18 November, 2009

Copenhagen: politics as usual, a fight over words rather than actions

President Obama said the Copenhagen deal should be comprehensive and effective, after his meeting with president Hu Jintao in China. His remarks raised some hopes that the Climate Summit in Denmark could still be saved, while others continue to say it will flop.

Sergio Abranches

Obama offered a new interpretation for what he and Hu Jintao have tried to convey in Singapore, during the APEC meeting. In Singapore he had admitted that it would be impossible to seal a legal deal in Copenhagen this December, and backed the proposal for a “political deal”. Obama and Hu Jintao talked in support of Denmark’s prime-minister’s, Lars Loke Rasmussen, proposal for a political deal, to be detailed later in 2010, and possibly formalized into a legal deal.

In China, Obama said that:

“Our [his and president’s Hu Jintao’s] aim there [in Copenhagen], in support of what Prime Minister Rasmussen of Denmark is trying to achieve, is not a partial accord or a political declaration, but rather an accord that covers all of the issues in the negotiations, and one that has immediate operational effect.”

Prime-minister Rasmussen said in Singapore that a

politically binding agreement with specific commitment to mitigation and finance provides a strong basis for immediate action in the years to come”.

The Singapore understanding led to widespread frustration among environmentalists and commentators, and raised negative reactions from other nations’ authorities. It made other key political players in Copenhagen, such as prime-ministers Gordon Brown and Angela Merkel, and presidents Sarkozy and Lula, to promise their audiences they’ll try to persuade Mr. Obama to pursue a full deal in Copenhagen.

The US president’s new statement gave rise to contrary interpretations. Denmark’s Climate and Energy Minister, Connie Hegdegaard told journalists, at a news conference closing a pre-COP15 meeting in Copenhagen:

“my feeling is that it looks better today than when we started meeting.”

Swedish Environment Minister Anders Carlgren told Reuters that

“In the end, an agreement in Copenhagen will depend on an American number. Without a clear and ambitious number the whole agreement will be in danger.”

It seems the US could only go as far as presenting a range for U.S. carbon reductions by 2020, than a definite number. At least senator Barbara Boxer, chairperson of the Senate’s  Environment Committee implied that much, according to Reuters.

BBC News Website Environment Correspondent Richard Black has rightly argued that we are “into a miasma of nuance”. All expressions used so far could have multiple understandings and be translated into diplomatic documents with very different meanings. What we should really understand as “legally binding”, and “politically binding”? What would a “framework deal”, the expression Secretary Hillary Clinton seems to prefer, mean?

The Climate Convention official denomination, we should recall, is “United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change”.

As Black points out the only instrument that could be “legally binding” is international law. Everything else the parties to the Convention formally agree upon, every commitment made, would be “politically binding”.

What would, then, make the Nations accountable for a politically binding commitment?

There aren’t many enforcement mechanisms in the UN. Look at what happened to the decisions made by the Security Council during the Iraq invasion.

There is clearly a new issue on Copenhagen’s agenda: agreement on what are legally binding, and what are politically binding accords; how they will be enforced, and how will nations be made accountable for their leader’s commitments?

Negotiations in Copenhagen will probably dwell very much on these nuances of meaning. At the end of the day it is this discussion that will define the substantive content of Obama’s

“accord that covers all of the issues in the negotiations and one that has immediate operational effect”.

Bali’s agreement about the need for “measurable, reportable and verifiable nationally appropriate mitigation commitments or actions, including quantified emission limitation and reduction objectives” is inextricably linked to the debate on distinctions between legally and politically binding deals. This is the sort of commitment the Swedish Environment Minister has probably summarized with the expression “an American number”.

Dwelling on nuances is the bread and butter of politics. An art the diplomatic profession raised to near perfection. The trouble with this refinement of meaning is that it can take decades we don’t have to spare.

After all turns of the screw but the decisive one, we still don’t know for sure whether Copenhagen has flopped or will be able to cope with this game of words, and come out of these clouds within clouds of nuance with some meaningful result.