Most analysts and press coverage talked about the failure about negotiations on climate change. Yet, the outcome of the Copenhagen summit was largely foreseen. It is true that too high expectations were placed on the talks. So what went wrong?
Climate change is too big an issue to be resolved at once. It is thus difficult to judge on the sole fact that the agreements were not binding- the Kyoto protocol was legally binding but had essentially no effect on the global emissions. We can also mention the (morally justified) protests of the third world countries. So let's be realistic.
This is an issue of balance of power in which the actions of 20 nations really matter. This is the first time in history that all leading economies had come together to take action on global warming. In its final declaration*, the Copenhagen summit did not reach an agreement on quantified targets on global emissions by 2020. However, it registered a number of key advances. The US administration (unlike the previous one) is now committed to curb gas emissions. There is some financing from rich to poor countries to help combat the consequences of global warming. Nations have also agreed on a deal on deforestation, which is a major source of carbon emissions.
The big developing nations - which will be responsible for future growth of gas emissions- have come close to acknowledge that there will be no solution without a contribution from them. We are not there yet- and there will no doubt be more fractious negotiations to come. The whole issue is about what model of development all nations want to pursue. China, India or Brazil cannot simply continue in their development path in a business as usual scenario- which is in fact not simply an imitation of the development model experienced by the most developed nations. We're also talking about meeting basic needs of the population such clean water, electricity (especially in rural areas) and other public utilities.
The time has also come to change direction. The major producers of carbon emissions - above all China and the US- should agree on introducing a carbon tax. This proposal has been dismissed as being politically impossible, but this seems to be the only way forward. China and India will never agree on binding quotas. That is fair as nobody can predict how much fossil fuel the rapidly growing economies will need by 2020. These economies should instead not grow on a business-as-usual path, but pursue their economic development while decreasing their carbon emissions.
Another key lesson from the summit is also the role of the UN. There has been a lot of criticism on its ability to solve the world's most pressing problems. Should key nations negotiate among themselves, and let others endorse (or not) as they wish? This would in my view be morally irresponsible: all countries should be part of the deal as problems should be addressed equitably. This is perhaps more difficult, as countries must, according to UN rules, reach a consensus before a binding decision is made. For a climate change agreement covering many complex areas, hundreds of negotiators had to meet in dozens of working groups to work on draft technical documents. But in the long run, the UN method will pay off and will prove its effectiveness in forging a treaty on climate change. This will depend on common will which should prevail against narrow and selfish interests of the single nations.