Posted by: Matthew Hoffmann | February 10, 2010

A tale of two Copenhagens

This is the outline of a talk that I recently gave at the Canadian International Law Students annual conference.  It’s not fully fleshed out, but provides one way to make sense of the ongoing evolution of the global response to climate change.

There were two realities at Copenhagen, and both matter for the global response to climate change.  One Copenhagen was the Bella Centre that we’ve all become familiar with–the mega multilateral negotiations that dominated the world’s (and media’s) attention for two weeks in December and produced the Copenhagen Accord. This Copenhagen was largely a failure given the weak substance that emerged only after a small number of heads of state intervened in an unusual way. There are already major critiques emerging (claims that even if the Copenhagen Accord (self) commitments are lived up to, we reach a 3.9 degree temperature rise) and it is not clear how well the Copenhagen Accord fits with the other negotiating tracks aimed at achieving a binding legal treaty.

But there was a second Copenhagen.  It was more diffuse, taking place at various venues throughout the city.  Two quick examples. Various climate leadership summits sponsored by The Climate Group and the C40 group of large cities touted the progress being made by sub-national actors.  Discussions at the Crown Plaza down the road from the Bella Centre, organized by the International Emissions Trading Association, outlined the growing momentum developing in carbon markets.  Less attention was paid to this Copenhagen and an entirely different kind of global response was being discussed–a more bottom up , decentralized, transnational response.

Let me offer two brief and hopefully provocative, rather than nuanced, assertions about the two Copenhagens.

1. The Second Copenhagen is ultimately more important than the first.

– The center of gravity in the global response to climate change has shifted away from the multilateral process.  The recent upsurge in attempts to discredit the IPCC is just the latest indication of just how hard it will be to negotiate a climate treaty in the current mega-multilateral format.

– The implication is that we had better figure out how politics and law works in the other Copenhagen if we want to foster an effective response to climate change.

2. Our expectations for the Bella Centre Copenhagen and mega-multilateralism are all wrong.

– Failure to achieve a legally binding treaty was almost a foregone conclusion before the delegates even arrived and I am not sanguine about the prospects of achieving one in Mexico next December.

– We can easily find states to blame (China, US, Canada, others), but it is more useful to ask if it is the structure of these negotiations that is the problem.  We should stop expecting global treaties to be the key catalyst driving climate policy around the world. After 20 years of negotiations we have barely moved beyond the tenets of the 1992 UN Framework Convention on Climate Change.  It is time to recognize that there is a mismatch between this type of treaty-making and the problem of climate change.  It will be near impossible to catalyze the kind of societal-economic-energy system transformation deemed necessary through global treaty-making as we have done it in the last 2 decades.

– The implication is that we need to conceive of a new role for treaty-making around climate change.  All the dynamics in the other Copenhagen need to scale up quickly and there will be a need to coordinate activities and deal with specific issues (for instance linkages amongst carbon markets or efficiency standards across borders)–(Thanks to Michele Betsill for discussions on this point).  Smaller scale, targeted treaty-making can be a useful way to facilitate and further actions being taken in the other Copenhagen.

My hope (and I am fully willing to admit to possible naivete) is that if we stop focusing entirely on achieving a global, legally binding treaty, that climate change can become embedded in multiple political and legal processes in a serious way.



  1. Hi Mr Hoffman,

    I think you’re right, esp about hopes for any multinational deal. Cartoons were done before and after Copenhagen that may entertain (or perhaps merely bemuse?) you

    Best wishes

    Marc Hudson

  2. Dear Matthew: I agree with every line! I was there with 15 students and my sister (a former UN climate change person about to publish a book on the IL of the Amazon forest/ Cambridge Press forthcoming this Dec). We were both (tried to!) at the Bella, C. Plaza and everywhere in the city. We felt the same as you outlined here. Could you please point me out to another blog or source you like, similar to yours? Keep the excellent work, and please keep me in the loop of you what you do, Denise

  3. Thanks for your nice note Denise. Some colleagues and I just published a piece in Millennium with the same title “A Tale of Two Copenhagens” that discusses this phenomenon in a bit more detail–it’s also the core of a book that I’ve just finished, due out in February from Oxford *Climate Governance at the Crossroads: Experimenting with Climate Change Since Kyoto.”

    I hope all is well with you.

    Cheers, Matt

    > New comment on your post “A tale of two Copenhagens” > Author : Denise Garcia (IP: , > > E-mail : > URL : > Whois :

  4. Dear Matt
    I have ordered your book and will probably adopt it for my Cli Chan Honors seminar! I would love to go to the COlorado Conf with M. Betsill. Would u think there is still time to register? I could serve as chair or discussant for anything you guys need. (My book: Disarmament Diplomacy and Human Security – Regimes and Moral Progress in IR, coming out in Feb!).
    all the best, Denise

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