Lessons from Copenhagen for Doha

The Economic Times, March 15, 2010; Shanghai Daily, China & The Financial Express, Bangladesh, January 08, 2010

By Pradeep S Mehta

Much has been written about the recently concluded Copenhagen Conference on Climate Change which will continue to reverberate. Copenhagen was not supposed to be the be all and end all on environmental matters. It was a part of a process and even if it disappointed many, including this writer, it remains a significant second best milestone, which will determine the future of climate change negotiations. The debate has certainly shifted from ‘poverty is the biggest polluter’ to ‘justice for the poor victims of pollution by others’. The drama will resume in the next summit in Mexico City in December 2010 and all the global pow wows before that. Our political leaders may again sing in chorus, as they have been doing on the Doha Round of negotiations by the WTO members: ‘let’s do something’.

And in this high-voltage drama we often forget that economic, social and political challenges are powerful enough to take care of many environmental concerns that the countries are facing today. Countries will not have much choice but to take unilateral mitigation and adaptation measures rather than wait for action through global consensus. Our farmers and other common folk have been doing this in their own indigenous ways for centuries and will continue to refine and innovate.

We can discuss whether Copenhagen was an utter failure or a muted success till the cows come home. Writing obituaries of legally binding multilateral treaties serves no purpose. Instead, we should think seriously about the process of arriving at such treaties. A process involving 193 countries to arrive at a political consensus at the highest level through negotiations over two weeks has little chance of success. This is especially so when our political leaders are lacking in capability as well as intention to reconcile global challenges while, at the same time, satisfying their domestic constituencies.

Negotiations have to be a continuous process with a clear roadmap in mind along with ready and implementable alternative plans in order to address its ups and downs. In this respect, it is good to note that a proposal was made in Copenhagen to hold permanent negotiations on climate change in Geneva. This idea received support from many developing countries, as it would allow them to access the negotiating resources of their permanent missions in that city.

Unfortunately, the other big multilateral negotiation, the Doha Round on trade, is suffering from the Copenhagen syndrome and the root cause is the same. One hundred and fifty three members of the World Trade Organisation are trying to thrash out a legally binding, multilateral treaty through ‘consensus’ when their interests are as different as chalk is from cheese.

One may argue that if it happened in the early 90s when the Uruguay Round (the round which launched the WTO) was successfully concluded through consensus then why not now. The world has changed. The days of ‘forced consensus’ are over. It is no longer possible for the US and the European Union (EU) to have a deal between them and then sell that to others. There is a new political equation which includes the big emerging economies as equal partners and sometimes formidable opponents to the traditional powers.

Giving the devil its due, let us take lessons from the positive developments in Copenhagen. Without compromising their basic positions and those of others who were looking at them for leadership, the BASIC (Brazil, South Africa, India and China) group of emerging economies was able to get the US back to the high table of serious negotiations. Both should be complimented as they have shown the world that they are politically mature to make deals.

This initiative should be nurtured as a future model to get interests of others on board and balance them properly while addressing the challenges of making the benefits of global public goods such as climate and international trade accessible to people at large, bearing in mind the principle of common but differentiated responsibilities. Consensus should be developed brick by brick rather than though a sudden act of imposition of will.

This is the most important lesson that Doha should draw from Copenhagen. Fortunately, this lesson is there in the Doha process but yet to be clearly understood. From the vicissitudes of Doha, a New Quad of Brazil, European Union, India and the US has emerged. In late 80s, it was Arthur Dunkel who saved the Uruguay Round from its demise by preparing a draft negotiating text (famously, or infamously, known as the Dunkel Draft) and then weaving various (largely trans-atlantic) interests around it.

Given the current geo-political scenario, it is not possible for the present incumbent at the WTO, Pascal Lamy, to do so. It is up to the New Quad (or G-4) to take up this mantle and show the world that they can make deals. Earlier this year a leading development agency predicted a scenario that the global community may face the disaster of de-globalisation unless global and national institutions channel their energy towards more policy coherence involving multiple stakeholders including the civil society. The new leadership can do it by drawing inspiration from the post World War-II leadership – we have to revisit Potsdam.

Through a recently concluded UNCTAD-initiated negotiation on South-South trade, Brazil and India have shown that they can make politically saleable deals. The European Union has shown its willingness to take a leadership role. Now, it is up to the US Administration to stand up on its feet and show the world that they can take a leadership role — they are a deal-maker, not a deal-breaker. The time is ripe for them – a public survey in the US has shown that today the public at large in that country is less sceptical about trade than they were a year ago.

Whether it is climate change or international trade, while countries have accepted that there is a ‘multilateralisation of sovereignty’, it will be difficult for them to satisfy domestic constituencies if their sources of competitiveness are compromised. Pascal Lamy has aptly stated it in his response to Copenhagen: “the more we move toward a multilateral framework on climate change, the more unilateral trade measures will be difficult to explain”.

The author is the Secretary General of CUTS International and can be reached at psm@cuts.org Bipul Chatterji of CUTS contributed to this article

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