Blog Post

Last Year in Copenhagen

Director Jean Pisani-Ferry takes a look at the results of the Copenhagen climate change summit and its implication for global governance. He points out the economic challenges in the way of a future climate accord, examines the diverging reactions of the different state actors to the climate summit and discusses the failures of the United […]

By: Date: January 11, 2010 Topic: Green economy

Director Jean Pisani-Ferry takes a look at the results of the Copenhagen climate change summit and its implication for global governance. He points out the economic challenges in the way of a future climate accord, examines the diverging reactions of the different state actors to the climate summit and discusses the failures of the United Nations in the process.

The noughties opened inauspiciously with a setback for global governance with the election of George W. Bush, who believed in US leadership and was sceptical of multilateralism. They closed in Copenhagen with a UN-generated multilateralist fiasco. The largest-ever assembly of heads of state in history ended in confusion with an ambiguous three-page text which was not even formally adopted.
Reactions in Europe have been very negative. The Swedish presidency of the EU spoke of a disaster and French philosopher Michel Serres of a ‘geopolitical Munich’. Beyond Europe, however, reactions were markedly less harsh. The Indian environment minister referred to small steps, Barack Obama of a breakthrough and Chinese premier Wen Jiabao of an accord to be treasured. This difference in perspective calls for explanation and discussion.
The disappointment in Europe is understandable. It was Europe’s theme, the conference was taking place on European land and the EU had announced both ambitious goals for cutting emissions and sizeable financial aid for poor countries. Furthermore, European governments shared similarly activist views on the topic (even though some in Central and Eastern Europe are less enthusiastic), if only in response to visible public opinion concerns. And yet the Europeans were excluded from the final deal between the US and the BASIC group consisting of Brazil, South Africa, India and China and they only rallied to the agreement one by one. In short, the EU was marginalised. This was in part because it was committed to action already, but also because it forgot that, in order to negotiate, one needs a negotiator, not twenty-eight (and nor even four or five). This was a depressing result for a European Union which wanted to reinvent itself as a global actor and had dreams of being the global leader of the climate crusade.
Chinese satisfaction is equally comprehensible. China did not want to get dragged into the mechanics of the Kyoto protocol, as this framework was initially designed to be constraining for advanced countries only, and it did not want to underwrite binding commitments likely to constrain its growth. At the same time, it sought to assert itself as a central player in the debate. It achieved its objectives.
The US position was more complex. Even the biggest supporters of an international climate accord had from the outset rejected the 1997 framework because it only committed industrial countries and ignored the main emerging economies. In 1990, the Kyoto reference date, the combined emissions of the US and the EU were four times higher than those of China. As of 2020 they will be lower. As Robert Stavins of Harvard wrote beforehand, an ambitious, a legally binding Copenhagen agreement could only be a ‘Kyoto on steroids’ and it was therefore bound to be constraining for developed countries only. For the US advocates of a long-lasting international climate framework this would have been a false victory. Furthermore an agreement of this sort would have had no chance of ratification by Congress. The US objective was instead to rally all the key countries around an agreement of principle and to put in place monitoring mechanisms, even if the emerging countries made no serious commitments for the next few years. In a nutshell, China and India had to be offered a free ticket for the first part of the trip in order to get them aboard.
This in crude terms is the result of Copenhagen, and this is what explains US satisfaction despite the discrepancy between the stated objective (limit warming to two degrees) and the means (nothing concrete at this stage), and despite the woolly compromise language about ‘international consultations and analyses’ on the steps actually being taken by developing countries.
Which just leaves the most important thing: is this accord capable of forming the basis for a global climate policy? Even if one adopts the optimistic view, one cannot but stress the remaining economic and institutional obstacles.
In economic terms, an enormous amount remains to be done and time is running out. First, the goal of a single global price for carbon is still distant despite the fact that it is essential to achieve it to prevent distortions in the allocation of private investment. Second, a vague principle will not be enough to sort out the burden-sharing issue. At some point the distributional dimension will have to be tackled seriously rather than being papered over. A quid pro quo must be found between developed countries, responsible for past emissions, and emerging countries, the main source of future emissions. Third, the disturbing fact that countries are accountable for the emissions they produce, but not for those they consume, has not been addressed. The reduction or the slowdown in the advanced countries’ emission is in part attributable to the fact that the goods they consume are increasingly manufactured abroad, not least in China. Fourth, ‘promise and forget’ is not a viable regime and commitments will have to become binding, which raises the question of penalties. This is not an insignificant agenda.
Institutionally, the United Nations framework revealed all its defects in Copenhagen. Quite apart from the unanimity rule which led to procedural battles and hostage-taking by smaller countries, the debate was haunted throughout by the spectre of the 1970s. Unlike what happens at the WTO, which also works by unanimity, alliances did not change according to the particular issue but remained stuck in an obsolete reminder of the North-South debates of the past. This is not the way to reach agreement on how to address what is probably the main challenge of the 21st century. This experience suggests that for practical purposes, the UN will probably need to be dispensed with in the future.
Copenhagen is definitely worth more than the Pyrrhic victory some observers and players hoped for. It may have been a useful failure. But much perseverance will be needed to make sure it is a new departure and, inevitably, precious time will have been lost in the meantime.

The author is a professor of economics at Université Paris-Dauphine and the Director of the Brussels-based Bruegel think tank.

This Op-ed was published in French daily Le Monde and Chinese business magazine Century Weekly (both 11 Jan 2010).


Republishing and referencing

Bruegel considers itself a public good and takes no institutional standpoint. Anyone is free to republish and/or quote this post without prior consent. Please provide a full reference, clearly stating Bruegel and the relevant author as the source, and include a prominent hyperlink to the original post.

Read article More on this topic
 

External Publication

How green are electric vehicles?

A policy paper dissecting existing life cycle assessments of electric vehicles and identifying potential future trends in the different stages of the vehicle life cycle, especially for batteries.

By: Simone Tagliapietra and Victor Vorsatz Topic: Green economy Date: October 26, 2021
Read about event More on this topic
 

Upcoming Event

Oct
27
12:00

Can COP26 save the planet?

In this episode of the Sound of Economics Live Italy's Minister for Ecological Transition, Roberto Cingolani outlines his priorities for the upcoming COP Summit.

Speakers: Roberto Cingolani and Guntram B. Wolff Topic: Green economy Location: Bruegel, Rue de la Charité 33, 1210 Brussels
Read about event More on this topic
 

Upcoming Event

Oct
28
14:00

Can climate change be tackled without ditching economic growth?

What will be necessary to achieve climate goals and keep growing?

Speakers: Francesco Starace, Simone Tagliapietra and Guntram B. Wolff Topic: Green economy Location: Bruegel, Rue de la Charité 33, 1210 Brussels
Read article More by this author
 

Opinion

European governance

Can EU fiscal rules jump on the green bandwagon?

By and large, setting a new green golden rule would be a useful addition to the existing EU fiscal framework.

By: Guntram B. Wolff Topic: European governance, Green economy, Macroeconomic policy Date: October 22, 2021
Read article
 

Opinion

COP26: why carbon pricing is crucial to China’s climate change pledges

China’s emissions trading scheme is a welcome but to reach its full potential, it needs to cover more of China’s emissions, go beyond the electricity sector and let prices reflect the true cost of carbon.

By: Alicia García-Herrero and Junyu Tan Topic: Global economy and trade, Green economy Date: October 22, 2021
Read about event More on this topic
 

Past Event

Past Event

The contribution of hydrogen to European decarbonisation

What role will hydrogen play in Europe's decarbonisation?

Speakers: Alison Conboy, Matthias Deutsch, Ruud Kempener, Ben McWilliams and Andrea Pisano Topic: Green economy Location: Bruegel, Rue de la Charité 33, 1210 Brussels Date: October 21, 2021
Read about event
 

Past Event

Past Event

Monetary policy in the time of climate change

How does climate change influence monetary policy in the eurozone? What potential monetary policy measures should be taken up to address climate risks?

Speakers: Cornelia Holthausen, Jean Pisani-Ferry and Guntram B. Wolff Topic: Green economy, Macroeconomic policy Date: October 20, 2021
Read article
 

Opinion

Xi’s pledge on financing coal plants overseas misses point

China’s domestic installation of coal-fired power plants continues at great pace.

By: Alicia García-Herrero and Simone Tagliapietra Topic: Global economy and trade, Green economy Date: October 7, 2021
Read article More on this topic
 

Opinion

The only quick-fix to Europe’s energy price crisis is saving energy

The only thing Europe can quickly do to prevent a potentially difficult winter is to actively promote energy conservation in both the residential and industrial sectors.

By: Simone Tagliapietra and Georg Zachmann Topic: Green economy Date: October 7, 2021
Read article
 

Opinion

Will China use climate change as a bargaining chip?

Beijing shows signs of changing tactics ahead of the COP26 conference.

By: Alicia García-Herrero and Simone Tagliapietra Topic: Global economy and trade, Green economy Date: October 6, 2021
Read article More on this topic
 

Opinion

Letter: The lesson Europe should learn from the gas crisis

Europe’s gas supply security could more effectively be safeguarded by ensuring that unused alternatives are maintained.

By: Simone Tagliapietra and Georg Zachmann Topic: Green economy Date: October 5, 2021
Read article More on this topic
 

Opinion

Can climate change be tackled without ditching economic growth?

The ultimate answer to the question on whether climate change can be tackled without ditching economic growth depends on our willingness to step up climate action massively.

By: Klaas Lenaerts, Simone Tagliapietra and Guntram B. Wolff Topic: Green economy Date: September 27, 2021
Load more posts