The take-notice deal that the world is ignoring

Tom Parry on the gabfest that was Copenhagen.

As it turns out, the UN summit on climate change ended not with a bang, nor with a whimper. And certainly not with a binding international agreement on reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

The two-week long, lumbering behemoth of a conference here staggered to a close on the weekend with delegates agreeing to "take notice" of what, on the surface, appears to be a weak, vague document now being called the Copenhagen Accord.

What is "take notice," you ask? Here's the pained explanation of UN climate chief Yvo de Boer.

Take notice, he said "is a way of recognizing that something is there but not going so far as to directly associate yourself with it."

Tired eyes. The UN's climate change chief Yvo de Boer at a press conference in Copenhagen. (Reuters)

How's that for a ringing endorsement?

It's hard to overstate the disappointment and discouragement that most environmentalists felt at the conclusion of this summit.

These NGOs (non-governmental organizations) spent years lobbying, writing reports, compiling research and building the case for a strong international agreement to pick up where the Kyoto treaty left off and tackle global warming.

Copenhagen was supposed to be a turning point.

It turned into a bloated gabfest, one that produced a final document less than three pages long with none of the enforceable targets to cut greenhouse gas emissions that green activists were looking for.

Two steps back?

Maybe it was bound to happen. The idea of getting representatives from nearly 200 countries in one place and having them all agree on what amounts to a fundamental restructuring of the world economy may be just too much to ask.

On the last night of the summit, U.S. President Barack Obama alluded to that fact as he prematurely announced his deal, before anyone had the chance to debate it.

Obama talked about that elusive goal of a binding treaty that would force governments everywhere to cut their carbon emissions and penalize them if they didn't.

"It is still going to require more work and more confidence building and greater trust between emerging countries, the least developed countries and the developed countries before I think you are going to see another legally binding treaty signed," Obama said.

"I actually think that it's necessary for us ultimately to get to such a treaty. And I am supportive of such efforts.

"But this is a classic example of a situation where if we just waited for that, then we would not make any progress. And, in fact, I think there might be such frustration and cynicism that rather than taking one step forward we ended up taking two steps back."

Taking on the West

The president has a point. The Copenhagen conference was defined by a deep split between rich countries and poor ones and by backstabbing and backroom politics on a global scale.

At times it was downright farcical. As when Zimbabwe's dictatorial Robert Mugabe took the podium and began to chide the West for "aspiring to misrule the world."

Does anyone care what someone like Mugabe thinks about climate change? How about Iran's Mahmoud Ahmadinejad?

For a summit supposedly aimed at saving the planet, much of it was an uninspiring display of tired rhetoric. The limp, watered-down accord that resulted may have been the best possible outcome.

In the wake of Copenhagen, many people are asking whether there's a better way of dealing with global issues as vital as climate change.

The only breakthrough at Copenhagen came when the U.S. and the other large emitters — China, Brazil, India and South Africa — came together and cooked up their own gentlemen's agreement.

It may not jibe with the all-embracing global vision of the UN, but it's a lot simpler. Why not get negotiators for the big boys together and cook up a deal to cut emissions?

If global warming is such a big deal, shouldn't we set aside political niceties and say this is too important a matter to worry about inclusiveness.

Kumi Naidoo, the head of Greenpeace International, says that's not the way to go. Global warming is a global problem and must be dealt with in a global manner.

"The simple fact is we either get it right as a common global family, rich and poor countries acting together so that we can secure our children and grandchildren's future, or, if we don't get it right, we all actually go down together.

"Now, I'm not saying it's easy," Naidoo goes on, "to have all these countries sitting and negotiating together. But until we have and if we ever have a world parliament, the UN - warts and all - is the best option that we have."

Change the process?

So maybe we're stuck with the UN. But could the process that led to so much lethargy and inertia at Copenhagen at least be fixed?

Writing in The Guardian newspaper, Britain's climate change secretary, Ed Milliband, says there needs to be a substantial reform of the UN body overseeing climate negotiations and the way negotiations are conducted.

Good luck with that. Any journalist, NGO worker or delegate who stood in line for hours in Copenhagen, simply waiting to get into the summit knows the UN is a sprawling organization that works at its own pace.

Reforming the UN process may be a worthy goal but is probably an equally Herculean task.

In the short term, talks will continue. There are climate meetings coming up next year in Germany and Mexico. Expect more wrangling and bureaucratic bickering.

Maybe countries will make some progress. Maybe the UN will actually come up with some solutions. If Copenhagen is any example, though, it doesn't look good.