Climate Justice & Sustainability

Will COP 21 in Paris at the end of next year be the second coming of Copenhagen?

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The climate negotiations launched back into action last week with the first negotiations of the year taking placing in Bonn. But I would suggest that to evaluate progress towards a global treaty in 2015, we shouldn’t pay much attention to the details of Bonn or even the upcoming COP in Lima at the end of this year. If you want to truly understand where the negotiations are going and what we’re headed for then you need to look to the past…

Look back and we see that the dynamics that spelled disaster in 2009 still exist today. The ability to recognise and tackle those dynamics, to change the narrative, will determine success or ruin for Paris in 2015, and civil society - and youth in particular - have a vital role to play.

Collapse in Copenhagen


Copenhagen proved to be a failure with a watered down “Copenhagen Accord” ultimately not adopted by consensus. The main problem was, and still is, the competing main powers: the US, the EU and China. The US, while not openly obstructionist, still made most matters difficult and many countries were rightly sceptical of their ability to ratify any resulting treaty domestically. China, with the support of India, chose to tear the Accord apart in the last days by deleting references to commitments, legal nature and the global target. They knew they could get away with it simply because civil society was too busy focusing on pressuring developed countries, and the EU was too gutless to make a principled stand against them.

The Copenhagen Accord was thwarted by the impossibility of US leadership, the loss altogether of European leadership and the choice made by emerging economies to focus on pursuing unconstrained economic growth.

Paris is the New Copenhagen

Since then, from Cancun to Warsaw, we have seen the logical progression of these deeper conflicts. Battles over the wording of ‘commitments’ in comparison to ‘contributions’ in Warsaw or whether to move into formal negotiations this year have stolen most of the recent attention. Yet it is symptomatic of the deeper problems that have lain beneath the surface since Copenhagen. Countries still have not got to grips with the fact that the US cannot ratify an international climate treaty and the developing-developed firewall has been deepened.

Unfortunately continued regression of EU leadership and the emergence of the Like Minded Developing Countries (LMDCs) - amongst other factors - have made things worse since Copenhagen.

The LMDCs are an eclectic group of states including major emerging economies such as India and China, oil producing nations like Venezuela and Saudi Arabia as well as more vulnerable members such as the Philippines and Bolivia. In reality the only thing that these countries actually share is a staunch opposition to taking on commitments and a desire to avoid monitoring and receive increased funding from developed countries. So far they have shown themselves to be more than willing to repeatedly delay and dilute negotiations the (such as the shift towards wording about ‘contributions’ in Warsaw) in order to achieve these goals.

The EU has struggled to show leadership due to fiscal and political turmoil at home. For many European leaders, such as Angela Merkel, Copenhagen still casts a long shadow and they are unwilling to stake their reputations on an agreement that could once again fall through.

The fall of EU leadership and the re-emergence of the developing-developed firewall due to the LMDCs have seen negotiations follow a direct course to the lowest common denominator. That outcome is likely to be the adoption of the US proposal: a ‘pledge and review’ system where countries put forward non-binding targets which are then simply compared and reviewed over time. In many ways it is simply a formalisation and slight expansion of the pledges made in Copenhagen.

After all the years and reams of text, the substance of the agreement is unlikely to evolve drastically between Copenhagen and Paris: if the politics or the rules don’t change then it is rather insane to expect different outcomes.

New Ways Forward

Since Copenhagen there have been some shoots of hope in the desert of the negotiations. First of all, many countries are attempting to provide leadership regardless of their circumstances and bridge the divide between developed and developing countries. The newly formed Alliance of Independent Latin American and Caribbean states (AILAC) as well as countries such as some middle-powers like Mexico are clear examples of this growing trend. Coalitions across the divide, such as between the EU and small island states (which sadly deteriorated in Warsaw), are another important part of this.

Second, the emergence of sub-national actors such as cities and local governments provides a new and exciting way of looking beyond country based conflicts. Including sub-national actors in a future 2015 agreement could provide an interesting way of incorporating bottom-up actions even in countries where there is a lack of strong national climate policy e.g. the US or Canada.

Third and final there has been the subtle rise of some courageous and important ideas that could act as leverage points in changing the negotiations. The proposal by Mexico and Papua New Guinea to use majority voting instead of consensus is one clear game-changer. The desperate plea by the Least Developed Countries in 2011 to move forward by a coalition of the willing, a critical mass of progressive countries, is another example.

Ultimately the largest change that can happen is one of simple leadership: either the EU or China is going to need to step forward to provide the leadership by example that the US cannot. Any of these changes will require not just countries to change, but also civil society.

A Shift in our Role

The 2015 agreement will also need a change in tact from both civil society and youth in particular. First and foremost we need to move away from perpetuating the developing vs developed country firewall which has been the bane of so much of the negotiations. We can no longer be complicit in playing out the same games and stories that Parties do. We did it at Copenhagen and it backfired; we are not innocent bystanders when it comes to collapse in 2009.

Credit: Canadian Youth Delegation
Credit: Canadian Youth Delegation

Unfortunately many civil society groups (mainly from the ‘Climate Justice Network’) continue to dogmatically support the thinly veiled obstructionism of some developing countries such as the LMDCs.

For much of civil society it appears that you are blameless if you are a developing country, regardless of your actions. For example, India and Saudi Arabia were the worst culprits in Warsaw having blocked action on ‘black carbon’ and Hydroflurocarbons’, amongst many other things, but received little critical attention.

Secondly we need to be the pushers for a revolution in ideas: new and innovative ways of involving sub-national actors and getting around US ratification will need to be adopted. Using majority voting to make headway on issues that are only being blocked by a few countries (ahem, India and Saudi Arabia) may provide a way to build trust and momentum towards a new global deal. We need to start supporting the brave new coalitions and ideas that are sprouting in the UNFCCC instead of reinforcing tired and destructive old paradigms. This is where we can truly make a difference. We can’t always change country positions fundamentally, but we can help set the agenda, bring new topics to the fore and give them legitimacy. Sadly, issues like voting or moving ahead without the US have rarely been on the lips of civil society. We prefer something catchier, but pointless and vague like “climate justice”.

We can also help push for leadership domestically, especially from the EU (and more particularly from Germany). Naturally, pushing for domestic political change/revolution will be part of our movement, but as I’ve argued previously, we need to fundamentally change our movement before we can hope to succeed on that front. We can’t rely upon the far flung dream of a silver bullet global movement as we did at Copenhagen.

This is an exciting opportunity for youth and civil society; a unique moment where ideas could shape the course of history. But we will need to change and step away from the naive and simplistic narratives that we have blindly followed in the past. If the negotiations are to move beyond the shadow of Copenhagen, then we have to be the first ones to learn from the mistakes of 2009.