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Post-Copenhagen: Swing time in the United States, Europe plays the Blues

Istock, photo by pidjoe

The outcome of the Copenhagen climate conference will be discussed for years to come. There are much smarter people than I that can outlinethe implications for climate change and a new world order that has emerged in Copenhagen (one of them for sure being Malini Mehra from India-based Centre for Social Markets who published this extremely worthwhile piece).

What becomes obvious for a European working on climate change in Washington DC is the completely different perception of the Copenhagen outcome on both sides of the Atlantic. While European governments are frustrated and disappointed, most climate advocates in the United States define Copenhagen as a success and an important step forward towards tackling global climate change. Why is it Swing time in the US and Europe plays the climate Blues?

Europe’s disappointment with Copenhagen

Europe is truly disappointed about the outcome of Copenhagen. The Copenhagen Accord is not much more than a face saving deal that failed to bring an agreement on tackling climate change. It will set the world on a 3 to 4 degree Celsius path. But the EU is also frustrated, because it has lost its former leadership role on climate change due to interior setbacks, e.g. coming with the enlargement in the last years. Worse than that, Europe played no role in the hours of final negotiations. The EU was reduced to the role of an observer; the deal was made by China and the United States. In this sense I hope that Copenhagen will be a wake-up call for the Europeans how the transatlantic relations are changing. Europe should use its frustrations with Copenhagen to develop new ideas on climate change and its role in the international arena. The reform with the Lisbon treaty offers potential for a more comprehensive EU climate foreign policy.

Tailwind for the domestic process in the US

In the United States Copenhagen is seen as a success (e.g. here), because it allows synchronizing the international with the US domestic debate. Looking at history, this strong inward focus of the US comes by no surprise. Most importantly, Copenhagen does not harm the legislative process in Congress – as it could have easily done by having the US signing up to something like a new “Kyoto Protocol”. In contrary, the administration demonstrated that it was tough on China and demanded more transparency for emission reduction action in emerging economies. This result promises to give some desperately needed tailwind for domestic climate legislation in the US. To me, this interpretation of Copenhagen is largely understandable. The US has come a long way in the past 10 months with the new administration and is close to a domestic breakthrough on climate change. Still, our friends from US are asking a lot of patience from the world. It must be clear: We can’t let the realism of politics win over the realism of climate change for very much longer. Time is running out.

Two competing answers to the crisis of UN Multilateralism

International governance is the big loser of Copenhagen. The final deal was not struck by the UN, but presented on a take-it-or-leave-it basis by small group of powerful players to the other world leaders. This has damaged the credibility of the UN and undermined its legitimacy on tackling climate change.

There are two competing answers to this crisis of UN multilateralism. On the one side, the idealists (e.g. like MEP Jo Leinen or UK Climate Minister David Miliband) argue that governance rules within the UN will have to undergo major reforms to streamline the decision-making process. This way the interests of small and most vulnerable countries will have a voice at the table and transparency of the process can be ensured.

On the other side, the pragmatists (e.g. here and here) claim the complexity of the issue requests more effective structures. Eventually the big emitters would have to decide how to reduce emissions. Definitions of “developed” and “developing” countries are no longer accurate and the new world order lies beyond the archaic systems of the United Nations. More flexible forms like the Major Economies Forum or the G20 will take over the role of negotiations.

It will be interesting to see how this struggle will play out. Overall I am very optimistic that a lot of energy and dynamics will come out of the frustration with Copenhagen. If it can be channeled towards stronger and responsible action on climate change, everybody would gain.

Dieser Artikel wurde unter EU, Klimaregime, Klimawandel, Obama, USA kategorisiert und ist mit verschlagwortet.


  1. I think that a decoupling from the climate-decision taking process from the (inefficient but somewhat legitimate) UN-process will further drive civil society away from politics and into greater opposition. Give it a year or two and the medicines given us by leaders like Carbon Trading, Kyoto or MEF will arise as much opposition as 8 old people meeting behind a big fence in Heiligendamm. 12-12-09 was showing the way. Careful careful…

  2. I think there is a greater global governance problem here, which the COP and its difficulties brought to light: neither conventional macroeconomics nor the notion of nation states work anymore. Economic principles work great for cap-and-trade systems, and in short term profit-and-loss calculations. But everyone admits GDP is a ridiculous measure of „wealth“ and what is wealth anyway? The nation state is but a symbolic political boundary – for agreements like this, it merely gets in the way. China emits more than the US, but 1/3 of its emissions come from the manufacture of products exported to the US. Who is at ‚fault‘ and therefore to be held accountable for those emissions – our demand or their supply?

  3. It is possible to retrofit an entire society for energy efficiency. This was demonstrated in eastern Germany in the early 1990s, when the energy infrastructure was shifted from brown coal to oil, gas, and subsequently renewables. Virtually every heating system and every window was replaced by state-of-the-art equipment. Inefficient power plants were shut down. Even though automobile ownership increased radically during the same period, CO2 emissions were reduced by half. Other countries should consider emulating this strategy, which was cost-effective because of its comprehensive and thorough approach. Entire streets and subdivisions were rejuvenated. Subsidy programs for building retrofits were not curtailed before the job was done. Rising energy prices present the ideal opportunity for launching such programs today.