Green Room

The Party’s Over

Why Copenhagen was the climate conference to end all climate conferences.

COPENHAGEN, Denmark—I’m not sure whether it was the chicken-suited followers of Supreme Master Ching Hai wandering about or the experience of freezing slowly for seven hours as I waited to get into the Bella Center, but something happened in the last 10 days to convince me, once and for all, that the United Nations climate negotiations will never quite work. As the dust settles on this year’s talks and observers try to understand exactly what happened here, one thing is for certain: The U.N. process can no longer be the central focus of global efforts to confront climate change.

President Barack Obama in Copenhagen

The structural problem with these talks has long been clear: It’s hard to find anything that 193 countries agree on, and it’s downright impossible to negotiate when all those parties must have their say. But activists, diplomats, and many analysts have long insisted on the participation of every last U.N. member nation. Climate change is a global problem, they argued, and hence one that requires a global solution. Indeed, the logo for the Copenhagen conference shows circle of 192 crisscrossing lines. (It was designed before Somalia joined the U.N. process on Dec. 10.) This pattern is meant to symbolize how interconnected we are. Instead, it looks like a ball of tangled string.

Fortunately, the world does not need all of these countries to cooperate in solving the climate problem. The G20 states (the 19 largest economies in the world along with the European Union) account for about 85 percent of global emissions, and the United States, Europe, and China alone account for almost half. The 100 smallest emitters, meanwhile, contribute less than 3 percent of the problem. Take all but the biggest guys out of the room, and you’ll have a far more streamlined and effective negotiation.

We got a glimpse of how this might work in Copenhagen. After nearly two weeks of riots and arrests in the streets, barely productive wrangling among thousands of negotiators, and the threat of a complete breakdown in talks, the most important world leaders swept in to save the day. Even then, the parties remained deadlocked. The conference ultimately came down to a dramatic fight between just two players: the United States and China. Late at night, with the leaders of Brazil, India, and South Africa also in the room, President Obama and Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao hashed out the contours of a final text. The result was an important, but also limited, Copenhagen Accord. And the rest of the conference had little choice but to go along with the result.

At the heart of that particular fight was the fact that the two countries do not trust each other—after Kyoto, China does not believe that the United States will follow through on its international-emissions pledges, while in the United States, few believe anything that China promises. The leaders addressed this problem by agreeing to create an international process for analyzing countries’ emissions-cutting efforts. Now they must resolve other critical issues, like deciding who should bear what part of the burden of reducing their carbon output. A move toward talks in smaller groups won’t make this happen all at once, but it’s better than letting the key debates play out in a 193-nation circus.

That is not to suggest that the U.N. process lacks any merit. The U.S.-China fight during the past two weeks was, in many ways, a war for the support of the world’s poorest nations. China and a few others—like Brazil and India—tried to evade commitments to emissions curbs by blending into that broader group. Developing countries, they argued, should not be burdened with commitments to cut emissions. The United States countered by offering to help raise $100 billion annually to help those countries—conditional on a successful Copenhagen deal, which in turn hinged on China. That worked to turn much of the developing world against Beijing and eased the way toward a final agreement. If those poorer countries hadn’t been present at the talks, China might not have been willing to compromise.

So the global nature of the talks helped the key players to broker a deal. But our success or failure in actually implementing that deal—and cutting greenhouse-gas emissions more broadly—will depend on the domestic policies of the key players. International cooperation should be able to strengthen those domestic efforts, but that sort of tinkering needs to be tailored to the top polluters. The United States and China, for example, must sort out disputes regarding intellectual property rights and trade barriers. (Both sides claim that these are hindering the free exchange of vital clean-energy tech.) In the past few years, India, with the help of the United States, has had to resolve its poor standing in the global nonproliferation regime so it can have access to near-zero-emissions nuclear power. These details cannot be worked out in a 193-country group, where the lowest common denominator prevails.

Fortunately, two forums in which smaller groups of countries can coordinate climate policy with more precision and flexibility have begun to emerge. The G20 recently agreed to remove fossil-fuel subsidies, a step that would cut emissions while strengthening national economies. The Major Economies Forum, a group of 17 countries focused exclusively on energy and climate issues, has launched a major partnership aimed at enhancing cooperation on development and deployment of clean technology. These may seem like weak steps compared with the promise of a blockbuster global climate deal that will save the planet. But if the last two weeks are any guide, that sort of game-changing development still seems a long way off.

The U.N. process will not end. Future climate conferences, implementing the agreement reached in Copenhagen, may help to ensure transparency as countries take action to cut emissions, and they will probably serve to remind us how serious the problem really is. But it’s hard to imagine pinning any real hopes of planetary salvation on these mass negotiations in years to come. If that means the cultist chickens will have to stay home, all the better.

Become a fan of Slate on Facebook. Follow us on Twitter.