Copenhagen climate conference: The grim meaning of ‘meaningful’

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The climate change summit had three big tickets on its agenda: emissions, financial assistance and the process going ahead. And on each of these counts the accord – which was effectively hammered out not by the whole conference, but rather by the US, India, China and South Africa – fell woefully short. There was no serious cementing of the positive noises on aid that had emerged earlier on in the week. On emissions, a clear-eyed vision for the distant future was rendered a pipe dream by outright fuzziness about the near term. And most alarmingly of all, there was no clear procedural roadmap to deliver the world from the impasse that this summit has landed it in. Outright failure to agree anything at all would have been very much worse, but that is about the best thing that can be said.

The course of the summit as a whole – which moved from bold rhetoric, through blame games to eventual grudging concessions – was neatly epitomised in Barack Obama‘s flying visit. The newly-crowned Nobel laureate opened his brief speech in near-identical terms to those we recently deployed – in common with 56 newspapers worldwide – in a shared editorial which called on global leaders to do the right thing.

Stating climate change was a frightening fact, the president pronounced his determination to act. Soon, however, he broke his own rhetorical spell by following his eloquent overture not with a magnanimous announcement, but with some none-too-subtle pointing of the finger at China. He may have been technically accurate in implying that it nowadays emitted more than the US, but this cheap point distracted from the reality that much of China’s – in any case low – per-head emissions are incurred in serving western consumers.

Later on he stood back from the brink. First, by conceding some language on monitoring emissions which addressed China’s concerns about sovereignty, and secondly – at a late-night press conference – by making a nod towards UN scientists who have this week been warning that the offers tabled so far would set the mercury surging by a catastrophic 3C.

Obama’s singular failure to raise the American game no doubt reflects his having one eye on the Senate, whom he still needs to persuade to enact his climate laws. Other leaders, however, proved equally unable to transcend parochialism when the crunch came.

China’s premier Wen Jiabao used his own speech to harry the developed world to make good on the cash it has pledged to the poor, an important demand but one that would have carried more force if it had been married to the explicit acceptance that China will soon have to find the means to prove to a sceptical world that it will curb its emissions as it promises.

Throughout the evening, Europe seemed bent on clinging to its trump card of increasing its emissions offer from a 20% to a 30% cut, refusing to think beyond the horse-trading that has been failing the climate for years.

Only two years ago, the world’s leaders swore this would be the summit to build a new carbon order. The threadbare agreement thrashed out last night has not even laid the foundations. The progress on financial assistance over the fortnight is welcome, but with much of the money earmarked for climate adaptation, the global community is left resembling an alcoholic who has decided to save up for a liver transplant rather than give up drink.

It is a sad tribute to collective failure that the all-important question at the end of Copenhagen is: what happens next?