It’s the Process, Stupid!

December 21, 2009

By Mukhtar Amin, with contributions from Kelly Sims Gallagher

After a two-year process and a final two weeks of marathon negotiations, the much- publicized climate change conference in Copenhagen concluded with a vague and anticlimactic political statement that has left most people confused. The agreement—a three-page document dubbed as the Copenhagen Accord—does not commit the industrialized nations or emerging economies such as China to firm targets for midterm or long-term CO2 reductions.  Nor does the accord require member states to complete the negotiations with a legally binding treaty at its next COP meeting in Mexico City next year. More than lack of political will, or any other factor, it was the process that undermined substantial progress being made in Copenhagen.

By most accounts, the outcome of the Copenhagen negotiations fell substantially short of even the most modest expectations, with some declaring it a complete failure.  As the 119 heads of states and hundreds of negotiators that participated in the conference leave Copenhagen, the question that is on the minds of most analysts and observers is why a conference of such high profile fell so far short of even the most modest expectations.  Was it lack of political will at the negotiating table, mistrust between the parties, or something entirely different that precipitated the anticlimactic outcome of the negotiations?

The first procedural and tactical mistake was the decision by the host country to draft a secret draft text that excluded the Group of 77 (G77) developing countries.  Desperate to produce a deal and worried that the meeting in his country may end in failure, the Danish Prime Minister ignored how destructive it would be to focus on a small group of developed countries so early in the process and ignore the majority of the world.  The outcome may have been different if this text stayed secret, but it was leaked to the Guardian newspaper and the talks never really recovered from the anger and distrust that the leaked text created.  The developing countries felt that they were ignored before the negotiations even began, and as a result insisted on changing the process of the talks.  Indeed, almost two full days of crucial time was lost to a debate about which draft text to work from, how much time each Working Group would have to finish its work, and other such procedural matters.

The Danes appeared to be so focused on engaging the United States that they lost sight of the big picture, and especially how angry developing countries would be if they felt they were being ignored in the one institutional setting where they have a voice.  To alienate the largest emitter in the world, China, was a colossal strategic error.

The organizers of the conference made the mistake of registering 45,000 participants for a conference center that holds 15,000 people.  Since official government delegates could not be turned away, this meant that most of civil society – NGOs, academicians, and others—were locked out of the conference center.  The result was not only a deep anger and frustration for those who traveled thousands of miles only be locked out in the cold, but it was also a major loss for the discussions inside the Bella Center.  As experts who have studied the issues longer than many of the delegates, civil society groups have often played a crucial role in climate change discussions.  Even more important, NGOs are indispensable resource for least developed countries that heavily depend on the expertise and resources of NGOs for negotiations.  To turn away a group that is so important to the process underestimated their importance and ultimately contributed to the unimpressive outcome of the negotiations.

On a purely logistical level, the process was an unruly, unpredictable, and infuriating mess, with some heads of delegations reporting that guards physically blocked them from entering the plenary.  The metro stop at the Bella Center was frequently shut down so negotiators had to trudge miles through cold and snow from remote locations past checkpoints of muscular Danish politi. Dozens of countries were not adequately consulted during the development of negotiating texts, and multiple days were wasted listening to Presidential public speeches (mostly rants and entreaties) that could have been devoted to some old fashioned face-to-face talking among top leaders.

In the end, as the dust begins to settle and people start to try and figure out what went wrong or right in Copenhagen, it’s likely that most will point fingers at which countries obstructed the talks and which countries did not.  Little will be said about the process, and the extent to which it hindered progress in Copenhagen. If the ultimate goal is to learn lessons from Copenhagen, it would be wise to start analyzing where the process went wrong and how it could be improved in the future.

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2 Responses to “It’s the Process, Stupid!”


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