Blog post

Last Year in Copenhagen

Publishing date
11 January 2010

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).

About the authors

  • Jean Pisani-Ferry

    Jean Pisani-Ferry is a Senior Fellow at Bruegel, the European think tank, and a Non-Resident Senior Fellow at the Peterson Institute (Washington DC). He is also a professor of economics with Sciences Po (Paris).

    He sits on the supervisory board of the French Caisse des Dépôts and serves as non-executive chair of I4CE, the French institute for climate economics.

    Pisani-Ferry served from 2013 to 2016 as Commissioner-General of France Stratégie, the ideas lab of the French government. In 2017, he contributed to Emmanuel Macron’s presidential bid as the Director of programme and ideas of his campaign. He was from 2005 to 2013 the Founding Director of Bruegel, the Brussels-based economic think tank that he had contributed to create. Beforehand, he was Executive President of the French PM’s Council of Economic Analysis (2001-2002), Senior Economic Adviser to the French Minister of Finance (1997-2000), and Director of CEPII, the French institute for international economics (1992-1997).

    Pisani-Ferry has taught at University Paris-Dauphine, École Polytechnique, École Centrale and the Free University of Brussels. His publications include numerous books and articles on economic policy and European policy issues. He has also been an active contributor to public debates with regular columns in Le Monde and for Project Syndicate.

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