Copenhagen Failed; Hooray, Hooray!

Posted on Tue 12/22/2009 by


By William R. Hawkins

“Don’t believe the hype, there is nothing fair, ambitious or legally binding about this deal….What we needed was a legally binding agreement that was fair to developing countries and ambitious when it came to emissions cuts and ending deforestation. In the end they produced a poor deal full of loopholes big enough to fly Air Force One through.” So concluded Greenpeace at the end of the UN Climate Conference in Copenhagen. The analysis is correct, but rather than be upset by this outcome, Americans should be breathing a sigh of relief. The objectives originally set out for the conference would have crippled the U.S. economy had they come to fruition. Whenever Greenpeace is unhappy, the rest of the country should be cheering.

The United Nations, of course, is trying to put a positive spin on the conference. After two years of negotiations at venues around the world, the UN cannot admit that the only thing accomplished was to run up huge bar tabs at 5-star hotels. The talks kicked off in December 2007 in Bali, Indonesia, one of the globe’s most plush resort areas, where the Green elitists lectured the rest of the world on the need to reduce living standards to “save the planet.” The process was supposed to produce a treaty to replace the Kyoto Protocol that will expire in 2012. Copenhagen attracted some 46,000 people, including 110 heads of state, but no treaty was drawn up. Indeed, the idea of a treaty had been abandoned months earlier. Instead, there was supposed to be an “operational” political declaration that would set parameters for a treaty to be drawn up after perhaps another year of negotiations. That did not happen either.

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon claimed, “All countries have agreed to work towards a common long-term goal to limit the global temperature rise to below 2 degrees Celsius; many governments have made important commitments to reduce or limit emissions; countries have achieved significant progress on preserving forests; and countries have agreed to provide comprehensive support to help the most vulnerable cope with climate change.” On examination, each of these assertions is misleading. Yvo de Boer, the Executive Secretary of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, was more realistic at his closing press briefing. He said the Copenhagen Accord not only failed his hope for achieving a legally binding treaty, but also failed his hope for an agreement that could lead to a treaty. The target date of 2010 for a treaty was dropped from the final Accord.

The goal of limiting the Earth’s temperature change to below 2 degrees Celsius should be called the King Canute Clause. Canute was the son of the Viking King Sweyn of Denmark who conquered England in the early 11th century. One day he took his courtiers to the shore to teach them a lesson. Wading into the surf, he bellowed, “I command you to come no further! Waves, stop your rolling! Surf, stop your pounding!” But the tide continued to move as normal. “How dare you!” Canute shouted. “Ocean, turn back now! I have ordered you to retreat before me, and now you must obey!” Of course, nothing changed. “Well, my friends,” Canute said to his followers, “it seems I do not have quite so much power as you would have me believe.” And neither does the UN, or the powers gathered beneath its banner. The Earth goes through a natural cycle of warming and cooling. Mankind has shown a great capacity to adapt to these changes and to make material progress, but it has no power to stop the changes.

No agreement was drafted that mandated goals for nations to reduce so-called greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions to fulfill the Canute Clause. The plan had been to impose on the developed countries a requirement that GHG be cut by 25-40 percent by 2020 from 1990 levels, a step back from an earlier call for a flat 40 percent cut. Such a measure would have sent the developed countries into a permanent recession. Furthermore, the developing countries, led by the BASIC (Brazil, South Africa, India and China) coalition, would not have had any restrictions on their GHG emissions because they refuse to have any limits placed on their “right” to economic growth.

The two-track approach, where the developed countries (mainly the U.S., Europe and Japan) would have to do everything and the emerging power would not have to do anything, was embodied in the Kyoto Protocol, which is why the United States under President George W. Bush refused to participate. The Obama administration has held to the negotiating position of the Bush administration. The U.S. view is there should only be one track. The BASIC coalition insisted that the Kyoto precedent be continued in any new agreement. The conference collapsed over this fundamental conflict.

On the last day of the conference, Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao confirmed that Beijing had not budged saying,

The principle of “common but differentiated responsibilities” represents the core and bedrock of international cooperation on climate change and it must never be compromised. Developed countries account for 80 percent of the total global carbon dioxide emissions since the Industrial Revolution over 200 years ago…..Developing countries only started industrialization a few decades ago and many of their people still live in abject poverty today. It is totally unjustified to ask them to undertake emission reduction targets beyond their due obligations and capabilities in disregard of historical responsibilities, per capita emissions and different levels of development…..Developed countries must take the lead in making deep quantified emission cuts and provide financial and technological support to developing countries. This is an unshirkable moral responsibility as well as a legal obligation that they must fulfill.

The Chinese position is in perfect accord with its national objectives and also reflects its skepticism about the entire climate change issue. No American leader could accept Wen’s views as the basis for an international agreement as it would put the United States at a grave disadvantage in economic competition, with dire commercial and strategic consequences. President Barack Obama should be congratulated for his rejection of the Beijing gambit which has been at the center of the entire UN exercise.

The state-run Xinhua News Service put Beijing’s spin the outcome of the conference, “The accord upheld the principle of ‘common but differentiated responsibilities’ set by the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change and the Kyoto Protocol, made arrangements for developed countries’ compulsory emissions cut and developing countries’ voluntary mitigation actions, and included wide consensus on the key issues of long-term global emissions reduction objects, funding and technology support, and transparency.” Unfortunately, within the official UN framework, Kyoto is still the precedent for a future treaty, but in practice the actual reporting system to be set up under the Copenhagen Accord is on “one track.” The track is that of the developing countries; with no nation mandated to do anything! There will simply be (after more negotiations over procedure) an annex to the Accord where each country can list what it plans to do in its own national interests; subject to change as it sees fit.

The full conference only “noted” the existence of the Accord, and did not formally adopt it. Nothing is “legally binding” though as President Obama pointed out, “Kyoto was legally binding and everybody still fell short anyway.” This is as it should be. The UN is merely a meeting place. Sovereignty resides only with nation-states.

Premier Wen should be happy, as it is the principle he stated for China when he closed his speech by saying, “This is a voluntary action China has taken in the light of its national circumstances.” Wen just did not want the developed nations to have the same right, wanting instead for China’s rivals to be crippled by UN regulations.

Wen may not have left Copenhagen empty handed, however. The U.S. pledged to help raise $100 billion a year by 2020 to give to the developing countries to pay for GHG mitigation and climate adaptation. When Secretary of State Hillary Clinton made the announcement, she said that the money would go to the “poorest and most vulnerable” countries. But when answering questions, she seemed to include China.

A reporter asked, “What would be the standards that you would expect China and other major developing nations to meet in order for there to be a deal in which you could go ahead with this financial commitment?” She replied, “There are many ways to achieve transparency that would be credible and acceptable.” And by the end of the conference, Beijing had signed up to a procedure Washington accepted. It must be concluded that China now feels entitled to a slice of the international climate fund. It would not have made its gesture without being assured of something in return. The U.S. negotiated the Copenhagen Accord with the BASIC bloc, not the “poorest and most vulnerable” countries.

Congress must never appropriate a penny for the Chinese regime. Washington must also be on guard against Beijing’s attempt to tie technology transfers to the international climate fund. The Obama administration wants to spend billions on developing new Green technology, but that effort must be used to create jobs and new industries in America and not be given away to improve Chinese capabilities. If Beijing wants Green products, it has plenty of money from China’s huge trade surplus (over $200 billion from the U.S. this year) to buy them from domestic American manufacturers.

Greenpeace says, “The blame for failure mostly lies with the rich industrialized world, countries that have the largest historic responsibility for causing the problem. In particular, the U.S. failed to take any real leadership and dragged the talks down.” Greenpeace backed the BASIC coalition throughout the negotiating process. Its judgment is thus a proclamation of victory for the United States.

But the fight is far from over. UN talks will continue, with the same forces aligned against each other. In Copenhagen, President Obama said, “the science indicates that we’re going to have to take more aggressive steps in the future” and that there is “a baseline of mutual interest and mutual respect” in the UN process. To protect American interests, the president had to abandon both of these nostrums. He must not return to them because both are false. Copenhagen should not be considered “a starting point” but the dead end of a futile and fatally flawed process that has already wasted too much time and effort when American needs to be concentrating on bolstering its own strength. Contributing Editor William R. Hawkins is a consultant specializing in international economic and national security issues. He is a former economics professor and Republican Congressional staff member.

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