My Copenhagen diary: How polluters won and we all lost

  • 30/12/2009

Monday, December 14, 2009: Standing in line in the freezing cold, waiting to be registered to the conference of parties to the climate change convention being held in Copenhagen, I have strange sense of foreboding that this will be an eventful but disappointing week. Already, in the first week two things have happened, pointing to the way that things are going in the unequal climate constrained world. First, the UK daily Guardian leaked that the Danish government had a ‘paper’ ready to spring on the countries, from outside the process. This paper contained the elements of the deal, a new coalition of the willing, being pushed by the US. It proposes weak targets for the rich countries, changes the global framework to voluntary action based on domestic schedules, not internationally agreed targets and rejects all principles of equity. As news broke of this ‘Danish proposal’ the hosts played dumb. The proposal went underground.

So a very different game was afoot it seemed. A group of countries – lead by US, Australia and assisted by the host government of Denmark, had every intention to subvert the ongoing process and to replace the current agreement with a framework of their own. I have already written about this plan. The proposal we know has powerful backers. The White House press note a few weeks ago (before the Conference began), which announced that President Barack Obama would be making his way to Copenhagen, had mentioned that there was “consensus on the Danish proposal”. So who was lying?

Second, on the weekend, as people gathered to voice their concern about the impending climate crisis, there was a police crackdown. Young activists were arrested, held in inhuman conditions for hours and jailed. There was a level of state violence and paranoia that I have never seen before in any climate change conference. Why this level of tension I asked? Was it because more things were planned for the week that activists gathered in Copenhagen would not welcome or like? I had seen the huge activism in Rio, at the time when the world met to finalise the climate convention and subsequently in many climate change conferences. In a similar conference in The Hague almost a decade ago, a young girl had thrown a pie in the face of the then top US negotiator, Frank Loy. It was not seen as a crime or terrorism.  Our voices of protest were celebrated and even embraced. People outside the negotiation doors were known to be speaking for the ordinary, for the concerned, and for the victims. They were the conscience that drove government’s to act. Why was it different this time?

As we stood in line, news reached us that the African group, fed up with the intransigence of the Annex I countries to discuss reduction targets under the Kyoto Protocol, had walked out. The meeting was suspended. They wanted a deal that was effective and contained the drastic emission reductions that science and politics said were necessary and urgent. The shock treatment actions provoked some response, or at least, so everyone thought. The meeting was reconvened and it was agreed that negotiations would continue on both tracks – Kyoto Protocol (KP), to set targets for industrialized countries and the Long Term Cooperative Action (LCA), to agree on the conditions for enhanced implementation and action to cut emissions and keep the world on a temperature control track.

Tuesday, December 15, late night: Third day of the last week and things are confused seemingly slow in the Bella Centre, where the climate conference is being held. Governments are huddled into closed rooms negotiating the text where the brackets (disagreements) cannot be removed. It feels like the calm before the storm, when the powerful leaders of the world are expected to arrive.

The question is what will leaders sign when they arrive in Copenhagen. As yet, no draft text is even close to being ready for their endorsement. The differences between the rich and the poor remain as before. Indeed positions have only hardened. So, what will happen in the next two days and nights?

Tonight at around 11 pm, we are sitting in the closing plenary for the Kyoto Protocol. The plenary has just been presented a draft text for the second phase of the Protocol. The paper after two years and countless hours of negotiations has no targets, no numbers for emission reduction: just a table without numbers. What a joke. A joke on the planet.

Wednesday, December 16, early morning: We were told the night before the police was expecting trouble. So we arrive early at Bella Centre where the meeting is being held. The entire place is an area under siege. Policemen are everywhere, putting up barricades, rudely pushing people into endless lines, all out in the freezing cold. By then news went is out that protesters have gathered at two different railway stations to demonstrate and to jam the trains to the conference centre. Police has already made preventive arrests. At Bella Centre we hear that that two major civil society groups, Friends of the Earth and Avaaz had been de-badged – barred from entry into the conference. Why? Because they had protested inside the conference centre, supporting the African demand for Kyoto targets. Prominent Nigerian environmental activist and head of the Friends of the Earth, Nnimmo Bassey is arrested. Soon I could see policemen roaming the roof of the conference centre. Bizarre. The conference to save the world is fast turning into a conference against the right to protest.

The negotiations are underway in rooms but there is news that something is abuzz. At around 2 pm, the Danish presidency does a flop act. Suddenly in the plenary, the environment minister, Connie Hedegaard announces that the presidency had drafts for two agreements for the leaders to sign, which they would give ‘shortly’ to everyone to see. In the plenary, the shock, I could see, is visible. The same Danish government had earlier said that there had no such plans, to subvert the ongoing process, with a draft declaration prepared by a few. But even as China, India and others respond saying this is unacceptable, the world media moves in. The developing countries are seen as ‘blocking’ the deal. They are the bad guys. They do not want an agreement

The Danes, faced with opposition of most countries, once again withdraw. They now say they do not have a draft agreement ready. The negotiations are continuing in rooms. It is agreed that negotiators will continue to push for agreement on the two tracks so that brackets (disagreements) can be removed. But to the experienced eye it is clear that nothing is really moving and the clock is ticking to the hours when leaders arrived. What is really happening?

Thursday, December 17, 2009: Many leaders have arrived. In the plenary, speeches have began. Interestingly, everybody agrees much has to be done and that the world is running out of time. The two leaders who make most interesting listening are US-baiters, Hugo Chavez of Venezuela and Evo Morales of Bolivia. They speak plainly about the climate injustice and why the world is refusing to take action.

Hilary Clinton speaks for the leader. She says the usual US non-things, but also makes a big offer. Some US$ 100 billion would be on the table by sometime like 2020, if countries behaved. Of course, she has not said anything how the money will be put together and who will pay? Just a figure: a promise of candy for the begging petulant children. What is interesting is the Indian connection to this offer. Just yesterday, The New York Times has published an article, quoting our own environment minister, Jairam Ramesh saying that the outcome at Copenhagen would change if the US offered some US$ 100 billion. Was this telepathy or a stink of an underhand Indian-US deal?

But still the question: what is that governments will agree to sign when the big man Obama arrives tomorrow morning.  After all, he cannot come to a failing conference. He has a public reputation to keep. Already the conference centre is a virtual siege. The numbers of civil society groups have been ‘restricted’ tightly to a few hundreds. The strategy is to keep out the noise and dissent: to control the end-game. But what is being planned?

Late Thursday night and early Friday morning: Sitting in the corridors, that night, the old timers speak of how the game is going. It is whispered that that there is indeed a draft agreement, but one that has been prepared by the British government, which will be given to world leaders at the dinner hosted by the Danish Queen. Bizarre. The dinner has ended, no paper, confirm negotiators.
Then suddenly there was another buzz: upstairs in the same conference room, in a room, all leaders have been called to talk. French president Nicolas Sarkozy and UK PM Gordon Brown are in lead, making it clear that the Danish government had been shoved aside. The big guys have taken over.

It was now after midnight. All big leaders, except Obama who has not yet arrived, our PM who came late and the Chinese premier who came and but left because of protocol are inside the room. At 3 am, as negotiators leave the room, we are told that no paper was given, but views were elicited and a draft of the agreement would be shown soon, very soon.

From then to sometime in the afternoon of that mind-blowing Friday, drafts are prepared and seemingly trashed. Nobody is clear what has been agreed upon. What is the paper that will be signed in a few hours? Inside the room, all leaders give their end speeches, sticking to lines. There is still no sign of Barack Obama, who has arrived in the city but is rumoured to be in backroom negotiations with select few.

At around 10 am, the Chinese premier, Wen Jiabao takes the floor, saying that his country takes climate change seriously and is doing much already to cut emissions. Our Prime Minister Manmohan Singh affirms the principle of equity and burden sharing in the climate agreement. Finally, around 11.30 that morning, US President, the top-billed politician in this parody enters to speak. He comes across as arrogant and Bush-like. He says that his country is already doing a lot and cannot do more. Repeats his country’s meaningless emission reduction target of 3 per cent below 1990 levels (when the world needs it to cut at least 40 per cent over that level). He wants action from the rest of the world. No understanding of carbon inequity or historical climate injustice. Disappointing speech. My hero has feet of clay, I think, as I watch him perform on stage.

Friday, December 18 around 3 pm: It is time for leaders to fly back and only a few hours before the conference is to close, but still no agreement to sign.
Then suddenly, a new twist comes. An announcement: the leaders of the BASIC countries – the big polluters of the developing world, Lula of Brazil, Zuma of South Africa, Singh of India and Jiabao of China, have agreed to a private pact with US president Barack Obama. The meeting is said to have a few others, all clearly under pressure came to an agreement – the infamous Copenhagen Accord, which repeated the same non-principles of the Danish paper but added an inducement of some US$ 30 billion in start up money and some US$100 billion by 2020 for finance for adaptation and mitigation.

News flash: Copenhagen Accord has been signed. The meeting is a success. Celebrations break out. Almost.

Friday, around 10 pm: Obama’s press conference is streamed on He says that key disagreement between US and China was over monitoring and verification of emission pledges. Nobody asks him why the agreement has such weak targets for rich countries. Nobody questions him when he says that the big development in Copenhagen was that “shift in orientation” of key developing countries, which had not even agreed on voluntary emission cuts had now made offers to reduce. Nobody asks about the inequity of burden sharing. Speaks eloquently on lofty promises to keep. Empty words fed to a pliant western media. The spin-master has worked his charm. His country is not to blame for the mess at Copenhagen. He is the climate hero. Forget that the emperor has no clothes.

Saturday Friday 19, 2009: It is now Saturday early morning. The conference should have ended. Negotiators should have taken their flights out of Copenhagen. It’s the holiday season. Airports are jammed with travellers and cancellations and re-bookings are a nightmare ahead. But the meeting has not ended. They cannot leave. Late last night, when the conference of parties was convened to endorse the Copenhagen Accord, things went wrong again. The arm-twisted accord came unstuck. First to reject it was Tuvalu – a tiny nation in the Pacific, which is threatened to go under water without tough emission reduction commitments to keep temperatures under 1.5°C. Then Bolivia and Venezuela threatened to walk out. They all said the agreement was unacceptable. It had to be rejected because it was not tough enough on the ambition to cut emissions.

More voices. Against. UK and US speak loudly for the accord. They openly ‘induce’ the money it promised. “Countries that don’t sign wont let the funds get operationalised.” But no consensus is evident. “Our principles are not for sale. Keep your cheque book in your pocket, give us numbers of emission targets, not money”, roars the Venezuelan delegate.

No accord is possible it seems as in the UN system, consensus is necessary. Desperation is evident in the faces of the proponents. The conference president, Danish PM Lars Lokke Rasmussen has sweat on his forehead. At one moment, as he declares that the accord is dead, UK’s Ed Miliband rushes desperately to call for an adjournment. Clearly, there is more pushing and cajoling to be done backstage.

The few minutes stretch to a long wait. The meeting is reconvened only by mid-morning of the Saturday, the noon after the meeting was to have officially ended. The UN secretary general is called in for help to make a ‘pitch’ for the deal. But to no avail, as countries refuse to allow the accord to be passed with consensus. It is finally agreed that the Copenhagen Accord would be ‘noted’ and that countries, which want to associate with it would write to the secretariat and get listed as friends, supporters and I guess, recipients of the money it seemingly promises.

Interestingly, the four big so-called proponents of the accord, China, India, Brazil and South Africa, have remained silent through the proceedings. But when it was suggested that the accord could be taken as a ‘proposal’ from key proposing countries, India (and China) did hold up their card to object. Presumably they did not want to be seen as actively pushing the accord. The compromise solution, devised by the British, was to get countries to send in their names. But interestingly it was implied that this would allow the fund to be operationalised and ‘supporting’ countries privy to the largess. Divide and rule using cheap money is the name of the climate change game it would seem. 

As the 15th Conference of Parties to the Climate Convention ended, I realized more than ever that the post-Copenhagen world is openly and bitterly divided – not just between the countries of the rich verses the poor, but also between the NGOs of the rich and the poor. The groups, who have openly supported the accord, have been from inside the Washington beltway. In the days to come, I know the voices will grow to blame China and then the rest for the weakness in the deal. This when the accord has decided to dump every notion of historical or even current responsibility of emissions and shifted the burden of cutting emissions to the developing, from the developed. But this is to be expected. After all, when have the rich and famous taken the rap for their actions? And why blame them, if our governments bend backwards and give in to climate injustice?  

But I believe the story is not over. Let us be clear. Copenhagen is the point at which the world has shown in true colours – polluters will not reduce and will not pay. We are all poorer after this learning. The question now is what can and must we do? The next round is coming, soon.


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