Copenhagen shows the shape of things to come

Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao: his stance at Copenhagen may have emboldened African countries. Copyright: Flickr/World Economic Forum

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There were many disappointments at the climate conference, but at least it revealed the new political setting within which climate change must be fought.

Given the high hopes that preceded last month’s climate change conference in Copenhagen, and the dire warnings about it being the last chance to save the planet, it is easy to understand the disappointment at the meeting’s failure to achieve a dramatic result.

Certainly the Copenhagen Climate Accord, developed by the United States and a group of large developing countries including Brazil, China and India is a relatively weak document in both legal and political terms.

Nevertheless, the success in getting these countries engaged in serious negotiations about the action needed to reduce the impacts of climate change should not be dismissed. After all, that was one of the main goals of any negotiations intended to produce a successor to the Kyoto Protocol, which runs out in 2012 (see Where next after Kyoto?).

Furthermore, the way that the Copenhagen discussions unfurled is a useful reminder of the changed political environment in which future negotiations on global issues will occur. These include the increasing dominance of China (and to a lesser extent India) and the declining influence of the Western industrialised nations operating through the G8. Both trends are leading to a new sense of realism about what the developing world must do to face the challenges of the next decade.

Some agreements were reached

Behind the headlines there was significant agreement in Copenhagen on several key issues that will benefit developing countries (see Climate accord offers some grounds for hope, say analysts).

For example, there was agreement on a framework for actions aimed at preventing the spread of deforestation through the Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD) scheme, even if important financial and administrative aspects remain unresolved.

The Copenhagen Accord includes a commitment to setting up a ‘technology mechanism’ for enhancing technology transfer, although the details of how this will work are unclear.

And there was agreement in principle that there is a need for the developed world to provide significant additional funding to the developing world — a target of US$100 billion has been set.

Although limited in impact (and less than hoped for), these agreements indicate the direction of international collaboration if the developing world is to work towards sustainable growth.

Political problems

But the meeting also highlighted political problems that must be overcome if global efforts to combat climate change, or to help the developing world stand on its own feet, are to succeed.

One high priority, for example, is the need to convince the world’s largest per capita carbon emitter, the United States, that major lifestyle sacrifices are essential to avoid climate catastrophes. One reason why the Copenhagen discussions failed to go further was that efforts by the Obama administration to promote legislation to achieve emissions reductions at home have been diluted by the US Congress.

Without such a commitment from the United States, countries such as Brazil, China and India  who can no longer be bought off with promises of extra aid or technical assistance, can claim the moral high ground. Yet unless they provide a strong commitment to action, it is unlikely that the rest of the developing world will do much on its own.

African countries, in particular, perhaps emboldened by China’s stance, made it clear that they would not be bought off easily. The legacy of the West’s industrialisation now parallels that of its colonialism in leaving a legacy for which African countries continue to pay a high price.

New fault lines

Looking ahead, the fault lines that appeared in Copenhagen — such as the diverging views between the United States (and Europe) on the one hand, and China on the other — will increasingly dominate relations between North and South. This has important implications for the political dynamics of technical cooperation, and underlines the need for the robust research and innovation infrastructures on all sides on which cooperation depends.

More positively, the growing awareness on both sides of the technical challenges of combating global warming — ranging from low-carbon technologies to drought-resistant crops — has highlighted the essential role of scientific research in development.

Another challenge is to ensure that the rich communities of the world do not dominate access to the fruits of such research. This requires a decentralised, bottom-up approach to promoting science and technology for development, as well as a shift in power relations to make this possible.

One of the main achievements of the Copenhagen meeting was to show that these shifts are already taking place. But building on this progress while overcoming the obstacles that stand in the way — such as one-sided intellectual property laws, entrenched industrial interests and a lack of scientific evidence in development policy — remains a major challenge in the decade ahead.

David Dickson
Director, SciDev.Net