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Collapse in Copenhagen

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February 5, 2010

Collapse in Copenhagen

Negotiations, uninvitations, and what the Accord really means

by Ben Powless

December 16 Evo Morales met with Indigenous delegates during the Copenhagen Climate Conference. Photo: Ben Powless

OTTAWA—Unless you’ve developed a habit of only reading government press releases, you’ve probably gotten the idea by now that Copenhagen was more like Flopenhagen.

After negotiations spilled a day over the planned two weeks, countries failed to reach any sort of final deal and the proclaimed Copenhagen Accord failed to reach consensus, winding up as a reference document.

What went wrong?

The proffered reasons are nearly as abundant as the puns on Copenhagen (Brokenhagen, Nopenhagen, Jokenhagen—you get the idea).

In the weeks leading up to it, there was no shortage of chatter over the importance of Copenhagen’s Climate Conference, formally the 15th Conference of the Parties (COP15) to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). In the end, over 46,000 delegates would show up to the meeting, including over a hundred Heads of State.

The first cracks in a deal came during the first week of the talks, as countries from the G77-plus-China group (actually made up of over one hundred "developing" countries) forced some of the negotiations to stop until their concerns were heard. Then, the much-reported “Danish Text” was leaked to journalists and civil society members, spurring outrage from developing countries that documents were being written in secret by select countries.

The conference also saw unprecedented attendance from civil society, which comprised 24,000 of the total 46,000 participants. This number only included accredited participants permitted inside Bella Center, the negotiations venue. A number of simultaneous fora were organized, the biggest being the Klimaforum, co-ordinated by Danish civil society and open to everyone. At Klimaforum, several thousand individuals and representatives of interest groups from the world over participated in dozens of workshops and discussions, finalizing a People's Declaration that focused solely on climate solutions.

On Saturday, December 12, mid-way through the talks, an estimated 100,000 people took to the streets of Copenhagen. Carrying banners proclaiming, “There is no Planet B,” “Climate Justice Now!” and “Tar Sands Oil is Blood Oil,” Indigenous Peoples from around the world led the march.

Despite the non-violence of the event, 1,000 arbitrary, “preventative” arrests were made. Only about five marchers would eventually be charged, but the bitter smell of the security state was already in the air. Human rights organizations denounced the police’s “kettling” of protesters as illegal and the tactic continued throughout the week.

The UNFCCC Secretariat failed to adequately forecast the inability of 46,000 people to fit into a space with a capacity of 15,000. This meant that only 7,000 civilians were able to get into Bella Center on the second Tuesday and Wednesday of the conference.

During the final days of the conference, hundreds, sometimes thousands, of accredited participants would wait outside the doors of Bella Center for seven or eight hours. Many had travelled from tropical countries and found the freezing temperatures unbearable, compounding their existing frustrations about having to line up for an event they expected to attend. Some would be unable to get into the building at all.

In a sudden and surprising move, Executive Secretary of the UNFCCC, Yvo de Boer, convened a meeting Wednesday night to announce that for Thursday and Friday, only 300 of the 24,000 members of accredited civil society would be allowed to participate in the formal negotiations. Environmental organizations, Indigenous groups and farmers were distraught that one per cent of their representatives would be allowed into one of the most important meetings ever held.

The Secretariat seemed to be reacting to a number of protests and specific incidents inside Bella Center. Some have speculated that it was simply an attempt to stifle public involvement. Regardless of its intention, this was the effect.

Thousands of stakeholders in climate justice who had come from around the world were now left to follow the negotiations from TVs and the internet in other parts of Copenhagen. In the eyes of many delegates, negotiations already in a state of free-fall were now doomed. No longer would they have an opportunity to hold negotiators accountable face-to-face, provide them with suggestions and feedback, communicate the proceedings to others, or even give the talks the legitimacy of public involvement.

The prime security concern on Thursday and Friday was the number of Presidents, Prime Ministers and Princes who arrived, joining ministers for the so-called High Level Segment. They gave flowery and sometimes impassioned speeches, as negotiations continued behind closed doors, and protests and vigils continued outside.


Over the last two years, countries have been negotiating on a process known as the Bali Roadmap. The Copenhagen meeting was meant to finalize these proceedings. Many agreements had been worked along specific negotiations tracks, which included themes such as adaptation (to change climate conditions by infrastructure and building renovations, increase the flood plain, reforestation/revegetation, population relocation, higher dykes), technology transfer (of clean development technology or adaptation technology—green energy, and carbon capture and storage respectively—from countries that have it to countries that don't), and finance (or control of the capital invested by polluters to offset their emissions, via mechanisms such as the carbon market).

They were often imperfect agreements, but they reflected the voices of all countries, and were forged through a consensus process. In the eyes of most developing countries, they were meant to expand upon the binding Kyoto Protocol.

Indigenous people had been following the negotiations, often concerned for their very survival. Indigenous rights had become a battleground in the talks, with years of work securing minimal references to and rights for Indigenous Peoples, despite the efforts of many colonial countries to keep such pesky restrictions out of formal considerations.


The United States ensured everyone was awake Friday morning as Obama delivered a speech reminiscent of Bush’s “You’re either with us or against us” rhetoric to a plenary hall of world leaders. He then assembled leaders of China, India, Brazil and South Africa (known as the BASIC Group) to hash out an agreement among some of the world’s biggest polluters in secret.

After hours of wrangling among the BASIC Group, these talks expanded to include 26 countries already selected by the Prime Minister of Denmark, Lars Lokke Rasmussen, and a new document emerged: the so-called Copenhagen Accord. That it was negotiated in secret, behind doors closed to most countries, was seen by many as an obvious attempt to circumvent the democratic and multilateral nature of the talks up to that point.

While some in the media and NGO community managed to score leaked drafts of the Accord, many government delegates from Southern countries didn’t even see the “agreement.” Such was the absurd situation where the few remaining civil participants found themselves making photocopies of and explaining the document to delegates, in all its shortcomings.

Rasmussen convened countries around 1:00am Saturday, after Obama had already given a press conference to announce a done deal and hopped on a plane back to Washington. A number of countries rebelled in the final negotiating session of the conference after the three-page Accord was dropped like a bomb into the plenary room.

The Prime Minister tried to present the document and give delegates an hour to think it over, but countries were immediately furious. More than 14 hours later, it became clear there was no consensus on the Copenhagen Accord, with the largest resistance coming from developing and small island states. Finally, delegates agreed to “take note” of the Accord, leaving off negotiations until next year’s meeting in Mexico.

The blame game began immediately, with the US and European countries pointing fingers at China and other developing countries for holding back negotiations.

As Martin Kohr of the Third World Network made clear in a letter to The Guardian, “The unwise attempt by the Danish presidency to impose a non-legitimate meeting to override the legitimate multilateral process was the reason why Copenhagen will be considered a disaster.” International climate negotiations have taken on an air of exclusivity and distrust usually reserved for World Trade Organization (WTO) talks.


The Accord itself seeks to collect non-legally binding pledges from developed countries. Even though it pushes for a global warming limit of two degrees Celcius, the UN’s own leaked research shows it would likely cause at least three degrees' warming.

One of the centrepieces of the Accord is the pledge that developed countries will “mobilize” $100 billion by 2020 for developing countries' adaptation and mitigation, though it acknowledges this could come from private and “alternative” sources, letting states off the hook, and limiting the direction of these resources to developing countries that sign the Accord, and not necessarily those that need it most.

However, the document can’t be simply dismissed as a collection of hot air about climate change. The risk remains that the Copenhagen Accord may be used to circumvent the UN process, which, while flawed, is the only truly democratic, transparent and fully multilateral process in the works.

According to Reede Stockton of Global Exchange, “The Copenhagen Accord really isn't a whole lot more than an aspirational G20 agreement. Given the method by which the agreement was reached, it really constitutes a cynical conversion of a UN process that gives significant weight to the voices of relatively powerless countries into one that completely disempowers them.”

Soon after the snow had settled on the Copenhagen Accord, the US was already pushing for a more limited role of the UN in further climate talks, and more decisions to be made by the world’s top polluters. Bolivia’s ambassador reacted swiftly, stating “The US admission that it wants to exclude the vast majority of the planet from decisions about climate change is deeply offensive, when the climate crisis will fall first on those who are most vulnerable.”

These are not idle threats. The G8 and G20 are coming to Canada in June, and climate change will be one of the biggest issues on the table. This means that Canada, as convener of the talks, could push for stronger climate action. This will not happen. More likely, efforts will be made to undermine the United Nations and block the path of progress toward climate justice, and Harper will try to drive the issue off the table altogether.


The little good news to report out of Copenhagen comes from the empowerment and connections formed among the hundreds of groups and thousands of people who participated in the talks, and their renewed commitment to pushing for climate justice at home.

According to Clayton Thomas-Muller of the Indigenous Environmental Network, “The main good thing to come out of Copenhagen was the massive solidarity, which came out in the movements formed against the tar sands, with Indigenous Peoples leading many actions, and the convergence of people-power to confront the co-ordinated corporate efforts.”

“Massive solidarity” included almost daily actions by Canadian youth, environmental and Indigenous groups targeting Canada’s shameful behaviour in the negotiations, especially taking the tar sands to task. Canada’s maneuvres earned it the Colossal Fossil non-award, given to the country most responsible for disrupting negotiations.

Canada was roundly criticized for coming to Copenhagen with nothing to offer, and for being unwilling to co-operate with other nations accepting more ambitious targets. Canada was also one of the few nations which opposed protection of Indigenous rights. Ben Wikler, climate campaigner for Avaaz, noted, “This government thinks there’s a choice between environment and economy, and for them, tar sands beats climate every time.”

Maryam Adrangi, a Canadian Youth Delegate from Vancouver, sees the beginning of a Canadian movement for climate justice.

“Canada’s role was definitely disappointing at the talks, but there was also lots of anger and energy to build a movement at home with real representation of the voices not [previously] being heard, the people whose lives and cultures are actually threatened. There’s a serious need for activism, because our so-called leaders haven’t been listening or leading.”

This follows the six climate justice sit-ins by young people across Canada, occupying the offices of federal ministers and MPs, and the Power Shift Conference, which saw nearly 1,000 youth converge on Ottawa for a four-day conference focused on climate activism. Recent campaigns against the tar sands have also picked up and plans are under way around climate camps and actions at the G8/G20 meeting in Toronto in June.

If the climate talks fail this year in Mexico, or if some countries get in the way of progress, the UN process could be sidelined. This could lead to non-binding, weak and unjust agreements signed between select groups of countries, or the collapse of talks completely, as has already befallen the WTO talks.

Without a determined grassroots movement in Canada, our government will continue to be a barrier to progress, misrepresenting Canadians. Our country will be responsible for untold suffering around the world. There is little time to build this movement, for Canadians to make a last stand for climate justice.

Ben Powless is a student at Carleton University in Ottawa, and works as a climate justice campaigner with the Indigenous Environmental Network in Ottawa.

December 11: Indigenous Environmental Network, Rainforest Action Network and the Canadian Youth Delegation of the Canadian Youth Climate Coalition rally against Canada's tar sands inside the UN Climate Change Conference.
December 12 The Indigenous Block led 100,000 people in the People's Climate March.
December 16: Climate activists inside the Bella Centre disrupted formal negotiations to meet with people outside, those who had been barred from the meetings, to open a space for collaboration and communication under the banner, "Reclaim Power."

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Copenhagen Climate Conference

Dear Sir,

The collapse in the recent Copenhagen Climate Conference only proves to show the simultaneous collapse of the reliability of the world’s governments. We can now be clear of their ability to provide pro-active solutions and reliable leadership. If we want to see any concrete results it is apparent that we will have to look to the common folk in this world and support grass roots solutions.

The ten days of discussion which took place in Copenhagen was a weak attempt to fulfill the aim of creating a comprehensive, globally accepted and legally binding agreement. The product was a disappointment - an accord which lacked a structured framework and attainable targets. The lack of accountability displayed at this conference shows nothing less that pure cowardice and an inability to stand up to corporate superpowers and their economic priorities.

The obvious need to bridge the gap between developed and developing countries in climate change negotiations was barely touched upon during the course of the conference. The solution to closing the gap was an increase in funding to developing countries in attempts to shy away from the impacts of western globalization on the environment. The United States and China seem to have taken the forefront in the decisions made at Copenhagen. I would suggest that next time they should stand up for the future of their citizens and proactively work towards their own emission reduction targets rather than deciding those of others.

It seems that getting world leaders together to debate issues they do not see the gravity of is a bad idea. I agree that if anything, this conference has solidified the movement towards a more sustainable future in terms of community. It has bonded together like minded activists around the world. It is these connections that are going to ultimately lead to the success of this movement in the future.

The Copenhagen Conference has given me little faith in our leaders however it has given me huge hope for the future. I see each individual’s ability to make a contribution and show the world that citizens will not stand for bureaucratic, inconclusive negotiations. Economy seemed to be the priority over the environment this time around however the general population has shown that if we put our minds together we will soon see citizens rise to the challenge and make sure that this mistake is not made again.

Malakai Kirkpatrick

We are where we are and will be til we see..........

I think if we are to see change, we need to kick our shoes off, work less, grow more, become communities again!!! Barter, read, go to bed when the sun sets, rise when it rises!!! Embrace living!!! Not shopping!!!

What I am saying is, if we always look to our government for solutions we will never achieve our greatness...We need to take back our communities, take back life!!! They already have too much say!!!

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