significant short and medium term adaptation funding for the Least Developed Countries and other needy states.

It appears from substantial testimony now emerging from various negotiating teams that most of these points were wrenched from that draft by China -- not the USA - during backroom negotiations that (sometimes) included the USA, and Brazil, India and South Africa. It was not that 'China appeared not to care too much what happened one way or the other'. Apparently it did -- with very significant and damaging force.

Similarly it is not true that 'the COP15 failed because the US and the major economic powers did not want the KP renewed'. This is wrong in terms of the sort of agreements that might have been achieved or were sought, although it is correct that blockage over the KP was used as a political football throughout.

So the question then is why did China pursue this approach? Spratt and Lawson write that 'with central planning of their booming green/climate sector, [China has] no need of global agreements or carbon prices to drive their industry policy; they may even have a competitive advantage in seeing the process fail.'

True. But that 'competitive advantage' would be greatly enhanced if the negotiations were a failure, for the initial inclination would be to slate the failure home to the usual suspect, the USA -- as has indeed happened. For then, without a strong deal, Congress would fail to pass the US climate Bill, stalling whatever kick-start this Bill would provide for an American clean energy economy. (Despite its sluggishness, the US economy is still six times larger in aggregate terms than the China's, with one quarter the population and ten times the annual income per capita. So, if the US does turn around -- even if 'not on a dime' -- then it will be a force to be reckoned with.) The USA could then, again, be reviled as a pariah state and blamed for failing to lead.

It was most likely this brutal assessment that led China to challenge the US as directly as it did, gutting the draft in the hope of scuttling US domestic progress via a failure in Copenhagen that would be blamed on Obama. (It also explains the US' brutal response in trying to weld developing country support to its draft accord via the offer of 'tied' adaptation funding).

Consider, however, what the big-picture outcome of a failure to pass the US Climate Bill might be. We are not talking about a CPRS in a minor state here, but the failure to get legislated targets and implementation from the world's biggest developed country emitter and second largest emitter overall. Such failure would -- via CBDR - give China carte blanche to adopt the softest of domestic mitigation efforts and still look good. Such failure would shatter momentum towards any sort of collective, global mitigation effort. This was a high stakes game indeed!

Ultimately this damagingly self-serving gambit - a pure power play for short-term economic advantage and greater political power derived by pulling the USA down a peg - will likely damage China's reputation as a defender of developing countries' rights. It also makes no sense in terms of China's longer-term interests, as China itself is highly vulnerable to the impacts of global warming. In all, it remains puzzling - and one needs to look at Chinese domestic politics, I suspect, to get a clear understanding of its nuances!

Fortunately the gambit has probably failed. In the end, although the CA is exceptionally weak and is merely a process 'noted' at the COP, it has provided a starting point from which to strengthen over the next year -- and seems likely to be sufficient for Obama to claim a victory that will provide enough momentum to pass the Climate Bill next year.

OK, so then where does this leave us? I don't agree with Spratt and Lawson that 'what happened at Copenhagen is probably the start of a process where the real politics of international climate policy-making becomes the prerogative of the G20, and similar forums, where the big developed and emerging polluters can pretend to save the world (by talking 2-degree targets) while acting for 3-to-4-degree targets, and selling that as a success at home without those pesky developing nations causing trouble.'

Inclusive multilateralism (with all states at the table) isn't dead yet. But it is very unwell. It is increasingly tempting to suggest that a strong agreement between the top 25 emitter nations -- including many developing countries - would come close to covering some 85 per cent of GHG emissions for, at the end of the day, no process can endure a handful of states acting as the proxies of the major powers to block and wreck -- as did Sudan on China's behalf. The danger is, of course, that excluding such interventions also leaves the most important players in terms of impacts -- small island states, low-lying states, and least developed countries -- voiceless.

We now have a highly fragmented and deeply divided groupings of states, which have been pushed about by China (and the USA) but to no satisfactory conclusion, and we need to think of how to get around this problem. Fast.

I also don't agree that 'all rich nations assume that those with money can adapt to 3 degrees or more.' No reading of the climate policies of the UK or Germany supports this view.

However Spratt and Lawson are absolutely right to underline that while the science leads to 0-to-1-degree targets, the large emitters refuse to commit to actions that will leads to less than 3-to-4 degrees because it challenges their "business-as-usual", corporate-dominated approach, and that the best commitments on the table at COP15 would produce a 3.9- degree rise by 2100.'

It was notable at Copenhagen that China did not demand stronger targets from the USA, nor did it push hard for 1.5 degrees -- on the contrary, and remarkably, it said that even a 2 degrees warming limit was secondary to its development needs.

In conclusion, each country brings the contradictory contemporary and historical burden of its own internal politics clanking into these international negotiations. That includes the USA and China and, of course, Australia.

Between now and the end of next year, we in civil society need to be mercilessly clear and accurate in our analysis of the political landscape we must navigate. We need to articulate a very clear alternative that builds on the Copenhagen Accord (whatever it shows itself to be by 31 January next year, when national commitments are revealed) in order to bring a much more focused, and more politically powerful, set of demands first to our individual countries and then to the UN process. This is a step along from where we were before December in Copenhagen.

But we can only begin to do all this by first understanding the complexities of our situation - not by telling ourselves comforting political fairytales instead.

Peter Christoff teaches climate policy at the University of Melbourne and is currently a Visiting Fellow at the Centre for Environment at Oxford University.


Richard Heinberg nails it:

"...the discussions in Denmark took place in a conceptual fantasy world in which climate change is the only global crisis that matters much; in which rapid economic growth is still an option; in which fossil fuels are practically limitless; in which a western middle class staring at the prospect of penury can be persuaded voluntarily to transfer a significant portion of its rapidly evaporating wealth to other nations; in which subsistence farmers in poor nations should all aspire to become middle-class urbanites; and in which the subject of human overpopulation can barely be mentioned.
... It's no wonder more wasn't achieved in Copenhagen." Thanks to Steve Kurtz for drawing my attention to this.

Emphasis, in italics, is mine. In my judgment, Derrick Jensen's "Forget Fewer Showers" was the best article written in 2009. I think Heinberg's "The Meaning of Copenhagen" will be the most important article written in 2010.

Tim Murray