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Climate change: “Deal” but no seal in Denmark
NewsNotes, January-February 2010

The 15th Conference of Parties for the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change Negotiations concluded on December 18, 2009 producing no binding agreement defining a global way forward on climate change. Though leaders remain committed to continuing talks throughout 2010, a familiar backroom negotiating tactic – where a deal made among a small number of countries was presented to the remainder of nations for approval – left the climate deal “unsealed” in Copenhagen.

As reported in NewsNotes articles throughout the past year leading up to Copenhagen, the disparity in negotiating positions among countries were many. For some small island nations and African countries the stakes are extremely high as their populations face the disastrous impact of rising sea levels and climate changes that cause drought and severe storms. Despite huge differences, increased momentum from the year-round negotiations had kindled hopes that nations would find a way to move forward.

One major division was between the U.S. and middle-income “developing” countries, especially China, India and Brazil. The U.S. focused its negotiation strategy almost exclusively on pressuring China to make a formal commitment to verifiably cut greenhouse gas emissions. In actuality what seemed to play out was a costly game of chicken between the U.S. and China – China waiting for the U.S. to put what it was willing to do on the table before making any commitments and the U.S. doing the same.

The strategic focus on China is based on a fear held by members of Congress that if the U.S. cuts emissions by the targets set by the House Energy bill (equivalent to a meager four percent by 1992 levels), and China does nothing to cut its emissions, the U.S. would be handing its economic power over to China. Although the White House secured the freedom to negotiate on its own at Copenhagen through an historic EPA finding announced the day the conference began, members of the U.S. delegation said that they wanted to bring home a treaty that would meet Congressional approval.

This pressure to please U.S. members of Congress inspired President Obama to attend the climate change talk and spearhead side negotiations for a political agreement among five countries: the United States, South Africa, Brazil, India and China. When this accord was taken to the assembly of nations for approval and closing formalities, the 193 countries present agreed to “take note” of it, leaving countries to chose whether they would associate with it or not. At present, 28 countries have decided to do so.

Although Larry Summers, director of the White House National Economic Council, said in mid-December “everybody agrees that the recession is over,” Congress is still more concerned about U.S. economic welfare than about climate change. This mindset needs to change in the coming year if we are to have any positive outcome when it comes to the global fight against climate change.

British economist and academic Nicholas Stern, delivering the Royal Economic Society (RES) public lecture in Manchester in 2007, said that “climate change is a result of the greatest market failure the world has seen.” As long as economic costs continue to be externalized and negatively impact vulnerable communities and Earth, and as long as over-consumption remains a reality in the global north, we will continue to overlook Earth’s needs and carry the burdens that climate change brings. What is needed is a dramatic shift in the global economic framework to truly address current ecological issues.

An underlying issue for many developing countries has been to come to an agreement on how more industrialized countries (major emitters of greenhouse gases) would pay for the damage caused by climate change in less industrialized countries. Rich countries did pledge to provide developing countries $10 billion a year between 2010 and 2012 with a goal of raising that to $100 billion a year by 2020 for climate adaptation and to help them develop green technologies. No details were spelled out on how the fund would be administered, or on where the money would come from. Observers fear that funding could be diverted from existing foreign aid budgets, and/or that “developing” countries themselves would have to pay into a global fund.

In The Guardian, Archbishop Desmond Tutu said, “The failure ... to achieve a fair, adequate and binding deal on climate change is profoundly distressing. A higher purpose was at stake but our political leaders have proven themselves unable to rise to the challenge. We must look to the future. Our leaders must regroup, learn and make good their failure for the sake of humanity’s future.”

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