Copenhagen: words versus deeds

December 9, 2009

December's United Nations-sponsored climate talks in Copenhagen were a key topic of discussion at the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM), held in Trinidad and Tobago in late November.

For weeks, politicians from rich countries had talked down the prospects of a deal including big emissions cuts. Now, it seemed they had changed their tune.

World leaders hailed CHOGM as a breakthrough event for the climate that restored hope a strong deal would be struck at Copenhagen. UN secretary-general Ban Ki-moon said CHOGM showed a binding deal was "within reach", Reuters said on November 28.

Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd was one of the most upbeat. "We have built real momentum towards a better outcome at the Copenhagen conference on climate change and hopefully a robust outcome in a Copenhagen agreement itself", he said, the December 1 Age reported.

Environmental NGOs greeted the news with enthusiasm. Greenpeace's John Hepburn wrote of a "renewal of optimism" for a good Copenhagen deal, on a blog on November 28. A day later, the Australian Conservation Foundation's Don Henry even praised Rudd's "leadership on climate change at CHOGM".

But the content of the CHOGM outcome shows there is no reason to be optimistic and many reasons to be outraged at the dirty deal planned for Copenhagen.

In a joint statement, the Commonwealth leaders said: "We pledge our continued support … to deliver a comprehensive, substantial and operationally binding agreement in Copenhagen leading towards a full legally binding outcome no later than 2010."

That is, no strong, legally binding agreement will be reached in 2009 at Copenhagen.

In defiance of the urgent warnings from climate scientists, the plan is to defer a binding agreement on global warming for yet another year.

What amounts to "success" at Copenhagen is being redefined before our eyes. The term "operationally binding agreement" is just weasel words for a non-binding agreement — a fake agreement.

This is exactly what the rich countries, including the United States and Australia, have insisted on in previous climate talks, incurring anger from poor nations most at risk from a climate disaster.

But having scuttled chances of a climate change decision the world so urgently needs, the rich countries are now working hard to present the illusion of progress. Copenhagen will be a grand display of spin instead of action, style instead of substance, and fine words instead of fine deeds.

One of the world's top climate scientists, NASA's James Hansen, told the November 29 Observer the world's politicians needed "a cold, hard slap in the face".

"The fraudulence of the Copenhagen approach — 'goals' for emission reductions, 'offsets' that render ironclad goals almost meaningless, the ineffectual 'cap-and-trade' mechanism — must be exposed", he said.

"We must rebel against such politics as usual. Science reveals that [the] climate is close to tipping points. It is a dead certainty that continued high emissions will create a chaotic dynamic situation for young people, with deteriorating climate conditions out of their control."

A blueprint from the Danish government for an "operationally binding" Copenhagen agreement proposed the exact same targets endorsed by the world's biggest polluters, including Australia, at July's G8 summit in Italy, ABC Online said on December 1.

The blueprint proposes a long-term target of worldwide emissions cuts of 50% (below 1990 levels) by 2050. Under the plan, developed nations would need to cut carbon pollution by 80% by mid-century.

The poor countries have repeatedly demanded short-term cuts of no less than 40% by 2020 to avoid runaway climate change. However, the Danish draft included no short-term goals. Long-term targets for far away in the future suit the rich countries very well. No politician fears making big promises for action in four decades time.

"Governments going to Copenhagen [that] claim to have such goals for 2050 … are lying through their teeth", said Hansen.

He pointed out, contrary to the promises sure to be made at Copenhagen, the biggest polluting nations are not taking steps to phase out fossil fuels.

"Instead, the United States signed an agreement with Canada for a pipeline to carry oil squeezed from tar sands. Australia is building port facilities for large increases in coal exports.

"Coal-to-oil factories are being built. Coal-fired power plants are being constructed worldwide.

"Governments are stating emission goals that they know are lies — or, if we want to be generous, they do not understand the geophysics and are kidding themselves."

More than anything else, the Copenhagen conference will reflect the huge political and economic power wielded by the corporate elite. Big capital is far less interested in driving structural changes towards a zero-emissions economy than it is in profiting from the climate crisis.

Acceptable emissions cuts targets will not be made at Copenhagen, but an array of highly profitable emissions trading schemes and carbon offset projects will get a boost.

European carbon trading firms told the November 29 Guardian they predict the emissions trading industry could turn over US$3 trillion a year within a decade. That's double the size of the world oil industry.

The Copenhagen conference was never going to be the solution to dangerous climate change. A successful public relations tactic of the powerful "business-as-usual" lobby has been to raise the false hope that a talk-shop of governments and multinational corporations could bring about the big political and social changes needed to deal with climate change.

The next trick they will try to pull is to convince us the conference after Copenhagen will be the important one. And again, they will be lying through their teeth.

But while the Copenhagen summit will be a debacle, this failure is not a cause for despair. What's important is whether the climate justice movement emerges stronger and more determined than before.

"The most important meeting in Copenhagen", said Jess Worth in the December New Internationalist, "will take place outside the conference centre".

"It will take place at the civil society summit, where the world's climate justice movements will come together as never before … It will take place in front of the lines of riot cops as indigenous people, peasants, the young and the old take action together and build relationships of solidarity that will bear fruit long after the tear gas has floated away.

"It will also take place in cities across the world as hundreds of thousands mobilise in hope, only to be let down by their leaders — and radicalised in the process."

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