Why the Copenhagen Summit Failed
David E. Nye
Why did the United Nations Copenhagen Climate Summit (COP-15) fail to reach binding agreements in 2009? Seen from the outside, Denmark would appear an ideal venue for such a meeting. It is a highly developed country whose economy has kept growing even though it is a cradle to grave welfare state with high taxes on gasoline and new cars. It has stringent insulation standards for new buildings. Yet even in the economic downturn, its unemployment remained under 5% in 2010. It is largely energy self-sufficient, with its North Sea oil and gas. It has no atomic power plants (though it occasionally buys power from such plants in Sweden), and it is a world leader in wind power. Its citizens all own and regularly ride bicycles. Denmark seemed to demonstrate that energy restraint and prosperity can go hand in hand.
Seen from the inside, Denmark was less an ideal venue than typical of the rest of the world. In most nations the global warming debate finds most scientists agreed that the problem is real and urgent, while businessmen and politicians are reluctant to recognize the problem or its possible consequences. These generalizations also apply to Denmark. When it took power in 2001, the new government (with a prime minister from the Venstre Party, which shared power with the Conservatives) was just as skeptical about global warming as George Bush. They wanted to prove they were different from the Left Coalition they had defeated, and chose to show this in the area of the environment. The new coalition embraced Bjorn Lomborg, a home-grown skeptic about global warming. Not a scientist but a statistician, Lomborg had been an obscure Associate Professor until his 2002 book, _The Skeptical Environmentalist_ (Cambridge University Press) was a worldwide bestseller, praised by the business press, notably The Economist. The Danish Government, initially keen to undercut the emerging global warming consensus, created and funded a little think tank just for Lomborg, called the Copenhagen Consensus Center. It was not placed within a university, but directly funded by the government. This organization gave Lomborg a generous budget and a platform from which to attack environmentalists. At the same time, the new government shut down the nation's humanities research center (created by the previous government), which promoted peer-reviewed academic research and had no political agenda.
Being officially skeptical had its drawbacks, however. Denmark has several large windmill manufacturers, including the world's largest, Vestas. Alternative energies are also popular among Danish voters. Furthermore, by 2004 the evidence for global warming was becoming so strong that inaction based on skepticism was becoming an untenable program. Greenland belongs to the Danish crown, and international teams of scientists continued to observe there unmistakable signs of global warming, notably the accelerated melting of glaciers. They also could document changes in air quality, using the snow deposits for several thousand years to measure pollution since before the industrial revolution. The warming of Greenland also mattered to Greenlanders themselves, who send two representatives to the Danish Parliament (Folketing). The coalition government had only a narrow majority, and Greenland's representatives can become crucial in certain voting situations. In 2004, the Venstre-Conservatives coalition decided it wanted to look much greener. The same shift took place in Great Britain, where David Cameron embraced environmental issues in order to give the Conservatives a new look.
In Denmark, this policy shift had a human face, and her name was Connie Hedegaard. Once one of the youngest people ever elected to the Danish Parliament, she had left to become a journalist for some years, before returning to become the Danish Minister for the Environment in August, 2004. The public knew her as an on-camera television journalist for the national network. Hedegaard spent the next several years working up enthusiasm for holding the Climate Conference in Copenhagen, and in the process she traveled literally the world. She remade the image of the Conservative Party in Denmark, and spearheaded an ambitious Danish program to increase alternative energy, reduce total energy use, double the funding for energy R & D, and raise taxes on CO2 emitters. She has now become the European Commissioner for Climate. It appears in retrospect, however, that while Hedegaard excelled at photo opportunities and at charming important foreign politicians, she was not particularly adept at laying the groundwork for an actual climate agreement.
Furthermore, the governing coalition was not entirely supportive of these green objectives. Anders Fogh Rasmussen, the canny Prime Minister from 2001 until he left to become general secretary of NATO in the summer of 2009, often dragged his feet when Hedegaard wanted environmental reforms. Indeed, despite her appointment, the coalition government's two main parties still appealed to different constituencies, with Venstre remaining skeptical on the environment, while the Conservatives seemed ever greener.
These internal tensions mirrored the problems with the Copenhagen Summit. In its first days, Connie Hedegaard chaired the general sessions. She knew a large number of the delegates and had spent years thinking about the intricacies of the issues. She knew where the different national delegations stood. At the same time, no one doubted her desire to reduce greenhouse gases. She had identified herself completely with resolving global warming. However, part way through COP-15, as foreign heads of state began to arrive, Hedegaard ceded the chair to the Danish Prime Minister, Lars Løkke Rasmussen The official reason given was that he was the appropriate chair for a meeting of so many presidents and prime ministers. At the level of protocol, this seemed logical. But switching to this new chairman halfway through the conference was a mistake. Few of the delegates knew the Danish Prime Minister. He had only been in office a few months and lacked international experience. He did not speak English particularly well. Worse still, Lars Løkke Rasmussen is not an elegant or diplomatic man. His own supporters compare him to a bulldozer. However, he could not even begin to steamroll China, Russia, or Saudi Arabia. When the Prime Minister tried to hold back the drafts of the proposed final agreement, the delegates became angry. He wanted to pull a final compromise out of a hat and get the assembled nations to sign it. He also wanted to be the official host, inviting heads of state to dinner, while also serving as the leader of debate. The latter took so much time that he missed the most important dinner with the Queen and most of the most important leaders. Worse, the process of writing a compromise behind closed doors took not hours but precious days of COP-15's final week. The conference ground to a standstill for several days until, too late, Connie Hedegaard again took the reins.
A divided Danish government that supported both Bjorn Lomborg and Connie Hedegaard was not unlike the conference as a whole. The foreign delegations at COP-15 had not drafted a nearly complete agreement over the preceding two years. On arrival for the two-week meeting they were not even close to a final statement. A few small industrial nations, like Norway and the Netherlands were prepared to make comprehensive commitments. But most nations were less ready to make legally binding promises, and some really did not want controls on carbon emissions. The oil producers, Russia, Venezuela, Nigeria, and of course the Middle Eastern states, were already hurting from lower energy prices after the global downturn that began in 2008. They actually wanted compensation for any future "lost" oil sales. The newly developed economies of Brazil, India, and China resisted any agreement that asked them to slow down their recently achieved growth. In particular, China did not come to Copenhagen with any intention of cutting back. Their offer was to increase CO2 emissions by "only" 40%, and they were not willing to have in-country (international?) monitoring of even this increase. The Americans were willing to cut their emissions by close to 20%, but starting from a 2005 baseline this would only take them back to where they were in 1990. The Europeans and the Japanese offered substantial cutbacks from the 1990 level, but only if other nations made sacrifices as well. Otherwise they feared putting themselves at a competitive disadvantage. Add to this cocktail the incessant demands of African nations for huge subsidies to help them to develop without becoming major CO2 polluters. Several nations came forward with generous offers to help, notably the Japanese, but there was no agreement on how such donations ought to be calculated or distributed. Unhappily, the quite different agendas of the participants, on a much large scale, mirrored the divisions on global energy within Denmark itself. Thus the lack of skilled diplomatic leadership from the Prime Minister made a bad situation worse, but it was probably not crucial to the Copenhagen Summit's failure. The discord was probably irresolvable between the EU and Japan on one side and on the other side the oil producers, powerful new economies led by China, self-proclaimed "victim economies" in Africa and Asia. In the waning hours of the meeting, the United States attempted to navigate the middle ground between these intransigent parties, but to little avail.
The Summit was not a failure for everyone. China emerged with free hands to develop as fast as it can. It can invest in solar power and windmills and build atomic plants if it likes, but it is not required to seek energy efficiency. China also got to throw its weight around and show it could not be forced to allow inspectors in to see just exactly how much CO2 it is producing. Other beneficiaries are those who doubt the reality of global warming, notably a large contingent of the American Republican Party. Have the Republicans asked themselves why they side with the Chinese government on this issue? The socialist opposition to the current Danish government also is a potential winner in this fiasco, as the Danish Prime Minister hardly distinguished himself at the Summit. With the two political blocs in a virtual dead heat, his diplomatic ineptitude might tip the balance. Conceivably, the Left coalition might win the next election. The Copenhagen Summit did nothing to enhance the standing of current leaders, except possibly Connie Hedegaard, who, however, is off the Brussels to be an EU commissioner.
Curiously, President Obama emerged as a bit of a winner too, in the sense that for the first time he brought the US into an active discussion of global warning, and showed that he could speak to all sides in the search for a compromise. He will be hampered by the scientific ineptitude of the Republican Party, however, which remains genuinely challenged by such things as the theory of evolution, physics, modern biological research, and of course global warming itself. Given America's slow pace of environmental legislation and its historic position as the most polluting nation in world history, even with Obama as leader, the United States may have difficulty being a leader on climate issues.
These winners are strange bedfellows: Middle Eastern sheiks, Danish socialists, Hugo Chavez, the American Republican Party, coal mining corporations, Russian oil interests, the Nigerians, and the Chinese oligarchy. As for the losers, that would be everyone else, particularly low lying nations like the Maldives, most of Africa, and the Arctic and Antarctic regions. Possibly some nations will disappear beneath the waves and millions of people may die or be displaced because of this failed summit.
Perhaps the only good thing about the Copenhagen Summit was that almost no one seemed to question the science. There was a general agreement that global warming is real and that the problem is rapidly getting worse. Or was there? Bjorn Lomborg emerged from the summit with funding for his think-tank unscathed, and he remained the darling of coal mining companies, oil executives, and financiers. On December 23, 2009, he was happy to make fun of the failed summit in an article for the British Financial Times. Ironically echoing Al Gore, he declared, "The fact that the Rio-Kyoto-Copenhagen approach to global warming was clearly getting us nowhere was apparently one of those inconvenient truths that people prefer to ignore." Meanwhile, some nations are threatened with extinction and millions living in coastal zones from Bangladesh to Copenhagen to Louisiana may have to relocate. As the President of the Maldives, Mohammed Nasheed, declared in Copenhagen, "We are all Maldivians now."
Professor David E. Nye has written extensively on the history of technology, including seven books with MIT Press. These include, most recently _Technology Matters_ (2006) and _When the Lights Went Out_ (2010). The recipient of many prizes and awards, in 2005 he received from the Society for the History of Technology the Leonardo da Vinci Medal for his collective work.