“Earth to Ban Ki-moon” or how a deal was sealed in Copenhagen

Reuters blog | December 23rd, 2009 | 03:26

Sweden complained that the recent Copenhagen climate change summit was a “disaster.” British Prime Minister Gordon Brown described it as “at best flawed and at worst chaotic.” Sudan’s U.N. ambassador, Abdalmahmoud Abdalhaleem, dubbed the outcome confirmation of “climate apartheid.” For South Africa it was simply “not acceptable.” U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, who for over a year had been urging the 192 members of the United Nations to “seal the deal” in Copenhagen, saw things differently. In a statement issued by his press office, Ban said the two-week meeting had a “successful conclusion with substantive outcomes.” Speaking to reporters, the secretary-general expanded on that: “Finally we sealed the deal. And it is a real deal. Bringing world leaders to the table paid off.” However, he tempered his praise for the participating delegations by noting that the outcome “may not be everything that everyone hoped for.”

In fact, the outcome fell far short of what Ban had been calling for over the last year. He had originally hoped the meeting would produce a legally binding agreement with ambitious targets for reducing carbon dioxide emissions and funding to help developing nations cope with global warming. Instead, it “noted” an accord struck by the United States, China and other emerging powers that were widely criticized as      unambitious and unspecific. That accord set a target of limiting global warming to a maximum 2 degrees Celsius over pre-industrial times — seen as a threshold for dangerous changes such as more floods, droughts and rising seas. But it did not say how this would be achieved. It also held out the prospect of $100 billion in annual aid from 2020 for developing nations, but did not say where the money would come from. Decisions on fundamental issues such as emissions cuts were pushed into the future.

The South Korean U.N. chief was not the only person to praise the summit. U.S. President Barack Obama said the outcome was an “important breakthrough,” but noted that it was only one step on the road towards the emissions cuts needed. The head of China’s delegation, Xie Zhenhua, said the meeting “had a positive result, everyone should be happy.” (Gordon Brown was clearly placing the blame for the underwhelming outcome in Copenhagen on China and a few other states when he said: “Never again should we let a global deal to move towards a greener future be held to ransom by only a handful of countries.”)

Back in New York, some delegations were shaking their heads over Ban’s bullish remarks about Copenhagen. “He is talking from Mars,” said the Sudanese envoy, who currently chairs the Group of 77 club of developing nations at the U.N. But Ban is not in outer space, several U.N. officials insisted on condition of anonymity. Ban did not see the summit as a failure, but he, too, felt disappointed and would keep on working to “seal the deal” in 2010. In fact, the U.N. officials said, Ban’s personal intervention had helped prevent the summit from falling apart. “He’s acutely aware of how much worse it could have been,” one official said. He was making phone calls, organizing bilateral meetings and persuading reluctant delegates to join the consensus. “His final intervention at the 11th hour” helped secure that consensus, the official said. “It’s time to move past the anger and the finger pointing,” he added.

Some diplomats said that instead of calling the summit a success, Ban should admit it was a failure and use the U.N. bully pulpit to accuse China and others of sabotaging it. A name-and-shame policy, they say, might force some capitals to play a more constructive role when talks on a legally binding agreement begin again in 2010. Another senior Western diplomat said that what Copenhagen showed was that any climate agreement will have to be worked out between the key nations themselves, not the United Nations. That could mean Ban’s role in any future talks would be marginal. “The lesson of Copenhagen is that this is not going to be done through the United Nations,” he said.

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