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PAC 15 – A Multilateralism without Constraints The Commitments of the States within the Copenhagen Framework

By Simon Uzenat
Passage au crible n°15

Organised under the aegis of the UNFCCC (United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change), the aim of the negotiations was to reach a legally binding agreement at the 15th CP (Conference of the Parties), held at Copenhagen from 7th to 19th December 2009. The objective was to prolong and intensify the efforts programmed at Kyoto, which reach their term on 31st December 2012, and to thus establish the future multilateral regime of climate regulation.

Historical background
Theoretical framework

Historical background

In December 1997, at Kyoto, the delegates of the 3rd CP agreed upon a protocol, which formally came into force in 2005, and which committed the industrialized countries, mentioned in Annex 1, to reducing, by 2012, their global emissions of GHG by an average of 5.2%, below their 1990 levels. Furthermore, this agreement organized an international system of verification and provided for the institution of sanction mechanisms. Moreover, the discussions held at the Bali conference of December 2007 (CP 13) lead to the adoption of the BAP (Bali Action Plan) as well as a biennial process – the Bali Roadmap – which set a deadline for the end of negotiations during CP15 at Copenhagen.

In this respect, the direction pursued followed a super-national approach, marked by the strength of transnational expertise (IPCC), the legitimacy of the UNO system and European unity; to such an extent that the Clinton administration signed the Kyoto protocol without, for as much, obtaining ratification by Congress. Today, this treaty counts 189 signatories; and although the United States today recognizes the effects of GHG on climate and health, it still refuses the Kyoto logic which demands a global objective shared between the countries in proportion to their past and present responsibilities. As for the emerging countries, in the forefront of which are Brazil, China and India, and the LDC (Less Developed Countries), they intend, above all, to uphold their right to development. To achieve this, they have no hesitation in using international organizations to correct economic, social and territorial disparities between the industrialized and developing countries. Therefore, the Copenhagen agreement mainly appears to be the product of these power struggles and registers the pursuit of a global redistribution of political authority.

Theoretical framework

The conclusion of this agreement and the commitment made by the states on 31st January 2010 echo two closely linked concepts.

1. Multilateralism. Far from being limited to the description of a new inter-state configuration, this designates the emergence of a new global governance which is fragmented and hybrid. This associates private and public sector actors, states and civil societies, superimposes micro and macro, and remains the focus of research into and discourse on a so-called democratization of international relations. However, it turns out that this process includes several equivocal processes and thus involves extremely heterogeneous visions of the world. Multilateralism can thus be better apprehended as an ideological and operational resource at the disposal of international actors.
2. Global Public Goods. Before they represented a major stake in international relations, global public goods seemed to be the original product of a social construction which drew its meaning from an integrated, even sacralized, vision of development, in both space and time. In this respect, transnationalized expertise and knowledge would constitute both a condition of possibility and the privileged tools of evaluation of an objective approach. Nevertheless, this contemporary rationality sometimes enters into violent conflict with the historical frameworks of closely circumscribed public and private sovereignties.


A large number of observers consider that the Copenhagen summit only lead to a minimalist agreement which sacrifices the general interests of Humanity. Indeed, it brutally breaks away from the spirit of Kyoto. Admittedly, it conforms to the 7th principle of the Rio Declaration (1991) relating to the “shared and differentiated responsibilities” of states, but it goes no further than to register the IPCC proposition to limit temperature increase to 2°C. Otherwise, it provides for no international verification procedures and no sanctions. Furthermore, it must be noted that, in December 2009, no country formally signed it and the plenary assembly of the UNFCCC merely took note of it.

However, one should go beyond these normative approaches in order to better identify the organizing principles and the lines of force of global governance – of the environment, in particular – which is still very largely in the making. Generally, the Copenhagen Agreement, which was reached 16 months after the fall of Lehmann Brothers, indicates an important stage in the redefinition of the public and private spheres. Instead of stigmatizing state-national individualism, it would be more fitting to analyze how the economic and financial crisis – as well as the new relationships formed between international organizations, banking systems and governments – has accelerated the hybridization of governance frameworks and contributed to the increased heterogeneity of the interests of more and more numerous and competent actors. In so doing, the negotiation strategies of states express visions of the world which are more specific and, consequently, more difficult to reconcile. Finally, the lack of transparency during the Copenhagen negotiations – developing countries were excluded, while NGOs could not access the conference centre – largely contributed to making all positions more rigid and the more ambitious ones more fragile.

This is less the failure of an interstate system proposed by the UNO than the difficulty of establishing a multilateral regime integrating all the concerned parties: firms, local authorities, or NGOS. Moreover, even if, since the CP held in Berlin in 1995, the thinking of the UNFCCC has been based on the work of the IPCC, its legitimacy crisis has considerably weakened its authority. In this context, the adoption of a legally binding measure applicable to all states was quite improbable. Inverting the logic which prevailed at Kyoto – and drawing lessons from its failure, the failure to reach even the 5% objective – the Copenhagen Agreement thus defines a framework for cooperation based on flexibility and voluntarism alone. This is illustrated by the diversity of the commitments made by the states as transmitted to the UNFCCC on 31st January 2010. Taken together, these commitments enable the a reduction of between 13.30% and 17.9% over the 1990 levels to be envisaged for the emissions of the industrialized countries by 2020 – a far cry from the 25% to 40% judged necessary by the IPCC in its 4th report (2007). Europe has planned a reduction of 20% compared to 1990, the United States 17% compared to 2005 (that is, 4% compared to 1990), Russia 25% compared to 1990 (up by 13.5% compared to 2007), China a reduction in its carbon footprint of 45% compared to 2005 and India 24%.

Multilateralism should therefore be considered as a new window of opportunity and the expression of singular strategies. In this respect, the Copenhagen summit traced a new architecture for the global scene and the Agreement a global process of consent.


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