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One struggling step for mankind

Climate change summit gives tentative nudge for world action

by Executive Editors

December was a month of oscillating emotions for the city of Copenhagen, Denmark, and for all those who followed the events of the fifteenth Conference of Parties (COP15) on climate change. Though hopes were high going into negotiations, in the final stages, as developed and developing countries showed increasing intransigence over key demands, even the modest achievement of a non-binding political accord seemed to hang in the balance.

Arab states were divided over their stances on a final deal in Copenhagen. Oil producing states, such as Saudi Arabia, would see major falls in revenue if countries committed to a significant reduction in their use of fossil fuels.

The group Arab Environment Watch quoted Mohammad al-Sabban, the chief Saudi negotiator on climate change issues, as saying that “such a development could squeeze trillions from the kingdom’s future oil revenues.” Saudi Arabia has stalled negotiating on fuel emission caps in the past, according to the non-governmental organization IndyAct, and said that they would not participate in a climate change deal if their lost profits were not compensated.

However, the region is also among the most vulnerable to the future effects of climate change in terms of risks to water scarcity and land loss due to rising sea levels. This fact has prompted some countries, like Egypt, to push for far stronger measures than have been seen in the past.

High hopes, low expectations

After the failure of the 1990’s United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change and a lack of commitment to the 1997 Kyoto Accord, the world looked to Copenhagen with a mixture of skepticism and desperation — skepticism that, after two and a half decades of squabbling, world leaders could make a meaningful and abiding commitment, and desperation that the last best chance to curb climate change might pass unrealized.

Seeking to head off potential failure, world leaders, meanwhile, were downplaying the significance of the event.


“Going into Copenhagen there was a concerted effort on the part of many governments, especially those in developed countries, to drop expectations,” said Uygar Ozesmi, executive director of Greenpeace Mediterranean, who attended the conference. “Parties were pushing for a politically binding, rather than legally binding agreement.”

A politically binding agreement would operate similarly to the Framework Convention as a declared commitment to a set of principles, and would carry many of the same problems in terms of monitoring accountability, he added.

Developing nations, unified in a bloc known as the Group of 77 (G-77) and headed by China, advocate for a legally binding convention that would commit developed nations to deep cuts in emissions by 2020. For their part, developing nations would commit to significantly slowing their emissions with the help of a large financial and technological aid program supplied by wealthier nations.

Yet even from the outset, it seemed apparent that a legally binding document was still out of reach. A few days before the Summit opened on December 7, Egypt’s Ministry of Environment issued a document predicting that Copenhagen would fail to set meaningful targets, according to Egypt News. The report added that an all out failure was preferable to producing an accord that lacked the power to hold nations accountable for specific emissions reductions. 

“The best we can expect is a political declaration. We’re very disappointed,” said the Maldives Environment Minister Mohamed Aslam, speaking before the summit.

Developed nations, and the United States in particular, have advocated market-based mechanisms — giving industries a financial incentive to lower emissions, and using the profits to combat climate change in other ways — such as a carbon tax or “Cap and Trade” as an alternative to strict legal commitments.

These two groups found themselves in increasingly isolated camps in the weeks leading up to Copenhagen. The main issues dividing them, in terms of actual commitments under an agreed-upon protocol, were a demand from developing nations for funding, and a demand from developed nations for greater transparency and increased international oversight of emissions reduction programs.

Earlier this year, African nations requested between $400 billion and $500 billion in aid annually to be provisioned to developing nations in order to combat the effects of climate change and improve infrastructure. Some months ago, the European Union stated that it would be willing to contribute to a fund of around $150 billion. By the time of the Copenhagen Summit, developing countries had lowered their demand to $140 billion. 

“$140 billion is not such a big number when you consider what it is intended for,” said Ozesmi. “After all, the world spent trillions of dollars to rescue banks and financial institutions during the financial crisis. Considering we are talking about the rescue of the planet, the necessity is really incomparable.”

“Climate change has a financial dimension as well,” he added. “The economist Nicolas Stern, who is well respected internationally, has predicted that climate change could lead to a decrease of as much as 25 percent in global GDP. That’s not a financial crisis – that’s a meltdown.”

On December 17, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced that the US would be willing to contribute to a $100 billion per year aid package. She warned, however, that the contribution would only come if concessions were made from developing nations — and China in particular — to increase transparency of their emissions-cutting programs and the aid expenditures. China had argued that increased oversight of its programs would stand in violation of its sovereignty.

“Climate change could lead to a decrease of as much as 25 percent in global GDP”

The public voice, raised in protest

While leaders remained in deadlock, activists from around the world converged on Copenhagen, numbering in the hundreds of thousands during the final days of the summit. In demonstrations that spilled into several highly publicized altercations with Danish security forces, advocates voiced dissatisfaction with the summit’s lack of progress and what they saw as a lack of substance in debated targets.

Most demonstrations were peaceful, and took the form of mass marches and protests. When he spoke to Executive, Ozesmi was engaged in the eleventh day of a hunger fast, in solidarity with 10,000 others across the world, to protest what he saw as a failure on the part of world leaders.

“Even though I am an environmentalist, and have worked to advocate combating climate change, I still felt I had to do something more,” he said. “By fasting, we remind our leaders of the impacts that climate change will have on world hunger. Currently 300,000 people a year die of hunger due to famine, and by 2030, because of climate change, that number will rise to 500,000.”

“Reaching a consensus in Copenhagen is a matter of morality, of ethics,” he added. “Failing to do so turns a blind eye on the future and robs us of our dignity.”

Last ditch effort

By the final day of negotiations, tensions were running high in all camps. Two weeks had passed with next to no progress made towards a consensus. Clinton’s offer had opened a crack in the deadlock, but the conditions of that offer — that developing nations accept monitoring and an exchange of information — were unmet.

That morning, US President Barak Obama arrived in Copenhagen to deliver America’s final offer. Expectations for Obama were high — many saw his arrival as the last possibility to push through a meaningful compromise.

Speaking from Copenhagen on Friday morning, just hours after Obama’s arrival, Edgard Chehab, manager of the United Nations Development Program in Lebanon’s Energy and Efficiency unit told

Executive that the US president “had not come to leave in failure.”

Yet Obama was on rocky ground, both abroad and at home. America’s commitment to combating climate change was called into question by the previous Bush administration’s outright denial, in Kyoto, of evidence linking climate change to human action, and the international community has retained a degree of incredulity despite the new president in the White House.

Domestically, Senate republicans have threatened to veto any form of climate change spending.

In the first hour of his arrival he met with high-level leaders from 20 nations in a closed-door session of negotiations. Speaking shortly after the session, President Obama’s tone contained a note of frustration, indicating that progress was still stalled.

“At this point, the question is whether we will move forward together, or split apart; whether we prefer posturing to action,” he said.

China, meanwhile, stressed that it would continue to work towards emissions cuts of 40 to 45 percent by 2020, but said it would do so voluntarily, and not because it was constrained to do so by an international agreement.

“We have not attached any condition to the target or linked it to the target of any other country” said Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jiabao. “We are fully committed to meeting or even exceeding the target.”

Arab states, represented by the Committee of Arab Ministers of the Environment, took a similar stance.

“Their position was joint and straightforward,” said Chehab. “Arab states are not major contributors to greenhouse gas emissions, and aren’t responsible to the same degree as, say, the US or China. Still, many are prepared to do what it takes to reduce their emissions.”

“The Saudi Arabian delegation, for instance, said here in Copenhagen that they are putting billions into research and development with the goal of producing half of their energy through renewable resources within the next 10 years,” he added. This is despite Saudi Arabia’s long history of stalling or rejecting international commitments on climate change.

“Arab states are not major contributors to greenhouse gas emissions…still, many are prepared to do what it takes”

Mixed success

What might be described as a murky breakthrough came in the final hours of negotiations. A draft finally agreed upon by China, the US and the majority of other states contained no surprises, but embraced a number of important clauses and compromises, including a monitoring mechanism to oversee emissions cutting programs and a commitment to the $100 billion in annual aid by 2020. Even so, the document, called the Copenhagen Accord, falls far short of the binding treaty many hoped for in the weeks and months leading up to the summit.

Advocates and some world leaders expressed disappointment with the draft, which they said lacks the teeth to sufficiently combat the effects of climate change.

Others hailed the final draft as the “first best step” in what will certainly be an ongoing struggle to combat climate change. Copenhagen is by no means the end of the road. The next talks are scheduled to convene in Mexico in a year’s time.

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Executive Editors

Executive Editors represents the voice of the magazine.
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