What happened at Copenhagen?

After two weeks of what was billed as “the historic event of the 21st century”, I left Copenhagen with a bag full of mixed feelings.

The United Nations climate change conference had opened to such high hopes and optimism. In the run up, nations were pledging reduction targets of greenhouse gas emissions, and a record number of leaders threw their political weight behind the summit to attend.

There were strong calls to “seize this moment in history” where political will to tackle climate change had never been stronger – I was certain that I would be part, and witness of, something historic.

But at the end of it all, no matter what leaders may say, the overwhelming feeling was one of sharp disappointment.

For me, it was not so much with the Copenhagen Accord that emerged, but with the entire process that got us there.

When I look back at the 12-day conference, Shakespeare’s famous words from Macbeth come to mind: it was full of sound and fury, and in the end, signifying nothing.

Well, almost nothing.

The summit did result in a fund that will see US$30 billion for the next three years from richer countries flow to poorer ones to help in climate change adaptation. This will be ramped up to US$100 billion a year by 2012, and major pollutors such as US, India, China agreed to pledge reduction targets in emissions, though not legally binding yet.

But with the bar set so high, perhaps it was inevitable that the deal desperately fell short of expectations. It has since garnered two polarising reactions: one that UN Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon calls “meaningful” and “an essential beginning”. And the other: “a monumental failure”.

How exactly did an ambitious treaty which only a few weeks ago seemed within reach, end up being such a washout?

To put it simply: it was petty politics, self-serving negotiators, lack of flexibility, breeding mistrust and suspicion that turned “Hopenhagen” into “Hopelesshagen”.

For me, along with 40,000 others who endured heavy snow and sub-degree temperatures to be part of something historic, it was disheartening to witness day-by-day how the talks broke down.

In particular, the leak of a so-called “Danish text” apparently drafted by selected industralised countries to put forward their positions marked a turning point in the negotiations.
All hell broke loose thereafter.

Immediately, negotiators of the G77 bloc of more than 130 developing countries pounced on the text as evidence of rich countries “bullying” poorer ones and excluding them in the process. One particular Sudanese negotiator called it a “dangerous text”.

In a dig, he added: “Perhaps it’s the Danish idea that maybe developing countries are not confident, not knowledgeable enough, to articulate their own views and their own solutions.”

This particular negotiator, in this reporter’s opinion, also proved to be the most unhelpful one who often made exaggerated statements that wedged further discord between the developed and developing blocs. He was also the same one that likened the Copenhagen Accord to the Holocaust - completely misled and unnecessary statement that has been lambasted by most countries that spoke after him.

As it turned out, the Danish text story - and a few others - were blown out of proportion and the text was one of many drafted by different groups of countries floating around the summit.

But it was too late - the lines of power had shifted. The media at Bella Centre lapped up the overblown reactions and spat it all out without consideration of its impact on the talks.

From then on, the rift between the developed and developing countries grew wider.

This situation was not helped by the inflexible positions taken by emerging giants such as India and China. I remember speaking to one of China’s key negotiator Qingtai Yu, ambushing him after a press conference. There was just a touch of arrogance in his responses - not just to reporters but to his fellow negotiators from the EU who was present at that same event.

Some had asked him if China could consider being flexible on their positions about international monitoring of emissions, or sign a deal that included their voluntary targets.

“Did you hear what I said earlier? Were you at the press conference?” He shot back.
“The single issue I said before, is this: emissions space!”

“Our emissions space is under occupation and it needs to be liberated!” He huffed and walked away.

It was a perfect example of negotiating attitudes at the table in Copenhagen.

The role the media played, sadly, was not constructive to the negotiations at the best of times.
At press conferences, for example, some reporters were heard asking negotiators questions such as “now will you walk out of the talks? or “in what situation will you consider walking out?”

Even if they did not intend to do so, some negotiators from the African nations, perhaps led by suggestion, eventually did stage a walkout – stalling negotiations for almost two precious days.

There was also the media’s and NGO’s knee-jerk reaction to all sorts of rumours flying around the conference - and the tendency to pounce on any piece of bad news. The result was an atmosphere of antagonism and bad chemistry.

As a journalist, I was ironically forced to contemplate the media’s role in the negotiations. How constructive was it? Did it only add to the ill-will and breed suspicion amongst the countries?

Then there was the mismanagement of NGOs, whose numbers were not restricted to register for the conference, causing a huge crunch at the venue. The UN was forced to rein in the number of NGO representatives in the last few days of conference. But to take back something that was already given understandably caused further resentment.

NGOs demonstrated across the city, and those who were left inside the Bella Centre disrupted proceedings by shouting and making a scene during the plenary sessions. Again, this did not add to the general atmosphere at the talks, which was almost disintegrating at this point.

But there were a few comedic moments: Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, for example, invoked characters from Jesus Christ to Karl Marx in his spirited speech.
He won loud applause when he exclaimed: “If the climate was a capitalist bank, you [the rich countries] would have already saved it!”

Leader after leader took the stage to give grand, rhetorical speeches calling for action - at the same time taking the opportunity to take potshots at each other: Venezuela at the rich countries, US at China, China at the US; the list is long.

It was, to put it bluntly, a conference of good intentions, marred with contradictions, hypocrisy and irony.

Now that it is over, hindsight and perspective is starting to prevail over the short-sighted behaviour seen in the last two weeks. The post-mortem has all but concluded that the disorder and breakdown of talks may have permanently damaged the UN-led process for patching together a global treaty on climate change.

Inevitably, there are questions that remain unanswered: is the UN-led process still the best way to fight climate change?

Is it simply unrealistic to think consensus can be reached across 192 nations, when the disparate bloc of countries are unlikely to agree over who’s to blame, what’s the solution and how it should be implemented?

Analysts are now proposing that a smaller group of about 30 nations responsible for the bulk of greenhouse gas emissions be formed to tackle a narrower agenda of issues, such as technology transfer, the implementation of carbon markets.

Blocs such as the G20, or Apec, already exist, and the world might see a new grouping emerge solely to tackle climate change - separate from the bureaucratic UN process. Maybe we could call it the “C30”.

Whatever the eventual solutions, Copenhagen must not be repeated again.

If the world has any hope of taking action on climate change before it is too late, a treaty has to be forged with willing parties in Mexico City next year.

Let’s just leave the traveling entourage of bickering civil servants, bad-news media and disruptive activists out of it.

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