Chaos and Uncertainty in Copenhagen?

Earlier today, I was asked by the Financial Times, “who is responsible for the chaos and uncertainty” at COP-15 in Copenhagen?  I’m not sure those are the words I would have chosen to characterize the situation at the climate negotiations in the Danish capital, but here is my response for the FT’s Energy-Source Climate Experts panel — with some elaboration.

There are two aspects to what has been characterized as the “chaotic and uncertain” nature of the COP-15 conference at the Bella Center in Copenhagen.  One is the substantive process and eventual outcome, which remains uncertain as of this hour, and the other is the shocking logistical failure.

An Uncertain Outcome for the Negotiations

It should not be surprising that the outcome remains in doubt, because of some basic economic realities.  First of all, keep in mind that climate change is the ultimate global commons problem, because greenhouse gases uniformly mix in the atmosphere.  Therefore, each country incurs the costs of its emission-reduction actions, but the benefits of its actions are spread worldwide.  Hence, for any individual nation, the benefits it receives from its actions are inevitably less than the costs it incurs, despite the fact that globally the total benefits of appropriate coordinated international action would exceed the total costs (and for many countries the national benefits of coordinated international action would exceed their national costs of action).

This creates a classic free-rider problem, and is the reason why international cooperation – whether through an agreement under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change or through some other multilateral or bilateral arrangements – is necessary.

Second, addressing global climate change will be costly and it raises profound distributional implications for the countries of the world.  In particular, addressing climate change at minimum cost (i.e., cost-effectively) requires that all countries take responsibility for their emissions going forward, and indeed necessitates that all countries control at the same marginal abatement cost.

On the other hand, addressing climate change in an equitable fashion clearly requires taking account of the dramatically different economic circumstances of the countries of the world, and may also involve looking backwards at historic responsibility for the anthropogenic greenhouse gases which have already accumulated in the atmosphere.   These are profound issues of distributional equity.

This classic trade-off between cost-effectiveness (or efficiency), on the one hand, and distributional equity, on the other hand, raises significant obstacles to reaching an agreement.

So, I place the fault for the substantive uncertainty in the negotiations neither on the industrialized countries (including the United States, for insisting that China and other key emerging economies participate in meaningful and transparent ways), nor on the developing countries (for insisting that the industrialized world pay much of the bill).

The key question going forward is whether negotiators in Copenhagen today and tonight, or in Bonn several months from now, or in Mexico City a year from now, can identify a policy architecture that is both reasonably cost-effective and sufficiently equitable, and thereby can assemble support from the key countries of the world, and thus do something truly meaningful about the long-term path of global greenhouse gas emissions.  There are promising paths forward, and – if you’ll forgive me – I will remind readers that many have been identified by the Harvard Project on International Climate Agreements.

Rather than pointing fingers at who is to blame for the current uncertainty at this hour, I can attribute credit to a number of countries and institutions for having brought the negotiations to the point where it appears at least possible that a successful outcome will be achieved in Copenhagen or subsequently.

First of all, tremendous credit must be given to the national leaders and the negotiating teams of the seventeen major economies of the world who together represent about 90% of global emissions, because these countries have worked hard to produce what each considers a sensible outcome over the months and years leading up to COP-15.

This includes not only the European Union, Australia, Japan, New Zealand, and Canada, but also the United States, which at least since January of this year has been an enthusiastic and intelligent participant in this international process.  It also includes many of the key emerging economies of the world – China , India, Brazil, Mexico, Korea, South Africa, and Indonesia, among them – as well as a considerable number of poor, developing countries, which likewise take the problem seriously and have been trying to find an acceptable path forward.

Finally, credit should be given to the Danish government and its leadership, the Secretariat of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, and UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, who have worked tirelessly for months, indeed years, to prepare for the substance of these negotiations at COP-15 in Copenhagen.

That’s the “good news,” but now I should turn to the other aspect of the “uncertainty and chaos” in Copenhagen.

Chaos at COP-15’s Bella Center

As I noted at the outset, there are two aspects of the “chaos” in Copenhagen, and for the second aspect it is (sadly) possible to identify the apparently responsible parties.  I am referring to the fact that the organizers – the Secretariat of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) and the hosts, the Danish government – apparently approved a list of some 40,000 observers from 900 official, accredited organizations around the world, knowing that the Bella Center could accommodate at most 15,000 persons at any one time.  The result is that thousands of people – including not only NGO representatives, but also government negotiators – stood in line outside of the Bella Center in the bitter cold on Monday and Tuesday of this week waiting 8-10 hours to get inside to receive their credentials.  Thousands of others never got inside to receive their credentials, despite having waited up to 8 hours, standing in the cold.  These are not exaggerations.  It is remarkable and very fortunate if no one died in the process.

Then, on Wednesday through Friday, the Bella Center was essentially closed to all representatives of civil society, despite the fact that side-events had been organized by them months in advance with the approval of the COP-15 organizers.

The result is that thousands of people, who had been informed by the COP-15 organizers many months ago that they were approved to attend, had flown to Copenhagen from all over the world, incurred those costs plus the costs of their accommodations, yet never were able to get inside the Bella Center to carry out any of the work they had planned, and flew back home having wasted their time and resources (and having contributed to the COP-15 carbon footprint in non-trivial ways).

Now, I have never been an enthusiast of what some people have described as the annual “circus” of the COPs, a circus – if it is that — which is largely due to the fact that the actual government negotiators are vastly outnumbered by the civil society representatives (“official observers” in the UNFCCC language) and the press.  However, if the participation of civil society representatives is going  to be encouraged (as required under the original UNFCCC agreement), and if the attendance of those representatives is going to be approved in advance, then surely they should not be denied admission when they arrive, nor forced to stand in line outside in the cold for 8 hours waiting to be admitted.

No doubt, both the UNFCCC and the Danish government will point fingers at the other, but ultimately the responsibility must be shared.  In seventeen years of these annual conferences, going back to the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, there has never been such a disastrous logistical failure.  It could have been anticipated.  And it should have been prevented.

A Final Word

Of course, as of this hour, I — along with millions of others — hope that the negotiators in Copenhagen will achieve agreement on some truly meaningful steps forward in this important process..

Author: Robert Stavins

Robert N. Stavins is the Albert Pratt Professor of Business and Government, John F. Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University, Director of the Harvard Environmental Economics Program, Director of Graduate Studies for the Doctoral Program in Public Policy and the Doctoral Program in Political Economy and Government, Co-Chair of the Harvard Business School-Kennedy School Joint Degree Programs, and Director of the Harvard Project on Climate Agreements.

6 thoughts on “Chaos and Uncertainty in Copenhagen?”

  1. Copenhagen may not have gone too well, but I still hold on to hope that we will get a workable agreement before it’s too late. Just yesterday Ed Miliband (the British climate secretary) offered to sign a new Kyoto treaty which is a step in the right direction IMO.

  2. Nothing that was agreed to in Copenhagen will have the impact that anyone thinks it will have. It will take much more than this. The world will have to want to make the changes required to have any kind of positive affect on the global climate and unfortunately we are not there yet.

  3. We may not be there yet, but we must continue to talk about these issues, since this is the only way to reach the majority. As global climate issues arise and continue more and more people will become aware and hopefully at some point the collective majority will be able to make a change

  4. This agreement is nothing more than the act of politician’s justifying their existence. There will be no meaninful change in the attitudes towards global warming until we run out of fossel fuel or the cost exceeds that of the newer technologies.

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