Copenhagen: Recovering from the hangover

Copenhagen is a city where people like to party. Coming into December, the city was all dressed up for a climate party with posters of green exhortation everywhere and different official and unofficial events laid on. But in the end as everybody knows, the climate conference was no party. Yet there is this terrible sense of hangover around. Political leaders, delegates, activists and journalists have reeled away from the site and the recriminations have started about who just behaved badly and who actually threw up.

Around the city there were also some particularly crude advertisements using sex to sell booze with the slogan, “Party now, Apologize later.” But that’s another way the conference was not like a party. No-one has apologised. Even though the city encouraged them. One set of posters that went up well before the conference showed world leaders in 2020 apologizing for having failed in Copenhagen in 2009: ageing Obamas, Merkels, Browns et al look down and acknowledge their fault. But there have been no apologies. Instead they have passed the blame.

Let’s try something different. Instead of blame and apology let’s take some time to discuss results, reasons and response. It’s a lengthy discussion that must start now because it’s already time to shake off that hangover.

Results: 1) The Copenhagen Accord

The American singer Tom Paxton had a number about Nixon’s Vice President, Spiro Agnew; so did John Denver, so Google tells me, but I never heard that one. Paxton’s was entitled “The Ballad of Spiro Agnew” and it went as follows: “I’ll sing you a song of Spiro Agnew and all the things he’s done.” Paxton’s slightly perplexed but calm look as he stopped there was priceless every time.

Maybe “The Ballad of what the Copenhagen Conference of Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change Achieved” would be even shorter: announce title, stay silent.

But it’s worth lingering a second or two over the extraordinary extent, the unplumbable depth of the failure at Copenhagen.

In December 2007, at the Bali climate conference, the parties to the UNFCCC set out on a course that two years later would bring the world a new agreement on reducing global warming and responding to climate change. Earlier this year it became clear that this objective was extremely ambitious. By the beginning of October the prospects of success were dim and in early November it was clear that the conference would fail to achieve that first ambition. With a month to go, therefore, the ambition was scaled down and the idea was a politically binding agreement, whatever that is supposed to mean.

The actual result was that 190 governments plus the EU acknowledged that five of their number – Brazil, China, India, South Africa and the US – had made a statement called “the Copenhagen accord” in which they agreed it would be a good idea if countries would restrain carbon emissions. Some measures were suggested but there was no agreement along the lines of all governments now binding themselves and each other to specific actions. No binding targets were set. Governments are left to carry out their own policies, aiming for carbon emissions to peak as soon as possible. Financial figures are mentioned and a mechanism for spending the money but nothing that is either firm or final.

Results: 2) The climate

Prospects for the global climate and thus for the majority of the world’s population have just got worse.

Climate Action Tracker’s independent estimate of what all the commitments and offers made at and before Copenhagen add up to is that they take the world to a one-in-four chance of exceeding an average temperature increase of 4 degrees centigrade by the end of this century. That is unimaginably bad. The generally accepted target before, at and after Copenhagen is 2 degrees by 2050. The target wanted by small island states and some other developing countries is 1.5 degrees.

Project Catalyst is equally solid and independent. It calculated that, compared to ‘business as usual’, an overall reduction in annual emissions of just under 25 per cent was required so as to have an approximately 50:50 chance of being on track for only 2 degrees increase in average global temperature. With many governments making proposals for cutting emissions in a range, it assessed the high end of proposed reductions before Copenhagen as adding up to a cut by 2020 of 15-16 per cent – i.e., almost two-thirds of the way there.

So success in Copenhagen in the original sense – a legally binding deal with specified targets, as foreseen at Bali, getting the world on track for 2 degrees of warming – needed further political commitment and leadership. Short of that, a Copenhagen deal that came in at the high end of pre-conference proposals would be a step in the right direction that would fall tragically short.

However, if only the low end of pre-Copenhagen proposals were to be agreed, the world would be on track for warming above 3 degrees and would find it extremely difficult to make up lost ground after 2020. “One way or another,” they conclude, “a weak deal or no deal in Copenhagen will have severe long-term economic consequences – either through the negative impacts of climate change itself, or through the radical economic dislocations that would be required by 2020 to avoid it.”

And what we got in Copenhagen was no deal.

How thin is the spin?

There simply is no good way to spin this. It is not a breakthrough (Obama), it is not even a good first step (Ban and Brown), (a) because the first step has already been taken at Bali two years ago, and (b) because it involves no forward movement.

A bad way to spin it is to point out as US climate envoy Todd Stern has done that the Copenhagen accord is supported by over 100 countries. Yes, that is, by not much more than 50 per cent of the governments present in Copenhagen. And tellingly, the Financial Times reports that of the five governments that signed the accord, two – Brazil and South Africa – have now disowned it, with Brazil calling it disappointing and South Africa refusing to defend a non-binding agreement.

It is, of course, necessary to look ahead now and see what can be done. And from that point of view, there are some who find the Copenhagen failure encouraging – indeed, two well known figures called for failure beforehand. Both James Hansen and Bjorn Lomborg argued in the immediate aftermath that flat failure in Copenhagen clears the way for new approaches.

While their criticisms of the present approach to climate policy overlap with each other, they are not congruent and their proposals for how to move ahead are also at odds with each other. Their common ground is that both focus on improving the substance of climate change policy. That’s important but if we look at the reason for failure, we’ll see they do not lie in the content of policy.


There’s been a lot in the media about reasons for Copenhagen’s failure, with charges being laid at the door of the US for inaction before the conference, and China for being obstructive during it, and the EU for being just generally ineffective.

But the blame game misses the point. Without claiming great clairvoyant qualities for myself, I knew a month before the summit that it would fail and said so in a blog post. Others probably saw it sooner. If I was right not simply by coincidence, that means that what happened in Copenhagen did not cause but, rather, reflected failure.

And what that means is that rather than focus onto whether China really did snub Obama and annoy Merkel, or even whether Obama could have come to Copenhagen with something better in his pocket, we need to look at what went wrong as a whole because the international machinery for dealing with the issue of climate change is broken.

Alex Evans and David Steven have come out with an excellent report, Hitting Reboot: where next for climate after Copenhagen (published by a joint programme of the Brookings Institution and the Center on International Cooperation at New York University), that recommends an approach they characterise as ‘steering into the skid’. In other words, don’t react to faliure by slamming on the brakes. Their detailed proposals are well worth a close look and it is with no disrespect that I say that maybe the best thing about the report is the title: Hitting Reboot.

Rebooting is what you do when everything to do with your hardware and software has gone so badly wrong that you cannot tweak it, you cannot fix it, you cannot really understand it, so you just have to start again.

That’s where we are and the problem at and before Copenhagen is not just that negotiation were handled badly. I want to look at a different diagnosis.

The whole business of bargaining, trade-offs, holding negotiating cards close to your chest, threatening to walk out, interrupting the conference president, raising annoying points of order, haggling over the fine points of an agreement, arranging side meetings to which only a few are invited, pushing close to the deadline so as to limit your counterparts’ room for manoeuvre – all of these and other tactics seen at and before Copenhagen are suitable for negotiating on issues of national interest. I don’t think they can be fruitful when what is at stake is global interest.

If that is right, then although national interests will be different and contradict each other within an overall shared global interest, vesting the whole work of finding a solution in a process that is suitable for only one dimension of the problem is a mistake.

It is also a problem with negotiations that the one who is prepared to hold out against an agreement for longest and create the most problems for a smooth process is often likely to get the deal that is closest what s/he wants.

The urge to compromise with spoilers in order to get them into the fold of the agreement means that even a determined majority may find they are moving the terms of the agreement towards the preference of the hold-outs. In many cases that does not matter but in the case of climate change it does matter a great deal. Compromising on temperature rise of 2.5 degrees in order to allow a heavy emitter to sign up would essentially destroy the point of the agreement.

Again, therefore, the negotiation process could itself be a key part of the problem.  Its deficiencies have to be addressed if worthwhile ways forward are to be found.


What is needed is a strategy to address the core problem of the hold-outs – governments holding out against an ambitious climate deal, even if it is fair, because they see it as restricting their own national economic development; compromising with the hold-outs risks changing a good agreement into a bad one.

The best solution to the problem of hold-outs is for there to be no hold-outs. For this reason, an essential part of any strategy for moving forward after Copenhagen is to keep on making and winning the argument about climate change as a real, current, solvable problem.

The argument is made not only through articles, books, blogs, conversation, feature films and TV programmes that deploy evidence and reason (and not, by the way, a quasi-religious and alienating fervour). It is also made through the practical actions and commitments of ordinary people, through a growing movement that understands and wants to respond creatively to the challenge of climate change, and which develops that response as individuals and through the institutions in which they are active – schools, companies, political parties, governments, etc.

But we must also accept that the argument is not going to be won everywhere simply as a matter of principle and conviction. There is considerable scepticism in some very important quarters and there is a need to develop a strategy for that. Copenhagen has shown that the hold-out problem is pressing. Persuasion is important but something more hard-nosed is also required.

When things are this serious, radical approaches are well worth a close look. In that spirit, let me float a two-part proposal for discussion. The appropriate body to take up this proposal is the European Union as the new External Action Service gets established. Part 1 of the proposal deals with process; Part 2 with substance.

1: Process: problem-solving instead of negotiation

Adversaries negotiate. For adversaries, the alternatives to negotiating are on a spectrum that goes from silence through non-cooperation to insult and conflict of varying degrees of openness. Actors who do not see themselves as adversaries – whether they are individuals or governments or any other entity – can get together and discuss problems in different formats. These have long since passed from being interesting notions, through experimentation, to routine use in a variety of different settings ranging from inter-personal disputes to international relations.

The problem-solving format works when participants see themselves as having a problem to solve, and their conflict as part of that problem, even the whole of it, rather than seeing themselves purely as adversaries.

In the climate context, the aim of a problem-solving approach is to bring together enough players of enough economic weight, with enough commitment to an ambitiuus climate agreement and enough sense of their own common ground, so that they can explore the possibilities, the problems, the connections, and the prospects for cutting through the knots of complexity to a deal.

Exploring this through a problem-solving approach rather than in a negotiation means they will be working together for a solution rather than competing for advantage. Nonetheless, those governments that take up a problem-solving approach would not thereby have to quite the negotiations.

With the common ground, there is a chance that there will be the open-mindedness required to explore ideas and identify solutions. With the economic weight, there is a chance that the process would become attractive for other governments not initially committed to this way of doing things. It requires a critical mass to get started.

There are a number of governments whose weight and policy record on climate suggests they could start things rolling – for example, the EU, Australia, Brazil, Japan, Mexico, Norway, South Korea. These together account for a little less than half of world economic output. Were it possible as the process unfolded also to attract the US, the combined economic weight of the climate problem-solvers would be just on 70 per cent of world output. And there would be many others that would also want to join in, both as a matter of principle and so as not to be left out.

Intermission: what would the status of this be?

When the problem-solvers have arrived at a solution that they agree will work, they should agree it and begin implementation. The obvious objection is that that would mean powerful players were not part of the agreement. How could this work? What would the status of the agreement be?

At one level, the answer is straightforward: states can and do bind themselves in treaty arrangements that are not universal. But the legal issue is not the point here; it’s the political issue.

Further, if a number of states arrive at an agreement through a problem-solving approach, that does not preclude them from also signing up to a universal treaty arrived at by negotiation, if the outcome of the negotiations is satisfactory.

It has been an unquestioned assumption of climate change policy that since the problem is global, so must the solution be, and since the solution must be global, so must the process be. The experience of Copenhagen suggests to me that we can and must examine that assumption.

So the question that is actually being asked here is, How might it be possible for an agreement to be meaningful if it is arrived at by a process that might leave, for example, China, India and Russia standing outside its scope?

The answer is: by making it attractive for China, India, Russia and other countries to come inside its scope without letting it be possible for them to play a hold-out role.

2: Substance: green trade and investment

The substance of climate policy at present is to focus on cutting greenhouse gas emissions and adapting to the negative changes that will unfold until emission-cuts have their desired effects. There are various criticisms of this approach and how it is implemented. Lomborg says it is impossible because the world is wedded to fossil fuels so huge investment is required in carbon-neutral technologies. Hansen says the fossil fuel addiction cannot be broken through carbon trading and instead proposes a fee to reflect the full social costs of the use of fossil fuels.

Along with all that, there is a further problem in the basic discourse of cutting emissions – it means doing less. It sounds economically unattractive especially in a recession and its after-effects. It sounds like loss.

Problem-solving might therefore start by recognising that the path of being responsible about the environment has to be as attractive now as the path of being irresponsible about it.

Benefit today is what will win the doubters over, not abstract future costs that are avoided. Doing good for the future is an added attraction for most people, at least in practice. Deferring the fulfilment of self-interest in the name of virtue is much less effective as a strategy than getting virtue and current self-interest to go hand in hand. Climate policy should have no sense of self-sacrifice nor of deferred benefits. The cosmetic appearance of climate change policy is in this sense as important as the substance.

So while there has to be a rigourous programme for cutting emissions, there also has to be a programme for economic growth, jobs and improvement in the quality of life. This means properly investing in green technologies, especially in transport, energy and construction.

This investment needs to be both in what are now called mitigation technologies (reducing greenhouse gas emissions) and adaptation (dealing with the impact of unavoidable climate change). There is considerable crossover between them, for example, by investing in infrastructure, which can and should have adaptation in-built and using green technologies from design through construction to use.

The climate problem-solvers, representing at least 45 per cent of world economic output and possibly 70 per cent if the US participates, can generate an enormous market for this investment. Green infrastructure, energy and transport can be financed through joint stock companies, with government support all the way through the life of the project, starting from government funding for basic research, through to tax support for start-ups and continuing tax incentives. This combined climate and economic policy arrangement is the way to get sustainable progress on a low carbon pathway.

With the scale of this market, there would be strong reasons for developing countries, especially those with ultra-strong export-led growth, to come into the arrangement unless they could free-ride on it. The way to stop free-riding is by legislating tariffs on international trade that are set aside for countries that have signed up to the package of green growth and cuts in emissions. Stay outside it and, of course, trade can and will still happen but the commodities of the countries outside the system will move at a somewhat higher cost regardless of how green the individual commodities are.

Countries that want a less ambitious climate deal than is required for global well-being – or, to be ultra-fair, less ambitious than countries such as the EU believe is required for global well-being – would calculate for themselves the relative costs of being in the system and being outside it.

The income from the duties on non-green trade can be used, alongside the Tobin tax on international financial trade, and together with government spending funded by taxes in the richer countries of the world, to fund adaptation to the impact of climate change.

Where the devil lurks

I am not presenting this as the finished idea. This is a bare outline, to see if makes sense. If it does there is an ocean of detail and links to other questions to attend to, not least

  • the delicate balance between climate policies and other aspects of international relations,
  • the need to generate green industrial investment at home,
  • the nature of the institutions required to establish and monitor implementation of this arrangement.

But proposals for moving ahead after Copenhagen have to have this level of ambition. Just trying to do more or less the same thing better next time round is all too likely to fail for the same reasons as this time and could well fail worse. As bad as it is to have no agreement it will indeed be worse to have an agreement that compromises too far with the hold-outs and sets inadequate targets.

The attraction of this approach is that it includes

  • a mechanism for getting a better agreement than looks likely to come out of negotiations on the lines of Copenhagen,
  • a combination of task (cut emissions) and benefit (growth and adaptation) that adds up to a more attractive deal than the package of cuts plus adaptation that has been negotiated hitherto,
  • because of the benefits, the possibility of implementing without waiting for all governments to sign up,
  • and the potential for the arrangement to attract countries than are initially uninvolved because of the economic benefits.

8 thoughts on “Copenhagen: Recovering from the hangover

  1. I find your approach rather amusing considering that Climate Change Science is grounded in a massive fraud. Why should any country sacrifice self interest for a lie? You can keep pretending that Climategate never happened; wait however, until the lawsuits are filed and it will be very clear why your views are irrelevant.

  2. Excellent post Dan! One of the most constructive post-Copenhagen discussions I’ve read so far.

    I feel the distinction between negotiation and problem solving to be incredibly important. It should be extended to domestic politics also.

    Additionally, I am glad you challenged the assumption that global warming requires a ‘global solution’. It’s certainly one that needs to be questioned and discussed.

    As for the post above, I am glad you allowed it to be published. Its tone and the points it makes illustrate perfectly the depth of most climate deniers’ views. On a similar note, I also find it interesting that nearly all the climate skeptics I’ve met tend to be very right wing and libertarian. This leads me to make the accusation that their belief in small government forces them to deny climate change, because if they were to believe it, they would then have to consider more Government intervention. Their denial, then, is not based on the facts, but rather a protection of an ideology.

  3. Very good work.
    A couple of points:
    1) We have to get off the economic growth bandwagon. Otherwise, there is no hope. A Green New Deal should stabilise the economy, not ‘stimulate’ it (as if it is a corpse or a cancer).
    2) Hansen is right, Lomborg is wrong and (as always) dangerous.
    3) I think you are missing a trick by not building on those who have the most credibility of all, now: the G77, and especially the small island states, such as Tuvalu and the Maldives. By mobilising behind THEM, that is where the greatest hope lies.

  4. Were all national delegations at COP15 in Copenhagen not in fact motivated by three simple factors, all at a national, not inter-national level?

    i). Energy security
    ii). Political security
    iii). Economic prosperity

    The motivating factor for a lot of developed nations in promoting a ‘climate treaty’ is to:

    a) Bolster flailing post-industrial economies with new technologies (and accompanying services), their industrial and academic infrastructure being geared towards knowledge-based recovery, and needing to feed off growing domestic demand in Asia.

    b) Improve their own energy security to rapidly reduce reliance on hydro-carbons, many of the largest deposits of which now lie outside post-colonial Europe’s sphere of influence in a belt principally stretching across what might be called the Near, Middle and Far East.

  5. The problem is surely that every state – whether democratic or not – participates in the international climate debates thinking nationally, when the problem is genuinely global. The Tragedy of the Commons. Finding a global solution at one moment in time which fits every state’s very specific circumstances at that same moment in time (relative wealth, where on the development path, where on the electoral/coup cycle, comparative economic advantages in a green/non-green economy, values, stability, etc…) is and was always going to be impossible unless watered down so thinly as to be irrelevant. Those campaigners who pretended that Copenhagen was feasible were therefore probably counter-productive.

    A more pragmatic approach along the lines suggested seems to make more sense.

  6. … so it seems that you are in this blog post “coming out” as a sceptic. Not sceptical that anthropogenic climate change is a genuine phenomenon, as Mr Scamolla seems to be; but sceptical that there is a one-size-fits-all-at-once solution, which probably puts you in the mainstream majority.

  7. Another good post Dan.

    If the governments of the world were all big businesses, and they had sent their Chairmen and CEO’s (read world leaders) to a major conference and got a result like that, then shareholder pressure (read voters) – would have forced them out by now – so the fact that there was hardly a clamour from the electorate (us) smacks of political indifference, and we should all be looking at ourselves a tiny bit.

    I like your problem solving approach, and I agree with Marcus above that this should be bought down to the domestic political level as well. I do think though that even getting the countries you mentioned ( EU, Australia, etc) together initially could be problematic, simply because it would take too long and there would still be that element of negotiation involved, no matter how much they all trust each other. There is also the fact that going down this route will ultimately involve a significant change of lifestyle for a lot of people, and are governments prepared to do that? (after all, they only get elected on 5 yr mandates).

    So to begin with, just a handful of countries – the ones prepared to ‘man up’ will have to lead the way. It doesn’t have to be 45%, just a few major players on the world stage. These countries have to start severely changing the way things are done in their own country – laws banning energy hungry products, major tax breaks on green activities, major taxes imposed on carbon heavy, etc. I’d get solar panels fitted on my house tomorrow if they were 90% subsidised by the government, and I’d never drive again if car fuel prices were to increase year on year by 25%.

    These countries could also partner up individually with poorer developing countries – 1 of the unresolved problems of Copenhagen was the fact that the developing countries wanted money diverted to them to help solve the problem created by the developed countries, and this is one potential way of starting to solve that problem. A specific country (eg GB) could partner up and take responsibility for scientific help, environmental knowhow, low-carbon growth and development for 1, possibly 2, poorer countries (eg Angola). Top-of-my-head example could be wind farms. As GB gathers experience and expertise on the offshore wind farms it recently announced it is building, this could be passed on, and financial help given – for no direct gain back – to Angola to set up their own offshore wind farms.

    Hopefully this would create a domino effect, as the developed countries of the world teamed up with the developing countries of the world – and all of a sudden you would have that 45% threshold, and an economic critical mass to jumpstart the rest.

    Maybe this is too optimistic, or maybe I’m being pessimistic that the countries Dan suggested wouldn’t get together, but you have to hope something can be done by someone….

  8. Pingback: Between two COPs | Dan Smith's blog

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s