Lessons from the failure of the Copenhagen climate conference

by Joseph Green in CV #44, January 2010

The UN Climate Change Conference of 2009, or Copenhagen Summit, has come and gone. And it was a failure. There was no specific agreement on any major issue.

The Conference was faced with the need to strengthen the targets of the Kyoto Protocol and extend them beyond 2012, and to take account of why various countries couldn't meet even their obligations under Kyoto. Instead the summit eliminated all mandatory targets, while calling for a continuation of the same market methods that had led to the failure of Kyoto. This was a shocking step backwards from Kyoto, throwing aside even the pretense of binding commitments.

The Conference also displayed a growing impatience on the part of the richer industrialized countries towards providing aid for, or making concessions to, the poorer developing countries, including those threatened most immediately with climatic catastrophe.

All in all, the Conference was the bankruptcy of the path of neo-liberal environmentalism, begun at Kyoto and now reaching an impasse. This is the path of relying on market measures to achieve goals, the path of cap and trade, of avoiding comprehensive planning and instead relying on big business. This was the path of measuring everything in terms of financial commitments, rather than commitments to accomplish anything definite in material terms.

The Conference took place amid protest against its do-nothing stand, both by developing -- and especially African -- countries and environmental activists. Meanwhile the Danish government did its best to suppress street protests near the Conference center.

But the protest movement, as significant as it was, was limited in its aims. Most activists didn't raise the need for comprehensive environmental and economic planning, nor for class struggle if proper environmental demands were to be forced on the recalcitrant ruling bourgeoisie.

The failure of the Conference is the failure of bourgeois environmentalism. The working class must demand effective measures to fight global warming and to protect the working population from the consequences of climate change. The fiasco of Copenhagen brings out that the class struggle cannot be postponed due to the environmental crisis, but will come out more sharply than ever due to the environmental crisis.

Results of the conference

The Conference as a body failed to reach any agreement at all. The US came to agreement with four other countries on the Copenhagen Accord and presented this to other countries as a fait accompli, which a number of countries have rejected.

There isn't any target for the global cuts in carbon emissions that have to be made in the coming decade. Nor are there any reduction targets for individual countries, which are instead to put forward their own voluntary goals for 2020 to be added into two appendices to the agreement.

The Accord talked about keeping the overall temperature rise due to global warming capped at 2C (3.6 Fahrenheit) above pre-industrial levels. This, however, would mean disaster for large parts of the world, such as Africa, whose climate is expected to warm much faster than elsewhere. It also means taking a certain chance of runaway warming. Worse yet, due to its lack of concrete measures, there is no reason to believe that the Accord will achieve the 2 goal. If things continue as present, the global increase is more likely to exceed a very dangerous 3C.

There was no agreement on concrete measures to stop the cutting down of the world's remaining rainforests, just a goal to do this through establishing some type of financial mechanism.

The Accord promoted market measures. The Conference paid no attention to the failures of these methods in the past, not even to the biofuel fiasco, or the failure of many countries to achieve their mandated Kyoto targets.

There were vague promises of money for the developing countries to help them adapt to coming climate change as well as to cut carbon emissions. With respect to this, the Accord appears to endorse the role of the IMF and World Bank (referred to in the Accord simply as "international institutions"). It also talks vaguely of a new institution, to be called the "Copenhagen Green Climate Fund", but this was supposed to handle only a "significant portion" of these funds.

There was no agreement to do anything serious to facilitate the transfer of green technology, other than to establish an unspecified "Technology Mechanism".

There was no call to make this Accord more specific, other than that individual countries should declare voluntary goals for carbon emissions. Instead it was suggested that an assessment of how the Accord was being implemented should be "completed by 2015". In a burst of empty optimism unbacked by the determination to take the necessary action, the Accord suggests that the cap of a 2 C rise in world temperature might in 2015 be replaced by 1.5 C.

Imperialism more on their minds than the climate

While the dominant powers at the Copenhagen Conference were complacent about the need to begin immediate cutbacks in carbon emissions, they were quite concerned to keep their imperial domination of weaker countries. The big powers aren't going to put aside imperialism in the face of a common world danger. That would go against the very logic of capitalism.

One of the first signs of this was the circulation of the draft Danish proposal for the Copenhagen Accord. A supplementary document to this specified that by 2050 developing countries must not have carbon emissions greater than 1.44 tons of carbon per person, but the present rich countries could have almost twice as much, 2.67 tons per person.

Moreover, the Danish draft stressed that power over the financial arrangements should be given to "international institutions", which in this context is "UNspeak" for the IMF and World Bank, as well as to various private sources. Developing countries receiving funds for climate purposes would be subject to direct and raw dictation by "international institutions" and big capital, rather than working with the more veiled form of direction by UN funds. Thus whatever the supposed purpose of world environmental funds, they could be used more directly for enforcing the neo-liberal economic policies of the "international institutions".

The Copenhagen Accord ended up quite close to the Danish draft. The Danish draft talked about the "international institutions", and so did the Accord, although it gave a small role to an independent Copenhagen Green Climate fund. If the Danish draft called for a 2C cap on temperature increase, so did the Accord, only mentioning a 1.5C cap as something that might be discussed again in 2015.

The plight of Africa

The bourgeoisie of the richer countries also seems to be in a skeptical mood towards the threat of climate change. This was revealed in the goal of a 2 C cap and in the apparent view that the effects of climate change were mainly a problem of the poorer countries, and could be borne if a bit of money was spent to mitigate their consequences. There was no serious realization of the possible disaster facing the world.

The IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Control) is the scientific wing of the UN with respect to global warming. The Copenhagen Accord claims to respect the IPCC's Fourth Assessment Report of 2007, but in fact this report pointed out the danger that even a 2 C global rise in temperature would mean, and also that its impact will be worse in certain parts of the world. It stated that "the most significant impacts [are] expected in the Arctic, the Asian mega-delta, Small Island Developing States (SIDS) and sub-Saharan Africa."

It is no wonder that African countries were among those who were most upset in the run up to Copenhagen and at the Conference itself. They fear a 2C rise in global temperature will mean a 3-3.5 C rise in Africa. Indeed, the IPCC report paints a dire picture of what a 2C rise in global temperature would mean for Africa. It pointed to a devastating impact on the freshwater supplies in Africa as well as stating that "projected reductions in [crop] yield in some countries could be as much as 50% by 2020..., with small scale farms beings the most affected." Meanwhile it is expected that a 2 C global temperature increase will amount to about 3 or 3.5 C (about 6 Fahrenheit) in Africa. Naturally, things will be much worse in Africa if the actual global increase is 3 C.

Moreover, since the IPCC report of 2007, things have only gotten worse. A few months ago the Met Hadley Centre for Climate Prediction of the UK's Metrological Office projected an increase of 4 C (7.2 F) by 2060, with some regions warming much more. Western and southern Africa, for example, would face 5.5 C (10 F) increases. These regions would also face major decreases in rainfall, while India and some other areas would face flooding.(1)

The Copenhagen Accord pays lip-service to the needs of regions under special threat. It offers vague promises of money to help mitigate the impact, but they seem designed more as bribes to get the governments of developing countries to drop their objections to Copenhagen than a serious attempt to avert the coming disaster.

Market measures

The heart of the Copenhagen Accord is sticking with market measures to deal with the environment. The world imperialist bourgeoisie is still sticking tight with neo-liberalism. It might take this or that step on the environment, but only if it can be fit into a market mechanism.

The Kyoto Protocol itself was based mainly on market measures. Even though the US never joined the Kyoto Protocol, the US government, and particularly then vice-president Al Gore, played a big role in the negotiations leading to Kyoto, and pressed such things as cap and trade. Bill Clinton and Gore were zealous advocates of the neo-liberal agenda of deregulating energy, transport, and everything conceivable, including environmental measures. And now the European bourgeoisie is quite committed to this itself, and this seems to be the main thing they wanted to ensure at Copenhagen.

The neo-liberal bourgeoisie wants to avoid overall environmental planning and regulation. It would have the government set the most general goals, such as the overall global cap on temperature increases, but wants to leave most decisions on how to reach that goal up to big business. For example, Kyoto's cap and trade scheme, although set up by government action, leaves it up to big business to decide how and when to make emission cuts; environmental decisions are to be made based on how companies fare in buying and selling emission permits. The big corporate polluters are supposed to become environmental heroes, simply by following their own financial self-interest.

Carbon trading is the favored method under Kyoto and Copenhagen, but the carbon tax is also gaining popularity among the neo-liberal bourgeoisie. Although large corporations would mainly pass the price of the tax onto their customers, the tax is supposed to nudge the capitalists into behaving responsibly. For example, Al Gore, who is still deeply into economic deregulation, is in favor of a carbon tax as supposedly the best way to cut carbon emissions, and he sees such a tax as closely related to carbon trading. Despite Gore's complaints about market failures and market short-sightedness, he is still a market environmentalist, and thinks market forces would work well if only the government set a proper price on carbon.

But market environmentalism doesn't work. It doesn't result in sufficient cuts in carbon emissions. As a result of reliance on market measures, many countries failed to make their mandated cuts in emissions, and the overall goals of Kyoto weren't met. In order to really achieve environmental goals, comprehensive planning is needed. The planning has to deal in physical terms with what needs to be done, not just with financial guess-work; there has to be prioritization of which industries have to cut emissions, and how they have to do it; there has to be accelerated research and development, which can't be left to the whims of individual business; and so forth.

Will the disasters of the past be repeated?

The extent of the failure of the Kyoto Protocol and market measures can be seen in that one of the main things argued over in Copenhagen was financing the work to allow countries to adjust to climate change. Global warming wasn't stopping: the bourgeoisie is now arguing over who will pay for the damage it causes. This is something of a fantasy argument, in that the potential damage is vastly underestimated. Moreover, it would not just take money, but comprehensive economic planning to deal with the many-faceted effects of global warming: flooding, drought, shortages of fresh water, destruction of the old infrastructure, massive changes needed in farming methods, forced migration of hundreds of millions of people, etc.

But the bourgeoisie is insisting that market measures will still be used. And none of the countries at this environmental summit, not even the dissident ones, challenged this. Yet if market measures led to failure to achieve Kyoto's fairly modest carbon emission reduction goals, why will continuing these methods have any better results in obtaining the much greater cuts needed in the future?

For example, one of the on-going disasters is the destruction of the forests. The IPCC estimates that deforestation is responsible for almost 20% of greenhouse gas emissions. As well, it is threatening biodiversity and the quality of land and rivers. The market method for stopping this is the use of carbon offsets (giving corporations credit for planting trees or refraining from cutting them down) such as are provided by the UN-REDD (Reducing Emissions from Forestation and Forest Degradation in Developing Countries) Programme Fund.

But this hasn't worked very well in the past. Carbon offsets have even perversely resulted in incentives to deforest (since replanting gives one a carbon credit). Indeed, even supporters of REDD admit that "past efforts to reduce forest loss have failed more often than they have succeeded".(2) Well, it didn't work in the past, but it is going to be set in motion again. The Copenhagen Accord calls for the same thing to be repeated in the future, only this time it is REDD+, i.e., payments will be made not just to corporations but to the governments of developing countries with forests.

Or take a look at biofuels, which have been a major fiasco of bourgeois environmentalism. Biofuels might play a minor but useful role in replacing fossil fuels, but when they are developed on a market basis, they turn into a problem in themselves. The production of American corn-based ethanol has zoomed, though it is of little if any help to the environment. But what about biodiesel and Brazilian sugar-based ethanol, which have better energy balances than corn ethanol? Well, the expansion of their production has endangered rainforests, thus contributing to environmental catastrophe. The rapid expansion of biofuel production, outside any coordinated plan and based on market drives, has also resulted in higher food prices and agricultural disruption. And the European cap-and-trade system, set up under Kyoto, helped promote the biofuel boom.

The Copenhagen Accord is silent on this problem, and this clears the way for the bourgeoisie to continue the market-based development of biofuels. Al Gore concedes in his book Our Choice that some "first-generation biofuel", notably American corn-based ethanol, which he admits he pushed heavily, hasn't worked out very well. But he zealously promotes market-based development of second and third-generation biofuels, such as cellulosic ethanol. These newer biofuels might be better than the old, but if they are developed in the same market-based way, it will likely give rise to a repetition of the first-generation fiasco.

The protest movement

The protests against the do-nothing stand of the major bourgeois countries were just as significant as the Copenhagen Conference itself. It is the development of mass action that is necessary if there is to be environmental reform. The reaction of the bourgeoisie, however, was to seek to stamp out any influence of the people on their plans: carbon trading and market measures are big money, and their planning is supposed to be restricted to big business. The UN blabbers on and on of democracy and peace and human rights, but it represents power and money, not the interests of working people.

Protests gradually built up during the run-up to Copenhagen. There were small demonstrations against the carbon trading agenda of the Bali Climate Conference of December 2007 in Indonesia, and especially by indigenous activists and others concerned by the application of carbon trading to forests. Banners included "Our Forest not for Sale" and "Our Forest is not a Carbon Toilet for Developed Countries". Thousands marched in the streets outside UNESCAP headquarters in Bangkok in October 2009 to protest the half-hearted stand of the UN climate talks taking place there.(3) Activists also protested at the Barcelona talks of November 2009.

The biggest protests were at the Copenhagen Conference itself, and extended over a number of days. The largest demonstration was on Saturday, December 12, when tens of thousands of people, perhaps 100,000 in all, came out to protest. Some activists carried signs demanding "system change, not climate change" and "if the climate were a bank, they would have bailed it out already". But the UN, with all its talk about "human rights", showed contempt for the people. Prior to the conference, the Danish government passed a special law to allow it to hold demonstrators in preventive detention, and during the conference it selectively arrested over a thousand people. It also used "kettling" tactics, in which it surrounded sections of demonstrators, herded them together tightly, and denied them access to food, water, and toilets for hours on end.

The aim of the repression was to prevent demonstrations near the Conference hall. The Conference also ended up denying access inside to the hall to thousands upon thousands of accredited non-governmental delegates. All this emphasized that the real business was to be wheeling and dealing between a few leaders, behind closed doors, and with concern for business interests, not the climate nor the people.

Divisions among the developing countries

A number of governments also protested in their own way. Small island nations have displayed their anger at a number of UN talks, demanding action to prevent climate change that would literally drown their countries, as well as funds to allow them to handle the amount of climate change that is already coming. African countries boycotted the technical meetings during the talks in Barcelona to protest the lack of specific commitments from the industrialized countries. And at Copenhagen itself, this discontent continued.

Thus many of the developing countries see disaster staring them in the face. But their governments, which vary from reformist governments to tyrannical governments, are not working class governments, and most of them are actively opposed to the mass action of the people of their countries.

The common program of the governments of the developing countries consisted of support for the Kyoto Protocol. But the Kyoto Protocol, with its market measures, is leading to disaster, so support for it means abandoning the very goals of stronger climate action that various governments claim to stand for.

Moreover, the developing world is split. For example, it includes some large bourgeois regional powers and even imperialist countries, such as China and India. These countries are expected to provide support to the common demands. Yet the ruling classes of these countries have a different interest than the smaller, weaker and poorer developing countries; for example, China is deeply involved in imperialist investment among the "least developed countries" of Africa.

In fact, this is why Obama was able to go over the head of most of the world and put forward a Copenhagen Accord by fiat. He negotiated a deal behind closed doors with China, India, Brazil, and South Africa, and this is what was put before other countries as a fait accompli.

Many African countries were upset with the replacement of joint agreement with wheeling and dealing, and there was a good deal of denunciation of Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi for taking part in the process of individual deal-making.(4) No doubt Zenawi deserved the sea of condemnation that resulted. Yet later there wasn't much said about the fact that it was China, India, Brazil, and South Africa who actually negotiated the Copenhagen Accord with Obama.

Meanwhile, a number of the governments of developing countries were trying to repress environmental activists in their own country. And Indonesia, a major player in the Group of 77, sent police to the Copenhagen Conference to help with the suppression of demonstrators, the Indonesian police having experience from the Bali conference of 2007.(5)

The reformist regimes, such as Venezuela and Bolivia, took a different position and emphatically denounced the outcome of the Copenhagen summit, and Presidents Hugo Chavez of Venezuela and Evo Morales of Bolivia gave militant statements citing popular slogans. But their demands didn't correspond to the radical tone of their words.

ALBA, the Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America, issued a vehement denunciation in which it proclaimed that "we can't consider the issue of climate change without considering changing the system", denounced the "carbon markets", and pointed out that global warming is "a consequence of the capitalist system".(6) But ALBA also called for staunch adherence to the fundamental pillars of the world bourgeois system such as the United Nations charter; stressed adherence to the Kyoto Protocol, which is based on maintaining the present system and using market methods; and upheld the Bali Road Map of 2007, which also upheld market methods. ALBA denounced the Copenhagen Accord as the "call of a group of presidents behind closed doors", but was diplomatically silent on which countries were involved. And it said nothing about the present protest movement of the people. Moreover, neither ALBA, nor Chavez and Morales, called on the working class to rise in class struggle in order to transform the environmental movement, nor to achieve the system change they called for.

But the governments aren't the voice of the masses of their countries. The class struggle exists in the developing world, as in the industrialized world. This isn't a reason for neglecting the struggle against the imperialist oppression of the weak countries by the strong. Instead it is something that has to be taken into account if there is to be effective solidarity with the working people of the developing world, and if there is to be a real struggle to obtain environmental reform.

The level of the activist movement

Indeed, the fate of the environmental movement depends on how far it spreads among the masses of people. It was important that demonstrations took place leading up to and at the Copenhagen summit; it was a sign that these matters are not going to be left for the imperialists and the exploiters to decide by themselves. And these demonstrations were one part of an increasing tendency for mass struggles to raise environmental issues.

But the further development of this movement is not just a question of growth in numbers, but also of growth in understanding the nature of the enemy facing us. The present movement is limited in its viewpoint. It denounces the half-heartedness of the governments, but most of the demonstrators still have faith in some of the neo-liberal remedies.

The more militant section of the movement has taken up spirited slogans for "system change". But there is still the question of what is meant by this.

For example, some activists have taken up the denunciation of "market measures". By this, the activists are referring to carbon trading schemes, including both cap and trade and the vastly abused system of carbon offsets. This is an important issue, as much of the bourgeoisie is still clinging to carbon trading. But in reality market measures also include the use of the carbon tax as a way to avoid overall regulation and planning, and a section of the bourgeoisie and certain governments have already started to move in this direction. The carbon tax is supposed to motivate big business to make environmentally conscious decisions on its own, simply as a way of preserving profits, and it is similar in this regard to carbon trading. To substitute the carbon tax for cap and trade is to stay within the neo-liberal framework of market environmentalism, and the carbon tax will bear down heaviest on the working people and some small businesses, while the major corporate exploiters will be able to push the bulk of it onto their customers.

A real struggle against "market measures" has to take on the neo-liberal agenda of deregulation and privatization and demand comprehensive planning and regulation. Moreover, it must insist that this planning and regulation not be carried out behind closed doors or by privatized agencies or financial institutions. Instead there must be a fight for as much transparency and mass involvement as possible, and for the planning to take account of the needs of workers, small farmers, and indigenous peoples.

But the present environmental movement is dominated by establishment environmentalism. The protests at Copenhagen brought forward a more militant wing of the movement, but they were still, in the main, tied to bourgeois "civil society" and the NGOs. That is why there was neither consistent opposition to market measures, nor a perspective of mass-influenced overall environmental planning.

For a working-class environment movement

The failure of the Copenhagen Conference shows that the fate of the environmental struggle depends on the development of the mass movement. Measures against global warming cannot be left to the bourgeoisie; the working class must force the implementation of effective measures. There must be the development of working-class environmentalism, an environmentalism which is working-class both in its composition, drawing in as many workers as possible to the movement, and in the nature of its demands. True, so long as we live under capitalism, based as it is on every enterprise seeking its own profit and relying on the "invisible hand" to take care of common concerns, environmentalism will always be short-changed. But the struggle for environmental measures cannot be left until later, not any more than the struggle for higher wages or against racism or against war can. It is important to achieve as much as possible at present, and the struggle for these measures will be an important part of building a movement for change.

It is a dead-end to rely on bourgeois environmentalism and simply insist that the governments implement it or fund it better or cling tighter to Kyoto. Yes, the Copenhagen Conference did mark major steps backwards from the original expectations in the Kyoto Protocol. But it also marks the culmination of the Kyoto Protocol, the outcome of development along the path of Kyoto. To fight the Copenhagen Accord by clinging to Kyoto is to cling to neo-liberalism and market measures in deeds, while regretting them in words.

Instead the environmental struggle, if it is to be effective, must be fought along the lines of the class struggle. We need a constant fight to expose corporate and bourgeois interests in despoiling the environment, not the pretense that "forward-looking businesspeople" are finally forging the path to the future.

There must be a fight against neo-liberalism and market measures, in favor of comprehensive planning and regulation. But when planning and regulation is finally put into place, working-class environmentalism must not be seduced by the claim of capitalist governments that the state regulatory bodies and the state sector are socialist or even pro-working class. So long as capitalists own the economy, and run the government, they also will do their best to ensure that all state institutions carry out their general will, and even the will of individual capitalists and financial interests. So the working class will have to constantly strive to put as much pressure on government regulatory bodies as it can and influence how policy is administered, so as to ensure as far as possible that the coming regulation really does help the environment, and that the capitalist enterprises being regulated don't take over the regulatory bodies. Moreover, the view that green jobs, or jobs in green industries, will automatically suffice to sustain the working class is just another version of the infamous trickle-down economics. Instead it should be demanded that there is direct planning for the welfare of the working masses. And indeed, the welfare of the working class and of the environment are linked, as only the mass initiative of the workers can ensure that strong environmental measures are really taken. So there will have to be vigilant attention to the nature of the planning that is done.

There should also be a struggle for consistent aid to the poorer countries, not alms to bribe the local bourgeoisie to accept the neo-liberal hell. The present imperialist world trade and financial arrangements, administered by the World Bank, the IMF, and various trade treaties, results in accelerated environmental devastation as well as monopolizing control of new technologies needed to recast the economic infrastructure on green lines. The Copenhagen Accord envisions some money, in the name of help for the developing countries to obtain technology or other aid, but actually to finance sales by the imperialist corporations, and to put band-aids on the destruction caused by bourgeois despoilers of the people and the environment. Instead there should be a fight against the imperialist hogging of technology and enforcement of neo-liberal orthodoxy, and there should be support for the mass struggles of the peoples of the developing countries.

The failure of the Copenhagen Summit was the failure of neo-liberal environmentalism, and a sign of the utter depravity of the world bourgeoisie, which fiddles while the world burns, being more concerned over even minor amounts of profit than the fate of humanity. The lesson to learn from the failure of Copenhagen is the need to link the class struggle to the environmental struggle. <>


(1) Kate Sheppard, "Report Predicts 7.3 Degree Temperature Rise by 2060", September 28, 2009, http://motherjones.com/mojo/2009/09/report-predicts-73-degree-temperature-rise-2060. The article gives temperatures in Fahrenheit, and despite the title, talks of a 7.2 degree global rise.

(2) "REDD+ could turn deforesters into forest protectors", December 09, 2009, at the establishment environmentalist website mongabay.com (http://news.mongabay.com/2009/1209-cifor.html). The article cites the 400-page report "Realising REDD+: National strategy and policy options" by the Center for International Forestry Research.

(3) UNESCAP is the UN Environment and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific.

(4) Zenawi had been appointed by the African Union to be Africa's spokesperson at the Conference, and he made a deal with French President Sarkozy to support what is going on, back the 2C cap, and accept $10 billion a year for Africa instead of $67 billion, and to do so in the name of Africa as a whole, in exchange for a call for taxes on aviation, shipping, and financial transactions.

(5) Si Tingting, "Angry protest at climate conference venue," China Daily (a government-run paper), Dec. 12, 2009, http://www.chinadaily.net/china/2009-12/16/content_9190282.htm.

(6) "ALBA Declaration on Copenhagen Climate Summit", December 28, 2009, by ALBA countries, http://www.venezuelanalysis.com/analysis/5038. The ALBA countries include Venezuela, Cuba, Bolivia, Nicaragua, Ecuador, and some others. Haiti, Iran, and Uruguay are observer states. It thus includes regimes of varying types, even having the clerical tyranny of Iran, stained with the blood of its own people, as an observer.

Back to main page, how to order CV, write us!

Last changed on January 27, 2010.
e-mail: mail@communistvoice.org