Almost a month out from the Copenhagen climate negotiations and I have been trying to reflect on what I consider to be a disaster for the multilateral climate treaty-making process. There are plenty of discussions about just how bad the Copenhagen Accord is and who’s to blame. I want to look for silver linings, partially because I’m surprised at how surprised everyone seems to be about how bad Copenhagen turned out. To be sure, expectations did rise in the couple of weeks before the meetings began, but I thought it was pretty clear that very little was going to happen at Copenhagen, and certainly not an effective, legally binding treaty.
So is there anything good to take away from Copenhagen? A couple of things to consider.
1. Copenhagen may be the beginning of the end (or maybe even the middle of the end) for the mega-multilateral process in climate change. Huge negotiations with all countries involved and the whole world watching designed to create an overarching global framework of action have not moved us very far towards addressing climate change. The Copenhagen Accord is not much of an advance beyond what the international community agreed to do in the 1992 United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. How is this a silver lining? Perhaps now concern for climate change can be embedded in multiple political processes at multiple levels instead of relying on the mega-multilateral process to drive humanity’s response to this problem.
2. Copenhagen demonstrated that activity beyond the multilateral negotiations is already flourishing. A groundswell of experimental climate activities has been building for the last decade amongst cities, states and provinces, NGOs, corporations, and even individuals. At the side events that accompany the formal negotiations and in the streets of Copenhagen, there were multiple stories of progress on combating climate change. To be sure, an extraordinary scaling up of experimental activities is necessary, but the foundations for a global response to climate change are being laid even while the multilateral process flounders.
3. Copenhagen demonstrated that big money players are now paying attention and investing in climate change. At the Crowne Plaza down the road from the Bella Center where the formal negotiations took place, numerous side events on the development of carbon markets presented the case that action on climate change and the pricing of carbon is going ahead with or without a global treaty framework. Some will meet this development with trepidation–many of the protests that filled the streets of Copenhagen denounced this version of green capitalism–but we have moved some distance away from an era when large corporations stood uniformly against significant action on climate change. There are now big players with big financial interests in addressing climate change.
Whether this activity adds up to anything and whether we can move forward with a limping multilateral process toward an effective global response is the key near term question.