Policy Update #5

Untying Copenhagen's “Gordian Knot”

Attending the Barcelona climate talks earlier this month reminded me of the legendary Gordian Knot. According to the ancient Greeks, the Gordian Knot was a large rope wrapped around a post so many times it was impossible to unravel. So complex was the knot that it was not even possible to find the ends of the rope or start untying it. Legend told that the person who freed the knot and solved the puzzle would eventually unite the world.

With the AWG-KP and AWG-LCA in full negotiating mode, delegates in Barcelona worked diligently trying to untangle the many individual strands of the climate puzzle, from mitigation to adaptation, financing to technology transfer. But for all the discussions and attempts at compromise, the meeting concluded with the diplomatic knot still firmly tied. Negotiators remain in a bind on various key issues, including the level of industrialized countries' commitments, the amount and source of support for developing country actions, and how to link the two negotiating tracks. In the back of everyone's minds is the fact that all of the issues are intertwined – unless each and every issue is solved, the whole agreement could be held up. Because some reciprocal concessions may rely on negotiating text that is under discussion in different contact groups, delegates will face an intricate task during the end game as they attempt to untangle the areas of disagreement.

Is Copenhagen Dead?

The week after Barcelona seemed to suggest a surge of pessimism about Copenhagen. During an early morning meeting of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit, US President Barack Obama and others were reported to have agreed to postpone their efforts to fashion a final deal in Copenhagen. According to various media sources, the leaders agreed that a legally-binding deal would not be feasible, and decided to set their sights on the less lofty goal of a “political agreement.” The implication was that a more detailed, legally-binding deal may come later, probably in 2010.

Long Live Copenhagen!

Some observers viewed the APEC statement as recognition of the fact that not everything can be signed, sealed and delivered in Copenhagen. Of course, this is quite correct. Negotiating a process like this never truly ends: it is worth recalling that even after the Kyoto Protocol was agreed in a breakthrough meeting in 1997, it still took several years to finalize the details of the treaty.

However, events since the APEC meeting suggest that the air of pessimism immediately after Barcelona may have been premature. In fact, in recent days there appears to have been almost a backlash at any incipient defeatism. This reaction suggests that there is still a great deal that can be achieved in Copenhagen.

Consider these events, all of which have taken place since the APEC summit ended on 15 November:

  • 16 November: US President Barack Obama and Chinese President Hu Jintao make climate change a key part of their bilateral discussions. Their meeting results in agreement to cooperate on a range of climate and energy-related activities. Most interesting for Copenhagen is their statement that the “agreed outcome should... include emission reduction targets of developed countries and nationally appropriate mitigation actions of developing countries.” Some media outlets, including the BBC, interpret this as an agreement “on the need for a comprehensive global deal in Copenhagen next month, not [just] a political statement”;
  • 17 November: Russian President Dmitry Medvedev signals an apparent strengthening of Russia's commitment to action on climate change, raising its 2020 targets from an earlier 10-15% pledge up to 22-25% (from 1990 levels). The previous day, Medvedev had labeled climate change as a “catastrophic” threat that required joint action – one of the strongest statements of intent to date from the leader of the world's third largest greenhouse gas emitter;
  • 18 November: UNFCCC chief Yvo de Boer sounds an optimistic note, announcing that he has no doubt Copenhagen will “yield a success.” De Boer suggests that “almost every day now we are seeing new commitments and pledges from both industrialized and developing countries.” This includes a dramatic announcement from Brazil that it would volunteer to cut emissions by around 40% from a business-as-usual trajectory by 2020 if industrialized countries provide the requisite support. The Republic of Korea also unilaterally announces a target of cutting emissions by 4% from 2005 levels by 2020 – which represents a 30% reduction from business as usual; and
  • 22 November: Media outlets report that the White House will announce a target for cutting emissions before Copenhagen. According to several sources, the pledge is expected to be similar to figures being considered by the US legislature (that is, around 17-20% from 2005 levels by 2020). While these numbers are less than many developing country negotiators have urged, some observers respond positively, since many had feared that the US would not be willing to place any firm commitment on the table at all before it was approved by Congress.

 Reading the Signs

So what do all of these recent events and announcements actually mean? Are they a sign that Copenhagen will now be a guaranteed triumph?

Sadly, no. Given the immense complexity of these negotiations, the massive stakes involved and the difficulties in trying to secure consensus among more than 190 countries, no climate change policy observer could guarantee a strong outcome at this stage. In spite of the flurry of recent announcements, the prospects for finalizing a legally-binding treaty do not look particularly good.

However, in spite of all the uncertainty, events in the past few days do provide renewed grounds for optimism. The latest announcements are almost certainly more than just “hot air.” Commitments from individual leaders suggest a growing momentum to secure a strong political deal that ultimately brings about a legally-binding agreement. A political deal could secure emissions reduction targets from developed countries, “nationally appropriate mitigation actions” by developing countries, and a generous financial package to support actions from the South. It could also set a tight deadline to conclude a binding outcome in 2010 (assuming it is not accomplished in Copenhagen).

How the Gordian Knot was Solved

Perhaps the most compelling reason for optimism is the growing number of politicians who are now telling us they will go to Copenhagen. Anyone who has worked in politics will tell you that politicians hate failure – or being associated with it.

News reports earlier this week suggesting that at least 65 world leaders will attend the talks in Copenhagen are therefore grounds for optimism. Heavy hitters such as French President Nicolas Sarkozy, Brazilian President Lula da Silva, the UK's Gordon Brown, Germany's Angela Merkel and Japan's Yukio Hatoyama have pledged to be present on Copenhagen's crucial final days. And on 25 November, CNN was reporting that Barack Obama would also attend part of the talks. The promise of such prominent figures to attend is surely a sign that world leaders believe they can successfully cut through the intricate issues that had negotiators so tied up in knots in Barcelona.

It is worth recalling that the legendary Gordian Knot itself was only solved when Alexander the Great – perhaps the ancient world's most consummate politician – took the bold and highly unusual step of slicing the knot in two with his sword. This “Alexandrian solution” produced the two ends of the rope and allowed him to solve the seemingly unsolvable puzzle.

It is just this type of bold stroke that observers will be hoping to see from world leaders in Copenhagen. Such political courage is what is now required to unite countries in the fight against climate change.