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.


Earlier this past summer, African countries for the first time announced that they would come to Copenhagen as a distinct negotiating bloc.  For those who follow the role Africa has played in international environmental negotiations, this was a major development.  In previous multilateral environmental agreements, African countries traditionally negotiated under the umbrella group known as the G77 and had little visibility in the debate.  In Copenhagen, the still-young negotiating bloc is already showing signs of maturation.

A common criticism that is often made about coalitions from developing countries is that they are good at blocking proposals from developed countries, and not so good at proposing their own solutions.  Indeed, that accusation is quite evident here in Copenhagen, with the US and the EU blaming the G77 and China for stalling the talks (although the G77 is also pointing fingers at the developed countries as the obstacle).

The African Group’s emergence as a distinct negotiating bloc started out with an image that the Group was nothing more than a “blocking” coalition.  In November, the Group stunned other delegates when the African negotiators walked out of talks in Barcelona and brought the discussions to a halt. The African delegation explained that they were frustrated by the developed countries’ refusal to commit to substantial emissions reductions and come up with major funding for adaptation and mitigation.  Almost the same drama played out here in Copenhagen again earlier this week when the African coalition threatened to leave the negotiating table over the same objections that they had raised in Barcelona.

But the African Group realizes that complaining alone will not advance their interests, much less win them new friends.  That is why the Group teamed up with France a few days ago and came up with a proposal that was well received in the Bella Center.  The new proposal aims to resolve the sticking points that have divided the developed and developing nations.  Among other things, the proposal calls for:

  • Halving global CO2 emissions by 2050 compared to 1990, and by extension that developed countries reduce their emissions by at least 80%.  The proposal is silent on midterm targets, probably because the African Group and the French could not agree on a specific number;
  • Strong commitment on long-term financing for mitigation and adaptation in developing countries.  These funds would be in the tune of $100 billion by 2020.
  • A “fast start” fund between 2010 and 2012 in the amount of $10 billion per year.  The proposal states that 40 percent of these funds should go to adaptation projects in Africa;
  • Create a high-level expert group within the UNFCCC system that will administer the “fast start” funds and the long term financing funds.

The African and French initiative is beginning to gain momentum, with Hillary Clinton announcing that the United States would be willing to support this financing scheme.  This is the first time that the US has backed such a fund, and it shows that the African Group has been successful in influencing the US to go along with this proposal.

But it is also important to point out that not all African countries and NGOs are happy with the deal that the lead African negotiator, Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, cut with the French.  Some countries like Nigeria are unhappy that the Group accepted a $100 billion by 2020 and see the 10 billion amount in the “fast start” fund as inadequate for adaptation and mitigation needs in developing countries.  The Pan-African Alliance for Climate Justice also criticized the deal as not encompassing the interest of all Africans.  But at the end of the day, a coalition as diverse as the African Group will always have some internal differences.  The key point is that they have been able to stick together as a group, and that there presence is beginning to be felt more than ever before. In the Bella Center and in other parts of Copenhagen where climate change talks are talking place, the Africa Group is being talked about more than ever before.

For the African Group, time will tell if becoming a distinct coalition of their own is better than allowing the G77 to define their positions, but for now it is fair to say that the young African coalition is showing sign of maturation. — Mukhtar Amin