Copenhagen, and After

A word cloud of Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon’s remarks to the UN Climate Change Conference (Wordle/

On April 5, 2009, Denmark got a new Prime Minister, Lars Løkke Rasmussen. He was the third Danish Prime Minister in a row to bear that surname, replacing Anders Fogh Rasmussen, who had been named the new Secretary-General of NATO. A capable local politician in his forties, Lars Rasmussen had, in contrast to his predecessor, almost no experience in international politics. His appointment received little media coverage outside Denmark. But just eight months later, with Denmark the host of the Copenhagen climate summit (officially the 15th United Nations Climate Change Conference, or COP-15), Lars Rasmussen’s—and Denmark’s—lack of experience in international politics would have a global impact.

Following internal conflicts in the Danish cabinet, Rasmussen abruptly took over as chair of the conference two days before it ended, replacing Connie Hedegaard, the President of the COP (and previously his climate and energy minister) at a point when the negotiations had reached a critical juncture. As the host country, Denmark was expected to deliver for consideration that evening a draft statement on a final agreement. It did not arrive; nor was it produced the following morning. When it again failed to appear by lunchtime on December 17, a sense of crisis gripped the national delegations from 113 different countries. Numerous obstructions and demands by particular countries impeded a successful outcome. Leaders of some small countries were using the meeting to grandstand, while others were using it to push their own agendas. Many expressed astonishment when the representative from the Sudan likened a deal to cut carbon emissions to genocide, a comment that was perhaps prompted by Amnesty International’s call for the Danes to arrest Sudanese President Omar al Bashir if he attended the meeting. (He did not.) And by all accounts Rasmussen’s chairing of the final days of the meeting did not help in dealing with such unwelcome developments.

By the morning of Friday the 18th, the last formal day of the meeting, there was only one source of hope remaining—President Obama, who was scheduled to fly in that morning. Tellingly, upon arrival he did not, as diplomatic protocol dictates, meet with Rasmussen, but instead went directly into a meeting with about twenty world leaders, including Gordon Brown, Nicholas Sarkozy, Angela Merkel, and Manmohan Singh, and then into an hour-long meeting with Wen Jiabao.

When he spoke afterward, President Obama was clearly both frustrated and surprised at the limited progress that had been made toward a resolution. Nor did things go terribly well after that. The key objective for Obama in his meeting with Premier Wen was to secure greater transparency on Chinese emissions targets, and Wen signaled his dissatisfaction by dispatching increasingly junior emissaries to meet with Obama.

Then, much to the annoyance of the Chinese delegation, Obama burst uninvited into a meeting between Wen, Manmohan Singh, Lula da Silva of Brazil, and South African President Jacob Zuma. It was at that meeting—in which no European leaders were present—that the final touches were put on the three-page document that would become known as the Copenhagen Accord. In this agreement, despite Chinese resistance, Obama could claim to have—in principle at least—achieved his key objective of obtaining greater international transparency and accountability for emissions reduction targets; and with the UNFCCC negotiations still in full swing, the US President flew home, citing deteriorating weather as the reason, leaving European representatives and those from the smaller developing countries alike surprised and chagrined.

When I awoke on Saturday, December 19th—the morning after what was to be the final day of the conference—I was concerned to discover that it had not ended and the wording of the final accord was still being discussed. As it was, the final negotiations ran until nearly 2:30 p.m. that afternoon, ultimately resulting in a resolution to “take note of the Copenhagen Accord of December 18, 2009,” as Rasmussen put it, before sharply banging down his gavel to close COP 15.

So just what has the world got out of this much-anticipated meeting? The Copenhagen Accord reaffirms the objective—first expressed at the Rio Earth Summit in 1992—of keeping Earth’s temperature from rising more than two degrees. It affirms a commitment by developed countries to help developing countries deal with the effects of climate change by creating a $100 billion fund for adaptation and mitigation by 2020. It commits the so-called Annex 1 countries (developed countries that ratified the Kyoto Protocol) to announcing their emissions targets by January 31, 2010—within weeks—and it obliges “non-Annex 1 parties” to the Kyoto Protocol (developing countries such as China and India) to list national schedules of action to combat climate change.

While many of these commitments were expected, the pathway to agreement was a surprise. Indeed, as the meeting unfolded I got the feeling that I was watching the death of the old UN-sponsored process and the birth of something new. That’s not to say that COP 16 won’t occur in Mexico next year, as planned, but just that the really important work of abating climate change is likely to take place elsewhere.


The hopelessly confused arrangements for the Copenhagen conference will be cautionary. Meetings among powerful nations—such as the one Obama broke in on—don’t have to take place at COP. Just where the key negotiations on climate will occur in future is unclear, but it seems likely that the G20 will be an important venue, as may the G8. This will frustrate the smaller developing countries—such as Bolivia and Sudan—that have the most to lose from runaway climate change. How they will react to this shift away from COP, which amounts to their disempowerment, is yet to be seen.

The Copenhagen Accord left much hanging, including the question of precise commitments and how they can be enforced. Among the key questions it poses is whether the US is prepared to take concrete steps to reduce emissions, for since the US did not sign the Kyoto Protocol, it is not bound to announce its gas emissions target by January 31.

Much depends upon the fate of a cap-and-trade bill now before the US Senate. If such a bill passes, then the US will be able to commit, in a fully accountable way, to a national target of emissions reduction. If instead, the US is forced to rely upon regulations by the Environmental Protection Administration, including the imposition of fuel efficiency standards on coal-fired power plants, it will be much more difficult to commit to a precise reduction target, simply because it’s hard to be sure how much such measures will actually reduce emissions. And if that is the outcome, will the US seek to use a “national schedules” approach like China and India—according to which no hard target on national emissions reductions is mandated?

The Copenhagen Accord ends with two blank appendices, one for Annex 1, and another for non-Annex 1 countries. How they are filled in over 2010 will determine in large part the world’s success in averting dangerous climate change. Whatever the case, it is now clear that the focus in combating climate change will revert once again to the national level, which means that 2010 could be the definitive year in places such as the US and China, in the battle for climatic stability.

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