It's the Poor Who'll Pay for Copenhagen's Circus

Bookmark and Share Trade & IP Unit and Climate Change | Tim Wilson
The Australian 14th December, 2009

More people attend UN conferences than make a meaningful contribution, but even by UN standards delegates are describing the Copenhagen climate conference as a circus.

Twenty-odd thousand green activists predominantly from developed countries are overwhelming the 8000 government officials and demanding meetings with delegations so they can push their proposals into any final agreement.

A handful of green, anti-capitalist activists has even infiltrated official negotiations and are representing countries in some negotiating streams.

While public attention is focused on debates about emissions reduction targets and peak emissions years, it is in second-tier negotiations that green groups are having the greatest influence.

A motley crew of negotiators representing Bangladesh, Bolivia, Ghana and India have put into technology transfer negotiating texts the scrapping of intellectual property rights necessary to attract private investment in the development of climate-friendly technologies that are needed to cut emissions.

In deforestation discussions, greens are attempting to limit developing country conversion of forest lands to agriculture use that could achieve the dual purpose of carbon sequestration and poverty alleviation. And when they're not thrusting themselves into negotiations they're providing spectacles for the media such as last week's Greenpeace resuscitation of a giant inflatable globe dying from a high temperature.

The solution was for some activists dressed up as doctors to give needles to the globe injected with "adaptation finance", "technology transfer" and "political will" wrapped up with some "international binding" in the form of bandages.

On Tuesday an "angry mermaid" will award a business group the honour of being the most aggressive at "lobbying to block effective action to tackle the (climate change) problem".

But if there are businesses trying to stop an agreement they're being awfully quiet.

Text book multilateral institution conferences generally involve governments wanting negotiations to head in one direction, business in another and non-government organisations in a third.

But in the Copenhagen conference all are swimming up the same stream because climate change provides the perfect marriage of the interests of big, green, non-governmental organisations, big government and big business.

Over the weekend that bridged the fortnight's negotiations, the Confederation of Danish Industry organised the Bright Green Expo that includes a trade show for companies to spruik their technology to reduce emissions.

Wind farm manufacturers Vestas and Siemens have advertised in train stations used by the delegates to get to the conference centre.

Big business isn't fighting an agreement, it's trying to find ways to explain why they are part of the climate solution so they can coax governments to regulate in their interests and attract subsidies for otherwise unviable commercial products.

Not that big government minds because they can use climate change as an excuse to rein in the free hand of private enterprise and swell bureaucracy.

The fact that the Australian government has 114 registered delegates, exceeding the size of India and Britain's delegations, shows the bureaucratic regulatory threat of a Copenhagen agreement and policy instruments like an emissions trading scheme.

The biggest opponents of a broad, sweeping international agreement aren't business but poor countries because they know they cannot afford the green man's burden.

It is why attempts to get the Indian and Chinese governments to take on significant emissions reduction targets will fail because there's no choice between two weeks of criticism from the 20-strong Australian Youth Climate Coalition delegates, against a lifetime of criticism from the billions of people who have to live with the consequences.

The tragedy of Copenhagen is that the impact of any agreement on the world's poor has largely been lost among the self-indulgent circus caused by rich country green activists who'd rather see themselves on television back home.

Not that it should be a surprise. By comparison to the 21,000 Copenhagen observers,last week's comparable World Trade Organisation Ministerial Conference in Geneva only attracted 500 observers who were broadly committed to securing an inter-national trade deal to promote poverty-alleviating free trade.

The irony is that if there were as many people who cared about cutting poverty, the world's poor would be better able to adapt to the consequences of climate change and there'd also be the economic resources to cut emissions and deliver a binding agreement at Copenhagen.