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Plan B for Copenhagen

<img alt=“smoke.bmp” src=“” width=“216” height=“324” align=“right” hspace=“10px”//>The United Nation’s upcoming climate summit in Copenhagen threatens to get caught in a trap between high expectations and the immense complexity of the task at hand, warns the author of an opinion piece in Nature today [subscription]. Since diplomats cannot possibly produce a useful treaty for the December meeting in the remaining twelve weeks, negotiations should focus on a small number of realistic goals, and leave the rest for later, says David Victor, an expert on international relations at the University of California in San Diego.

A rushed and over-ambitious agreement in Copenhagen, even if it had the superficial appearance of success, could in fact prove a “legal zombie” – neither delivering nor dying – and might be counterproductive for long-term climate protection efforts, argues Victor.

He suggests that negotiators in Copenhagen focus instead on few topics, such as reiterating and extending existing emission targets by developed countries and continuing the Kyoto Protocol’s Clean Development Mechanism, whose expiration would shatter the very credibility of international climate diplomacy. A ‘standby’ agreement, shallow though it might appear, could within two years be developed into a fair and efficient global climate strategy.

The post-Copenhagen process, says Victor, would best be led by the small number of rich nations that account for the bulk of global emissions. Given the endlessly cumbersome UN diplomacy that resulted in the meagre 1997 Kyoto Protocol and that weighs heavily on pre-Copenhagen negotiations, “smaller, more flexible approaches offer the only realistic expectations for making progress in 2010 and beyond,” he says.

Global warming, says Victor, is ultimately a problem of economic cooperation, and must be dealt with using the tools and negotiation strategies that have proved most successful in global trade agreements. In trade issues small forums and even unilateral action have indeed shown to be more efficient than global talks.

But is a last-minute ‘plan B’ for Copenhagen simply a polite paraphrase of the climate summit’s foreseeable failure – and an apology in advance?

No, says Victor. A well-managed disaster in Copenhagen is ultimately more likely to pave the way for effective climate protection than a stapled-together deal.

Quirin Schiermeier

Image: Getty

What do you think? Must climate diplomats change their strategy? Join the discussion here on Climate Feedback.


  1. Report this comment

    Rajeev Choudhury said:

    Invitation for Seminar

    Towards an Alternative Indian Climate Policy: Copenhagen and beyond

    Constitution Club, New Delhi: September 18, 2009: 10am – 4pm

    Dear Friends

    The Copenhagen Conference in December 2009 to decide upon global and national commitments to tackle the climate crisis is almost upon us. Negotiations both formal and informal are taking place across the world, yet the overwhelming sense is one of deadlock over several issues and apprehension that an agreement may elude us. Can India play a more pro-active role in this process, significantly influence the outcome and display leadership that India often claims the world does not adequately recognize?

    The Delhi Science Forum and the Centre for Science, Technology & Society of the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai had jointly organized a Workshop in Mumbai on 31st July and 1st August 2009 bringing together experts and academics, think tanks, social movements, professional NGOs, planners and media persons to discuss “Breaking the Climate Deadlock: towards a New Climate Policy for India’’. This Workshop had arrived at a broad consensus on an alternative Indian policy framework on the climate crisis in general and a set of recommendations for India’s negotiating position for Copenhagen.

    The present Seminar seeks to further broaden the discussion of this position, especially through fresh insights from political parties, trade unions and other mass organizations and social movements, so as to more forcefully influence the positions and actions of our Government. There may be little time left before the Copenhagen meeting but there is still considerable scope for impacting outcomes.

    The Seminar

    Broadly, the Seminar would discuss substantive issues based on a few select presentations in the morning session, followed by remarks and responses by representatives of political parties, mass organizations and public intellectuals in the afternoon. A few participants have expressed the desire to make structured interventions or brief presentations.

    We earnestly hope you will be able to join us for this important discussion and interaction and look forward to your valuable contributions.

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    G J Lau said:

    Plan B For Copenhagen by David Victor hits on the essential flaw that so often dooms attempts at international cooperation. We live in a world of nation-states. A major unintended consequence of the Treaty of Westphalia (1648), which codified the basic principles of territorial integrity, border inviolability, and supremacy of the state, was that international cooperation became subject to the veto of any nation-state large or small.

    The only successful world institution is the United Nations. It works, barely, only because it allows the big governments to block measures they find distasteful. The Copenhagen talks are part of a UN initiative that hoped to gather all the major developed and developing countries of the world in one place to hammer out an agreement that would be binding on all governments, large and small.

    It was a nice try, but by now reality should be settling in. The idea that the entire world will ever agree on a subject as complex as climate change is a big-time triumph of hope over experience.

    Mr. Victor is absolutely correct to point out that this will never happen, certainly not during a time of great economic uncertainty: “Most governments are reluctant to spend huge resources on uncertain, distant goals when they face pressing local problems such as unemployment.”

    His Plan B seeks to make a virtue of necessity by encouraging bilateral or multilateral agreements among key players on issues they can agree upon. This sounds suspiciously like the confidence building approach that has proven to be abridge to nowhere in the Middle East peace process. But I share his opinion that this is the only game in town right now.

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    Gudeta Sileshi said:

    The fact that negotiators are grappling with issues more complex than practically any other in international diplomacy is self evident. However, the notion that “no amount of hard work can produce a fully useful treaty for December” is wrong. Governments had longer than enough time to think about the looming climate crisis. This is not a new problem! The problem has been and continues to be “living in denial” and postponing the inevitable. For over a century, scientists have known that adding greenhouse gasses could warm the earth’s atmosphere. According to the 1965 US Presidents’ Science Advisory Committee report “Carbon dioxide is being added to the earth’s atmosphere by the burning of coal, oil and … By the year 2000 there will be about 25% more carbon dioxide in our atmosphere than at present. This will modify the heat balance of the atmosphere to such an extent that marked changes in climate, not controllable through local or even national efforts, could occur”. Beginning from the 1980s the scientific community has been sounding warnings of the imminent consequences of climate change for the planet. According to a recent analysis by the world’s top-notch climatologists “If humanity wishes to preserve a planet similar to that on which our civilization developed and to which life on Earth is adapted, carbon dioxide will need to be reduced from its current 385 parts per million (ppm) to at most 350 ppm”. Unfortunately, some governments do not want to comit to legaly-binding emission reduction targets. The continued construction of coal-fired power plants without carbon dioxide capture also suggests that decision-makers have not appreciated the gravity of the situation. We just cannot afford protracted negotiations like those on global trade talks because with climate change time is not on our side. In my opinion, plan B may save the Copenhagen meeting from collapsing but it will delay real action. The question is “Will the small number of issues on which governments already largely agree solve the bigger problem, which is lack of commitment?” I agree with Victor that “What to do if Copenhagen fails?” must now be debated vigorously. Either collapse of negotiations or delay will likely lead to radicalisation of climate change politics and widen the north-south divide because of the perceived injustice of the causes and effects of climate change.

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    David Moriarty said:

    While it is always sensible to have a plan B, I think it is dangerous to provide world leaders with an excuse not to strive to agree a fair and safe deal in Copenhagen.

    There will likely be many aspects that require further examination but allowing the issue of climate change to be put on the long finger is not acceptable and should not be encouraged.

    Also, the post-Copenhagen process cannot simply be lead by rich nations but must include the voice of the developing world if there is any chance that it will be a fair process.

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