Why the Copenhagen climate summit failed

The Copenhagen summit was a failure and a betrayal of the world’s people by their leaders. The only outcome was an “accord” which was simply “noted” by the summit. It includes no binding targets for reducing emissions and no process for agreeing to any.
The accord does not even adopt the aim of keeping temperature rises to 2oC—the target endorsed by most governments. It simply recognises what it calls “the scientific view”. And, worse, all serious up to date science says warming even this high is too dangerous. With current voluntary commitments, the more likely outcome is a 4oC rise—which would be catastrophic.
The summit was dominated by tensions between countries and blocks of countries. The world’s poorest countries justly demanded climate aid to help install low emissions technology.
But the $30 billion promised by rich countries for 2010 is orders of magnitude off what is needed. To put that sum in perspective Australia alone has committed to spend $36 billion on new war submarines over the next 15 years. Africa had estimated a need for $400 billion in short term funding alone.
The US and China, as the two biggest polluters, dominated the summit. Some such as climate activist Mark Lynas accused China of sabotaging a deal.
But that was not possible because the US was not offering one. Obama only flew in on the last day and gave a short speech that promised nothing. As journalist George Monbiot wrote, “Obama also put Beijing in an impossible position. He demanded concessions while offering nothing.”
The accord was written jointly by just five countries the US, China, India, Brazil and South Africa.
British socialist and climate activist Jonathan Neale summed up their motives: “All these countries will find it harder, and more expensive, to cut emissions than the industrial powers of the European Union. That is why they sabotaged hope.”
Economic competition between countries means they all look to push the cost of acting on climate change onto their rivals. Governments are under pressure from business not to hurt profits and not to give anything up to foreign rivals. The economic crisis means they don’t think they can offer even the crumbs that seemed to be on the table a few years ago.

Kevin Rudd said after Copenhagen, “I have said consistently, Australia will do no more and no less than the rest of the world”.
This sums up the competitive logic that stands in the way of agreement, and uses others’ failure to act to justify his own.
In fact Kevin Rudd helped sabotage chances of a meaningful agreement. Like the five countries that signed the accord, Australia is heavily dependent on coal. Rudd joined with the US at the summit to try to kill the Kyoto protocol, because for all its faults it legally enshrined the principle that rich countries have more responsibility to act than poor and developing ones.
Tuvalu’s Prime Minister Apisai Ielemia told journalists that Rudd and his advisers tried to pressure small Pacific Island states to drop demands for a legally binding treaty.

So what now?
Much of the climate movement, certainly most NGOs and the ACTU, put huge efforts into trying to influence the position that Australia took to Copenhagen. The ACF gave green cover to Rudd’s worse than useless carbon trading scheme on his illusory promise of taking higher targets to Copenhagen.
The Copenhagen conference has exposed the underbelly of climate politics. It is no longer possible to hope governments will act without being forced. Until national climate movements are strong enough in the rich countries, there will be no international agreement to save the planet. While a minority may be demoralised, the failure of Copenhagen will enrage many and encourage action.
In Copenhagen 100,000 people protested for real climate action. Around 5000 joined Walk against Warming in Sydney, over 10,000 in Melbourne and 3000 in Brisbane. There numbers were much larger than those of the last few years.
The radicalism spread beyond those protesting outside. By the second day, African delegates were demonstrating in the conference centre, chanting “We will not die quietly”.
Our task is to build the movement in Australia. We have to move beyond actions aimed at lobbying government, to actions that build the movement’s confidence and power to force change. Crucially we must win the unions to fight for action, and be prepared to use their industrial muscle. We have to tell the truth that carbon trading will not work, and argue for direct investment in renewable energy and public transport instead.

By Chris Breen


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  1. How long do you envisage it would take for investment in renewable energy to balance out the loss of jobs from closing coal stations? And how much money would you estimate it would cost in the longer term if we continue with fossil fuels, which could balance the expense of decisting from utilizing it?

  2. There are more jobs in building new renewable power stations than building new coal-fired ones, this is part of the reason renewable energy is more expensive. When politicians and business talk about “cost” they mean the money they will have to pay people to do the work.

    On the whole we will need to build renewable infrastructure before we can shut down fossil fuel infrastructure, though government should try and plan both processes together as part of a transition. How many jobs are in renewable energy depends on how seriously government takes it, and how quickly construction starts. Government will have to drive the transition – business wont do it if its not profitable, and business cant do it in time; despite knowing about the climate change for decades, renewable energy including hydro is only about 6% of total in Australia.

    This pamphlet One Million Climate Jobs Now published by UK unions gives an idea of the scale of what is required and what is possible:


    if we act seriously on climate change no-one need be unemployed, as climate writes Rob Gelbspan put it, the question we should be asking is do we have enough people to do the necessary work in time?

    Which brings me to coal workers, no coal workers need lose jobs, though they may need to change what they do now. Actually I think the climate movement needs to fight for job guarantees for these workers to win them to fight for the climate, without the active industrial support of these unionised workers and their communities it is difficult to see how coal power stations will be shut down.

    By job guarantees, I mean it should be like the old public service used to be, you can move from one job to another, without losing wages and conditions or years of service entitlements. These new jobs will need to be in the same regions, so for instance new manufacturing of renewable energy components should be purposely planned to be in these communities.

    I’ll break your question on cost into three:

    How much would it cost to make the transition?
    Beyond Zero Emissions estimates it would cost 40 billion a year to move to a zero carbon economy:

    What is the opportunity cost of not using fossil fuels? In terms of abandoning existing fossil fuel infrastructure and not using more fossil fuels, it would be enormous, I can’t give you a dollar figure off the top of my head, it depends over how many years you measure it, but mostly this is money you and I never see, mostly its profit. If you don’t own a coal fired power station, or an airport, you won’t lose. The bigger point is we could make the transition without hurting living standards, if we distribute wealth more evenly.

    What is the cost of not acting?
    In dollar terms, I’m not sure, but how much do you think the planet is worth, and where can we get a new one if we break this one?


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