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The weakness of COP15

(Pic by Dez Pain /

(Corrected at 7:55pm, 20 Jan 2010)

FROM Hopenhagen to Dopenhagen to Brokenhagen, a series of puns has emerged from the 15th United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP15) held in December 2009 in Copenhagen, Denmark.

Those who were hopeful about a strong deal at the beginning of COP15 were left brokenhearted by the pathetic outcome: a Copenhagen Accord, which governments merely “took note” of.

In fact, the negotiations were on the verge of collapse as developed and developing nations remained divided over several key issues near the end of COP15. US president Barack Obama arguably “rescued” the talks by cutting a deal with 25 other countries in a closed-door meeting to produce the Copenhagen Accord.

However, unlike the Kyoto Protocol, the Copenhagen Accord is not legally binding. Countries who have signed on to it are not obliged to implement it. Indeed, they may have called it an accord just to make it sound grander than a declaration.

Moreover, only a few representatives from countries most affected by climate change, particularly African countries and small island nations, were present at the closed-door meeting.

It should not have been a surprise then that the accord was fiercely rejected by exhausted negotiators when it was presented to the remaining 167 nations towards the last remaining hours of COP15. After all, COP is not a G8 summit, where major countries can broker self-serving deals behind closed-door meetings and expect the rest of the world to follow.

“It looks like we are being offered 30 pieces of silver to betray our people and our future. Our future is not for sale,” Tuvalu negotiator Ian Fry said to applause in the plenary hall on 19 Dec 2009.

At only 4.5m above water, Tuvalu is already losing some of its lands to rising sea levels. If submerged, its entire population will become climate refugees.

Large gap

More importantly, the accord may have targeted to limit global temperature rise to below 2°C, but experts claim there is a large gap between the aim of the accord and the carbon reduction targets offered by individual countries so far.

Global temperatures are set to rise approximately 3.9°C by 2100 based on current national commitments, according to a research team from Sustainability Institute, MIT School of Management and Ventana System.

“The longer we delay … the more costly it will be to cut emissions, the worse warming will be, and the more the people of the world, rich and poor, will suffer,” said MIT Professor John Sterman in a press release from the research team on 19 Dec 2009.

The UN climate negotiations have been going on for the past 17 years since the Rio Earth Summit in 1992. Yet developed and developing countries remain divided over the same issues.

The truth is, we can no longer afford to wait for our political leaders to act to save us from climate catastrophes. Despite strong calls for a fair, ambitious and legally binding deal from civil societies worldwide, our political leaders continue to fail us.

It’s true that COP15 brought unprecedented spotlight on climate change, so much so that for the first time, over 120 heads of government, including Malaysian Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak, attended the conference.

Nevertheless, when efforts to greenwash the Copenhagen Accord failed, some countries resorted to blaming each other for the weak outcome.

More needed

People around the world have demonstrated their concern over climate change. But it’s time to go beyond switching off our lights once a year, signing online petitions or bringing our own shopping bags.

Clearly, to sway political will, we need to do more. We need to hold politicians accountable to develop our country sustainably, and vote them out if they continue to mess with our future and environment.

(Pic by Ervin Bacik /
As Maldives President Mohamed Nasheed has always stressed: “After all, it is not carbon we want, but development. It is not coal we want, but electricity. It is not oil we want, but transport.

“Low-carbon alternatives now exist, to provide every good and service that we need for development and prosperity. Developed countries created the climate crisis; developing countries must not turn it into a calamity.”

(Corrected) Malaysia has pledged to, by 2020, cut its greenhouse gas emissions per unit GDP (or gross domestic product) by 40% below 2005 levels on the condition that we receive the financial and technological support required from rich countries. Natural Resources and Environment Minister Datuk Douglas Uggah Embas said a roadmap to achieve the reduction would be presented to the cabinet soon. The cabinet also passed the National Climate Change Policy last December.

However, our country remain heavily dependent on fossil fuel; public awareness on climate change issues also remains at an all-time low. Apart from holding the government accountable, Malaysians also need to rethink our way of life. Are we consuming responsibly? Are we reusing and recycling? Are we living, as the cliché goes, green enough?

These are questions we should be asking post-COP15. After all, it’s when the people lead by example that politicians and businesses are more likely to follow.

Gan Pei Ling was in Copenhagen for COP15 in December 2009. Her trip was made possible by sponsorships from Universiti Tunku Abdul Rahman, the Selangor government, and the US Embassy in Kuala Lumpur. The opinions, findings and conclusions stated in her writings are her own and do not necessarily reflect those of the sponsors.

For related stories, see In the Spotlight: Climate Change

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5 Responses to “The weakness of COP15”

  1. Sean says:

    Green? Altruism is it? You want me to cut my own throat to save my neighbour? I’d rather wait a while, sharpen my knife and take some ninja lessons, thanks.

    The only way out of this is to ask the government to cut our throats for us. All at the same time. And even then, what government is going to cut their own people’s throats to save the necks of a country that won’t do the same?

    I think Malaysia is in a much stronger, much luckier position in the climate / sustainable futures problem than most countries are. But you’re stupid (apologies to Cars and to Avatar). Any year now, fossil resources will be fantastically expensive, and you’re throwing them at Mat Rempits and MLM entrepreneurs in SUVs.

    Germany – that cold, dark place, where the sun shines so rarely and so weakly that the people are almost transparent – is investing in solar-powered residences and industries. I’ve done the maths, and I haven’t got a clue how they expect to match their electricity demand with their solar power supply – unless all German citizens are about to be granted gardens the size of football stadia each.

    Malaysia, on the other hand, has a solar power supply that far exceeds its demand. Why aren’t you at the front of this game? Why aren’t you on the brink of solving your energy problems – forever – so that you can sit back and dangle your fossils (or even synthetics, if you have some sustainable to spare) at desperate nations who don’t get any sun?

    The plea from scientists is for a – how much% – reduction in carbon dioxide output? I don’t see why every nation should have to agree on a figure and all do the same small amount. I sometimes suspect that the people we send to these conferences are actually innumerate, or unable to consider more than one issue at a time. What’s to stop a nation for whom conversion to sustainable power is straightforward – such as Malaysia – going for 100%? If the South East Asian nations could reduce their emissions by 100%, that would be a fantastic start on the global problem (even if it might not be in itself a solution).

    Such a development would put Malaysia in a very strong position in international arguments of all kinds. Climate change is a cross-border problem. Every day your neighbour fails to address their emissions problems is another insult! I think Malaysia’s well-developed moral outrage rhetoric could finally be credibly employed!

    I read reports of the Malaysian government advocating nuclear power with absolute resignation. As ever, they’re going to go one better than cutting everybody’s throats and blow us all up or give us all cancer instead – another entry in the Malaysian Book of Records. Perhaps that’s actually the final solution for the climate and our government has known best all along.

  2. Hwa Shi-Hsia says:

    I don’t believe our government is serious about cutting carbon emissions and that’s another reason to (hopefully) vote them out. Malaysia is swimming in cheap petrol and they won’t do anything to raise the price or get people to drive less for fear of a populist backlash.

    Also, talk of using palm oil as biofuel is rubbish (as far as the current state of the art of growing it stands). We have so much carbon emission and air pollution (hello? annual haze la!) from growing it just for cooking at the moment, that growing more to run cars on would be a disaster. In addition, cutting down more rainforests reduces the amount of carbon we capture. The idea of oil palm being “sustainable” is laughable.

    I agree with Sean’s statement that we should invest in solar. Nuclear power I’m somewhat more doubtful about, given our country’s record of corruption and industrial/construction accidents. Either the plant would go ‘TERBABOOM’ or we would wake up one day to find all the uranium had taken a holiday to Iran.

  3. pei ling says:

    Forgotten to add one point in my article: the civil societies in Malaysia need to step up, too. Most Malaysian environmental organisations have been working separately on climate change issues except for the Malaysian Climate Change Group, made up of Cetdem, MNS, EPSM and CPA… we haven’t heard anything from them after 2004! Time to step up, work together, and encourage/lure/pressure the government for change!

    @Sean, it is precisely the kind of mindset you’re describing that’s been blocking the negotiations for years. Europe was waiting for the US to step up their target before they would increase theirs; the US was waiting for China to commit more; Australia and Canada were conveniently hiding behind the US’s lame reduction target. Everyone was waiting for everybody else to act because they’re afraid they’ll be “cutting their own throat to save their neighbours”!

    That is the kind of risk we have to take if we wanna tackle climate change. We can’t keep waiting for other people or countries to cut their emission before we would cut ours. I wish we had that luxury.

    I might be biased because I’ve met the negotiators myself, but most of them are experts in their own fields. There are several reasons why Malaysia is lagging behind in solar investment. If you’re really interested in finding out why Malaysia isn’t investing in or promoting it as much as it should, engage the government officials and talk to them first before you start shooting.

  4. A humbled pei ling says:

    Wish to apologise for my incorrect statement in previous comment: “…we haven’t heard anything from them (Malaysian Climate Change Group) after 2004!”

    The group has been continuing their work to the present, my comment was grossly unfair to them and I sincerely apologise to parties that were offended by my ignorant statement. I will strive to prevent similar mistake from happening again. Have shot myself in the foot; I need to step up too!

  5. Grant says:

    There is no weakness in COP15. Climate Change is something to do with nature. Dealing with Mother Nature is a waste of time and resources.

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