Repackaging Copenhagen

On the eve of the UN’s long-awaited Copenhagen climate summit, officials are pulling out all the stops to spin the conference as a success, no matter what actually happens. Barack Obama’s announcement that he will briefly pass through Copenhagen was a headline story, as was China’s commitment to reduce their economy’s “carbon intensity,” merely lowering their rate of increase in greenhouse gas emissions. Some are proclaiming the advantages of a non-binding “political” or “operational” agreement, as an incremental step toward reducing worldwide emissions. Others are preoccupied with the manufactured scandal stemming from some UK climate researchers’ stolen emails (see It’s everything but what was once promised: the setting for a new binding global treaty to forestall catastrophic climate changes.

It wasn’t supposed to be that way. For several years now, environmentalists in North America, Europe, and around the world have been describing this as a decisive moment in the history of the global climate crisis. Since the passage of the still-controversial Kyoto Protocol in 1997, signatories to the Protocol, and to the more comprehensive UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), have held major biennial conferences to further these documents’ implementation. With the first so-called “commitment period” of Kyoto scheduled to end in 2012, the Copenhagen meeting has long been described as the crucial moment to forestall increasingly uncontrollable climate disruptions.

For well over a year now, environmentalists have been planning events, drafting reports, and coordinating action plans with the Copenhagen conference in mind. The October 24th “” events around the world — over 5000 recorded activities in 181 countries dramatizing the need to reduce atmospheric carbon dioxide to below 350 parts per million — were timed to influence Copenhagen. Until mid-November, the timetable for Congressional action on US climate legislation was also partly aimed toward the international stage. Speculations about whether Obama would go to Copenhagen were the subject of countless news reports, blog postings, and impassioned pleas by Greenpeace and other well-known organizations.

For much of this fall, however, most public statements by both US and UN officials have been pointedly aimed at lowering expectations. US climate negotiators have been evasive for months about what if any commitments they would bring to the table. Senate committees began deleting the climate bill from their year-end calendars in mid-November, after a Republican boycott of Senator Boxer’s hearings allowed for only a pro-forma passage of a highly flawed bill by the Environment and Public Works Committee, which she chairs. Earlier in the fall, UNFCCC Executive Secretary Yvo de Boer began refocusing his public statements toward the ‘art of the possible.’

What may have been the decisive rupture came during talks in Bangkok in mid-October, aimed at finalizing the framework for a Copenhagen agreement. For the first time, European Union representatives echoed the US refusal to make any future commitments under the framework established by the Kyoto Protocol. While previous UN climate meetings have been aided by the Europeans’ insistence on scientifically meaningful emission targets, this change in position — perhaps a result of Obama’s “improved” diplomacy — significantly shifted the focus of the talks and raised the level of acrimony to new heights. A month later, African delegates walked out of a follow-up meeting in Barcelona, and threatened to do the same in Copenhagen if rich countries refused to commit to meaningful emission reductions. Finally, at a breakfast meeting during the APEC summit in Singapore in mid-November, Obama and Danish prime minister Rasmussen announced definitively that a legally binding climate treaty would take at least another year to negotiate.

How and why has the world gotten to this point? Part of the reason stems from the inherent flaws in the Kyoto Protocol, but much of the blame rests with US policymakers, who have been working behind the scenes to undermine Copenhagen for quite a long time. To complicate things further, negotiators on different sides of the table have conflicting interpretations of what the Kyoto Protocol means and to what degree it should help define the terms of future agreements.

In some ways, the Kyoto Protocol represented a crucial breakthrough in the ongoing UNFCCC process. For the first time, countries agreed to a schedule of binding targets for reducing emissions of greenhouse gases, and a prescribed means for working toward those targets. The primary responsibility for reductions fell on the richest countries, with the rest of the world accepting “common but differentiated responsibilities” to mitigate a potential climate crisis. The devil, as always, was in the details, and those details were in many ways a product of then Vice President Al Gore’s interventions in Kyoto.

Gore arrived in Kyoto toward the end of the conference, at a point when the US refusal to sign on to mandatory emissions cuts threatened to derail the proceedings. Gore was widely credited with saving the day; specifically he offered that the US would sign on to a Kyoto Protocol under two conditions. First, mandated reductions in emissions had to be limited to roughly half of what was originally proposed, and second, emissions cuts would be implemented through the market-based trading of “rights to pollute” among various companies and between countries. This was the beginning of carbon trading (a.k.a. “cap-and-trade”) as an instrument of international policy. While the US, of course, never ratified the Kyoto Protocol, the rest of the world has had to live with the consequences, namely a cumbersome but corporate-friendly carbon trading system that has utterly failed to bring needed pollution reductions, and an even more unwieldy and unjust scheme for allowing companies to offset their emissions by investing in nominally low-carbon projects in the global South. (For more on trading and offsets, see and

A decade later, this picture was further complicated by the so-called Bali Action Plan that emerged from the 2007 UN climate summit. This plan allowed for the negotiations toward Copenhagen to proceed on two tracks, one continuing the process laid out in the Kyoto Protocol, and the other essentially going back to the drawing board of the original 1992 climate convention. While Kyoto remains a legally binding treaty, developing nation representatives fear that this second track will be used to create a superseding agreement and in effect overturn the meager gains that poor countries feel they achieved in Kyoto. China has been among the most vocal champions of retaining the Kyoto framework, with its notable lack of distinction between rapidly developing nations such as China and the world’s poorest countries, while the US has long sought to pin the blame on China and India for rapidly rising CO2 levels. The G77 group of poor countries and the Alliance of Small Island States – who have the most to lose if there is no Copenhagen agreement and the pace of sea level rise continues to accelerate – have all lined up in support of retaining Kyoto and continuing to hold the richest nations responsible for their historic contribution to destabilizing the climate.

Technology transfer funds were another key sticking point in the pre-Copenhagen talks. If poorer countries are to eventually bring their emissions down and simultaneously lifting people out of poverty, it is argued, Northern countries will need to fulfill their commitment under Kyoto to speed the deployment of renewable energy technologies in the South without impeding economic development. While this is often viewed as a straightforward matter of comparative wealth and global equity, indigenous peoples’ representatives such as Anastasia Pinto of CORE, based in India’s Eastern Himalayas, view such “sustainable development” arguments as mainly benefiting elites in the South, who want to continue getting richer at the expense of both poor people and the environment. In a recent US tour, Pinto described India’s growing economic divide as the real key to their government’s refusal to consider any steps toward reducing India’s contribution to the climate crisis.

Lim Li Lin of the Third World Network summed up one aspect of the deadlock over Kyoto in a recent briefing paper, stating, “The international compliance regime under the Kyoto Protocol … faces an uncertain future. While it can always be further improved, the risk is now the possibility of no longer having a system of international compliance.” Perhaps the strongest argument in favor of Kyoto is that it may prove far more costly to the environment in the long run to try to develop a new climate treaty from scratch, especially if the worst features of Kyoto—namely the cap-and-trade system—will be retained in any case.

While the future of the Kyoto Protocol is burdened by all the complexities of North-South politics, the continued resistance of the US government to internationally binding limits on global warming pollution raises even more fundamental questions. Is there any alternative to a mutually agreed-upon effort to reduce worldwide greenhouse gas emissions? Just what is the US bringing to the table in Copenhagen beside a vague pledge to reduce emissions by 2020 that still falls short of many countries’ 2012 commitments under Kyoto? (Obama’s recent statement that the US will reduce emissions approximately 17% from 2005 levels by 2020, along the lines of the bill that passed the House of Representatives in June, is only equivalent to a 4-5 percent reduction from 1990 levels, the baseline established in Kyoto. EU countries, in contrast, agreed in Kyoto to an 8 percent reduction from 1990 levels by 2012.)

An article in the September/October issue of the journal Foreign Affairs may offer some important clues as to what we should expect to see in Copenhagen. Foreign Affairs is the official organ of the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR), which has long been noted as both a weathervane and an active arbiter of elite opinion in the US, and lists most recent presidents and numerous other senior officials among its members. In an article titled “Copenhagen’s Inconvenient Truth,” CFR Senior Fellow Michael Levi outlined what may be the US government’s long-standing strategy for Copenhagen.

“The odds of signing a comprehensive treaty in December are vanishingly small,” Levi wrote last summer, in time for the journal’s early September publication, urging even then that those concerned about the climate problem needed to “rethink their strategy and expectations” for Copenhagen. Levi’s alternative proposal is for international emissions standards to essentially be replaced by a patchwork of country-specific policies with the modest, and fundamentally inadequate, goal of reducing world emissions of carbon dioxide by half, “ideally from 1990 levels, by 2050.” Under Levi’s scenario, China would step up investments in renewable energy and “ultra-efficient conventional coal power,” India would become a pioneer in smart grid technology, and countries whose emissions are mainly from deforestation (especially Indonesia and Brazil) would be offered incentives to protect forests and raise agricultural productivity. The main contribution of the US would be to push for a detailed agreement on “measurement, reporting and verification,” one of the few areas where US technology may still hold an advantage.

Levi’s article pointedly blames developing countries for the world’s inability to agree on meaningful emission caps. He argues that the Chinese and others invariably insist on less stringent caps than are feasible, lack the capacity to accurately monitor their emissions, and would simply ignore any caps that they are unable to meet. Unfortunately, this reads a great deal like the way Northern countries have been behaving since Kyoto; Levi even cites Canada as a key example of a country that greatly exceeds its Kyoto limits, and has faced no penalty for doing so. For these reasons, according to Levi, efforts to develop binding caps for developing countries are simply “a waste of time.”

A key challenge for the US in Copenhagen, according to Levi, is to avoid “excessive blame” if the conference is seen as a failure. Rather than expecting a comprehensive agreement to come out of Copenhagen, he argued, the conference should instead be seen as analogous to the beginning of a round of arms control or world trade talks, processes which invariably take many years to complete. “This ‘Copenhagen Round,’” he argues, mirroring the typical WTO language, “would be much more like an extended trade negotiation than like a typical environmental treaty process.” Overlooking the fact that a substantive-though-flawed agreement was actually signed in Kyoto, he emphasizes that it took another several years of negotiations before that treaty could be implemented.

If that’s what the world has to look forward to over the next two weeks in Copenhagen, what are the implications? Climate scientists generally agree that time is rapidly running out to prevent irreversible tipping points in the destabilization of the earth’s climate. Current trends in CO2 emissions already exceed the worst-case “business-as-usual” scenarios of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) 2007 report, and agencies such as the British Meteorological Office are now predicting average temperature rises of 10 degrees or more in various regions of the world before the end of this century. That would mean a permanent loss of Arctic ice, unprecedented spells of flooding and droughts, threats to half the earth’s fresh water supplies, and the collapse of important ecosystems, as well as significant areas of world agriculture.

Fortunately, while diplomats seek to wish the problem away – even as they devise ever more complex and less effective means to alleviate climate chaos – people around the world are beginning to confront the full magnitude of the climate crisis. Climate justice activists in Europe, in indigenous and small farming communities worldwide, and even in North America, are beginning to challenge the inequities underlying current climate policies and demand real solutions. They are highlighting the voices of the communities most affected by the climate changes that are already underway, and challenging corporate-friendly false solutions, from carbon trading and offsets, to the myths of “clean coal” and nuclear power and the onslaught of industrial-scale biofuel (more appropriately “agrofuel”) plantations. Simultaneously, they are challenging the growing dominance of corporate interests in the UN process itself, a phenomenon that led one participant in the 2007 UN conference in Bali to describe it as “a giant shopping extravaganza, marketing the earth, the sky and the rights of the poor.”

The climate justice movement in North America had its first continent-wide day of action on Monday, November 30th, the tenth anniversary of the mass demonstrations that confronted the World Trade Organization in Seattle. Hundreds of people marched and rallied and dozens were arrested at locations from San Francisco’s Bank of America headquarters to the Chicago Climate Exchange, home of the US’ largest voluntary carbon market. South Carolina activists blocked the shipment of a generator for a new coal plant, Canadians sat in at the office of their Finance Minister – a proponent of the massively destructive scheme to extract oil from the tar sands of central Alberta – and New Yorkers marched from a local Bank of America to the offices of the Natural Resources Defense Council, a leading advocate for carbon trading. (For more on the N30 actions, see

Meanwhile in Europe, thousands marched in Geneva at the outset of the WTO’s first ministerial conference in four years. The momentum is building rapidly for massive actions on the streets of Copenhagen, where activists will demand that fossil fuels be kept in the ground, indigenous and forest peoples’ rights be respected and reparations for ecological and climate debts be paid by the richest countries to those who are most affected by resource extraction and climate-related disasters. For some of the organizers, Copenhagen has come to represent capitalism’s last attempt to come to terms with the climate crisis. With African delegates threatening another walkout, and the US pushing for an agreement in name only, the disturbing analogy raised by international activists between the Copenhagen climate conference and the November 1999 World Trade Organization meeting in Seattle may prove to be truer than most environmentalists ever imagined.

BRIAN TOKAR is the Director of the Vermont-based Institute for Social Ecology. His books include Earth for Sale, Redesigning Life? and the forthcoming collection (co-edited with Fred Magdoff), Crisis in Food and Agriculture: Conflict, Resistance and Renewal (Monthly Review Press).

Brian Tokar is the co-editor (with Tamra Gilbertson) of Climate Justice and Community Renewal: Resistance and Grassroots Solutions (Routledge 2020) and the author and editor of six previous books on environmental issues and movements, including Toward Climate Justice: Perspectives on the Climate Crisis and Social Change (New Compass 2014). He is a lecturer in Environmental Studies at the University of Vermont and a long-term faculty and board member of the Vermont-based Institute for Social Ecology.