The panel consisted of six experts and officials. Four were nodding and smiling, one was adjusting his tie while his eyes wandered, and the last was a pessimist, and arguably the most informed and experienced.
The topic was nothing new: climate change, biodiversity and the negotiations and summits that went along with it. In particular, the failure of Copenhagen. However, the pessimist, a representative of the European Commission from the Unit of International Agreements and Trade, extended this quite effectively to the failure of all multi-lateral negotiations.
The Copenhagen failed on two accounts: it failed to produce a treaty to replace or add to the Kyoto Protocol, due to run out in 2012; and it failed to produce a timeline to do so. Furthermore, the outcome document, the non-binding Copenhagen Accord, is weak and hardly a tool we can fight the growing climate crisis with. The tensions between the rich and poor countries are palpable in the document, which does little to alleviate them other than to suggest rich countries raise funds to aid poor countries transition to greener economies. We must be fair, though. There are many that would argue the Climate Summit at Copenhagen was not a total failure. One of these is Lord Stern, Chair of the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment. Speaking at a conference at the London School of Economics, he stated: "Copenhagen…did concentrate minds, and it did lead…to quite specific plans from countries that hadn't set them out before."
However, if we look closely at the Copenhagen Accord, which has already been signed by seventy-three countries, we start to see a pattern in the words. And the pattern goes way back. Let us cast a glance at a report from 1987; twenty-three years ago, since when mean global temperatures have increased by up to 2.5 oC in some areas of the Artic, and a in general by 0.8 oC, according to the recent 2009 report by the NASA Earth Observatory. The 1987 Brundtland Report is eerily familiar. All the words are there: "strategies for sustainable development", "burning fossil fuels", "accumulation of atmospheric CO2", "slow growth in world economy", "shift to a green economy"…and the list goes on.
All these documents are the same.
The exact same words and paragraphs keep popping up everywhere: be it protocols, reports, treaties, or even EU section meeting speeches. The conferences that meet all over the EU all day draft documents exactly like the Brundtland Report. Same goal, same grandiose statements. Time is at an impasse: the Brundtland Report could have been written in 2010 and no one could have known the difference.
Copenhagen was a product of the UNFCCC (United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change) process. And maybe, as the Commission man wryly pointed out, it is time to approach the crisis outside the umbrella of the UNFCCC. At Copenhagen, everyone talked. No one listened. And no one took action. Copenhagen was a summit in which the greatest subject of discussion was where the next summit would be. And so it followed the route of every summit before it. In the words of the Commission representative: "if you do what you did, you get what you got." What we got is another climate summit: Cancun 2010.
The Commission representative didn't see Copenhagen as a failure, rather another stepping stone in this long line of disappointing multilateral negotiations. A stepping stone trail leading us down a "dangerous path." He smiled a bit when a man in the front row pointed out that the answer to the climate crisis might be a difficult one. He didn't even blink, "there are always easy answers to hard questions. And this one, we already have the solution to." There is no need to reinvent the wheel. We have the ideas; in fact, we've had them for a long time. What we need now is to use the tools we have and start some movement. We need to take action.
The Commission representative found himself standing for a larger argument: we must be wary. Politicians, bureaucrats, dignitaries, ambassadors…all these people have brilliant ideas. But when it comes time for action, that invading inertia so characteristic of all government panels, stifles all attempts. We cannot let ideas become empty words whispered in small rooms that will rot in a government library.
After the conference, I spotted the Commission man disinterestedly eyeing some biscuits near the main spread. I asked him what he meant by "dangerous path".
His answer was a chuckle and a shrug. I suppose this means: we better not find out.
Read through the 1987 UN Brundtland Report: via WikiSource
Compare with the Copenhagen Accord: via UNFCC Resource Documents