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Implications of a no accord at Copenhagen



Five major issues shaped the conference attended by officials from more than 190 countries. At the end, the new treaty that would replace the Kyoto Protocol which expires in 2012 was not signed. It was the inability to resolve certain issues that determined the summit outcome. The issues were:

    • The rift between developed and developing countries: Disputes between the rich and poor countries dominated the conference with the poor countries boycotting the proceedings at a time. Whereas all the countries attending the summit are in agreement that the emission of greenhouse gases is contributing to climate change, there is contention over which countries are willing to cut their emission when their competitors are unwilling to do so. While the developing countries want the United States and the other industrialised countries to lead the way by slashing their greenhouse gas emissions most, the United States wants China, India, Brazil, South Africa and many more rapidly growing developing countries to significantly cut their emissions too. There is lack of trust among the countries and this created problems. There must be trust otherwise nothing will move.


    • Setting targets on cutback of emissions. How much of greenhouse gases should be cut is another question. While the scientific community want the industrialised countries to cut emissions by 25 to 40 per cent by 2020 in order to stem climate change, the United States in particular, appeared not to be fully in agreement. The Obama brokered document stated that "emissions should be reduced enough to keep the increase in global temperatures below 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) without including the usual pre-industrial level. On its part, China, though announced before the conference that she would curb the "intensity" of her emissions by 40 to 45 per cent, that promise was not carried to full length at the conference. There were no specific targets at the conference as that is the critical element in the whole negotiations.


    • Assistance to poor countries. The poor countries, which all agree will be hardest hit by climate change are asking for handsome financial commitment from the rich developed countries. According to the World Bank, poor countries will need an estimated $100 billion a year to respond to climate change. But following a hectic diplomacy by Obama in Copenhagen, the rich nations promised $30 billion in emergency climate aid in the next three years and eventually $100 billion a year by 2020 to the developing countries. Several of such promises in the past have not been fulfilled. And so, a lot more need to be done to know who contributes what and the mechanism for fulfilling it.


    • Carbon trading. The idea of carbon trading was introduced as a way of tackling the emission problem by putting price on carbon. The idea seeks to evolve a lucrative global carbon market in which there will be buying and selling of permits to emit carbon. But there is the issue of honesty and transparency to resolve among other complicated issues. The truth is that many countries don’t want any international regulatory body to dictate how their economy should be run. The Obama document included method for verifying each nation’s reductions of greenhouse gases. The clause apparently was included because China has always resisted international efforts to monitor its industrial production process.


  • Pollution offsets. The green technology advocates argue that the easiest way to curb carbon emissions is to adopt green industrial technology by switching to cleaner forms of energy. But many developing countries lack the technical know-how and resources to build more energy efficient power plants. Perhaps, the cheaper option, which many developing countries will likely buy in, is for a polluting power company to pay a forest owner to plant carbon trapping trees. That way, the company will be offsetting its pollution through such payments. Deforestation is a major contributor to climate change. Records show that deforestation has made Indonesia and Brazil the world’s third and fourth biggest carbon emitters. It was therefore tragic that the contentions forced delegates to drop a plan to protect the world’s biologically rich tropical forests. While countries like Brazil and Indonesia are pushing hard for a forest programme that would pay them to preserve their trees, the conference failed to address this matter.

    Lack of consensus on these issues nearly truncated the conference but for the effort of the U.S. President Obama, who rallied the Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao and others to save the situation. The ordinary people around the world who suffer most from the impacts of climate change least expected the conference outcome. It was a big disappointment to those that expected the deal brokered by the U.S. President Barack Obama to be turned into a legally binding accord. What it means is that all the outstanding issues still need to be decided. And, that would require another round of negations in the years ahead.

    Given the threat posed by climate change to the entire world, this is certainly not the time to stand on political platform to merely make pronouncements that cannot be enforced or sanctioned in the event of default by any country. What is needed at this time is a legally binding accord that places specific limits on greenhouse gas emissions. The Copenhagen Conference was supposed to come up with accord that would replace the expiring Kyoto Protocol by 2012. But its failure to reach such an accord is a major drawback to reaching a comprehensive treaty.

    Without doubt, there was one common ground that was obvious from the conference that could be regarded as a positive outcome. The entire world is in agreement that climate change is a real issue that needs to be tackled. What is lacking is a common ground from which countries could adopt a treaty. The process of reaching that common ground has been initiated at Copenhagen. In that regard, the conference was a step in the right direction.

    The events at the conference were not unexpected at such a sensitive global meeting. The protests were expected. Besides, the unusual method of bringing multiple levels of officials including heads of state, ministers, scientists, and civil society to one negotiating table compounded the problem. There was no way all the divergent views could have easily agreed on a common ground within a space of two weeks. What is not clear is why the negotiations were not concluded on other platforms prior to the conference. That would have made things easier. Since UN decisions are usually made by consensus, it would have been easier to reach a consensus on a pre-negotiated accord if a different process had been adopted.

    So long as the issue of emission cuts was sidetracked, the substance of the conference was lost. The implication is that the fate of the poor countries hangs in the balance. Anything can happen without a concrete framework for dealing with a potentially disastrous problem. Africa being one of the potentially vulnerable regions is at risk. But it is rather surprising why the African Union backed a-none committal deal. This was against the condemnation of Sudan’s delegate, Lumumba Di-Aping, which likened the agreement to the Holocaust. Africa and the other developing countries should seek for more concrete action that would be enforceable.

    Nigeria’s promise to step up action on the obnoxious gas flaring as a way of curbing carbon emission, which is the only major contributor to climate change from Nigeria should be backed by concrete action. The promise made by the leader of the Nigerian delegation to the conference and Foreign Affairs Minister, Ojo Maduekwe came to many of us as a surprise because the Minister of State for Petroleum, Odein Ajumogobia had about two or three weeks ago apparently admitted the country’s inability to cut gas flaring. I want to say that if the promise made by Mr. Ojo Maduekwe in Copenhagen that Nigeria is now ready and willing to cut gas flaring were real, if it wasn’t a political statement, then the conference would have achieved something. Nigeria should be more specific on the actions it intends to take from now to cut gas flaring that has ravaged the Niger Delta environment.

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