After Copenhagen: Are there pieces to pick up?

I wrote the following last week, as part of a call for submissions to a blog run by the Global Economic Governance programme at University College, Oxford on governing climate change after Copenhagen. Nothing’s been uploaded onto their site a week later in terms of any submissions at all, so I thought I should just put this up here while it’s still somewhat fresh. A week later, I’m struck by my own pesimissm, but I haven’t thrown myself out of a window yet, so please don’t either.

Governing Climate Change After Copenhagen

Last month’s eleventh-hour Copenhagen Accord quickly became the subject of oppobrium from all quarters, both for the way in which it emerged, as well as the insufficiency of the numbers involved. Most of the attention has focused on the diplomatic wrangles over targets, reporting and verification measures, and finance. However, perhaps the greater, but thus far understated implication for the governance of climate change lies in the breakdown of crucial underlying ideas about how climate change is to be governed in the first place.

There is a widespread recognition that mutual suspicion pervades the negotiations and has created an atmosphere of chronic mistrust. But measures to improve the transparency of information, to clarify the nature of enforcement, and widen decisionmaking representation, while all designed to rebuild some of this trust and good faith will only take us so far if the consensus over the ‘rules of the game’ has collapsed. And perhaps Copenhagen’s more deeply-rooted lesson is that it has at least weakened, if the principle of common but differentiated responsibilities (CDR) is anything to go by.

Since Rio, the widespread consensus on the centrality of the CDR principle has been masked by diverging interpretations over what it is exactly that leads to differentiated responsibilities. In an interpretive statement made to the Rio Declaration in 1992, the United States made it clear that any view of special responsibilities for itself was based on its superior industrial capabilities. For many developing countries, however, CDR has been celebrated because of its supposed recognition of the historical responsibilities of industrialised (i.e. Annex I) countries for the emissions that have brought us to the brink of catastrophic climate change. At that time, and for the rest of the decade, that divergence remained far from the surface because both interpretations pointed in the same direction: that principal action to mitigate climate change would be undertaken by the rich world.

But now, beyond the shadow of the George W. Bush era that paralysed meaningful action for most of this decade, ability of this single principle to mask these diverging interpretations is no longer tenable. The symbolic place of China as the world’s largest overall emitter, as well as the rapid pace of industrialisation in India and China that has lifted hundreds of millions out of poverty, has led many in the rich world – the United States at the forefront of this – to point to the increased capabilities of these countries as good reason for mitigation commitments to now be undertaken by them. But the historical perspective adopted by the G77 and China has meant that any change from the direction set out at Rio has been fiercely resisted. Current capabilities, in this view, are of only marginal relevance, and the overwhelming burden of action still on the shoulders of the rich. The justification offered by China in the face of criticism for its insistence on removing targets (i.e. an overall 50% cut in global emissions by 2050) is indicative: outside the club of historical emitters, it will not take on burdens that it might find itself under one day in virtue of an ‘industrialised’ label. More vivid is the post-Copenhagen suggestion by Martin Khor, of the influential South Centre, that rich countries should “commit to cuts of 200-400%, or move into negative emission territory, with net re-absorption of greenhouse gases”.

This divergence was increasingly clear over the past year, and at Copenhagen finally came to a head in the mutual, dogged insistence between North and South that the other needed to step up their game. If the conference has produced an ‘Accord’ the legal status of which remains unclear (in contrast to even COP6 that simply acknowleged postponement) then it is also perhaps unclear if there is still some common agreement on the direction of emission cuts to be made. The ‘game’ had always been previously defined by consensus to the vision set out by CDR; the challenge was to find rules within this to allow everyone to play. The trouble now apparent is that the facade around that vision of 1992 is in peril, if not fatally weakened. It would be folly to think that world leaders can now pick up the post-Copenhagen pieces and simply make refinements, because Copenhagen’s crisis lay in the incongruence of these pieces. For now, their task lies in redefining a new game to govern.

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One thought on “After Copenhagen: Are there pieces to pick up?

  1. […] own emissions and adapt to a changing climate. Equally, however, as I’ve noted before, is a fuzzy ambiguity about the extent to which these different responsibilities are based on historical…. Interpretations that favour the former continue to hold considerable sway in the perceptions of […]

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