Copenhagen to Cancun

Shane Fitzgerald
The general view in Ireland was that both the organisation and the outcome of the Copenhagen climate change conference was unsatisfactory. Frank McDonald of The Irish Times, among other Irish journalists, described the huge conference venue as “bedlam”.[1] The Taoiseach, Brian Cowen, expressed disappointment at the outcome, stating that “[t]he substance of the European Union’s [offers] was robustly put, but we couldn’t get the commitment of others.” He added that “we did not achieve everything we wanted, but the reality is that this is as much as can be advanced at this stage.”[2] The Minister for the Environment, John Gormley (Green Party), described the Copenhagen Accord itself as “underwhelming”, stating that its only advantage was that it “keeps the process alive” until the next climate change conference in Cancun in December 2010. Officials from the Minister for the Environment’s office speaking in confidence lamented the inability of the EU to present a united front at negotiations and expressed deep disappointment at the outcome. Irish charities and NGOs also expressed their dissatisfaction, with some blaming the EU’s failure to offer a 30 percent emissions reduction for the collapse of the talks. Finally, the mood among the general public varied between frustration and bemusement.
Analysis of the outcome by Joseph Curtin, climate policy specialist at the Institute of International and European Affairs, reported widely by the Irish media, identified the naivety of the EU’s approach to negotiations, the inability to effectively marshal and use all instruments at its disposal, the failure to build strategic alliances, and the lack of a central EU negotiator as key causes of the bloc’s poor performance at what was supposed to be the venue of a major display of European solidarity, vision and purpose.[3]
Irish attitudes
Few concrete indicators exist but anecdotal evidence and media commentary suggest that climate change scepticism and indifference may be on the rise in Ireland. Doubts about the science, already exacerbated by the recent scandals of data manipulation and misrepresentation at the University of Essex Climate Research Unit and the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, have been compounded by the “evidence” of an unusually icy winter, which has served to embolden the rhetoric of climate change sceptics.[4]
On a more positive note, after years in which Ireland lagged behind continental partners when it came to environmental awareness and policy, the current government – a coalition between the dominant party of Irish politics (the centre-right Fianna Fail) and a much smaller Green Party – is trying to prove itself in this arena, and is doing so very much by reference to its European partners. A recent renegotiation of the programme for government resulted in considerable concessions to the Green Party’s agenda and the Irish government was vocal even before Copenhagen in supporting a revision of the agreed 2020 mission’s reduction target from 20 percent to 30 percent. From an Irish perspective, the EU’s own climate change policy is generally seen as adequate, though there are of course vast differences of opinion between, for example, the environmental and the business lobbies.
One area where these two lobbies often overlap, and indeed align with government policy priorities, is in that of renewable energy. The Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources, Eamon Ryan (Green Party), believes that Ireland can become a renewables powerhouse in the post-2020 period by intensively developing its wind and wave resources, and could ultimately be in a position to export electricity to Europe.[5]
There is already a lot of commercial activity in this area. One example is an agreement recently signed between the Energia electricity supplier and the US-based Ocean Energy Systems, whose wave energy converter (WEC) is currently being developed off the west coast of Ireland.[6] Ambitious plans also exist in tidal[7] and wind[8] energy. What these proposals for transforming Ireland’s energy infrastructure have in common is that they all depend heavily on the existence of a next generation European electricity grid connecting the continent’s electricity suppliers and consumers much more efficiently than has been the case until now. Irish interests will be keen to maintain a policy focus on this goal at the EU level.[9]
Joseph Curtin (of the Institute of International and European Affairs (IIEA) and the Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland) argues for the idea that the EU should introduce a border adjustment tariff for countries which are failing to meet emissions targets. While a risk of tit-for-tat responses leading to trade protectionism does exist, such a move could prove extremely powerful as a negotiating tactic in talks with third parties over a comprehensive climate agreement. It would also demonstrate clearly that the EU is capable of transforming its economic clout into real political capital.
Ultimately, a global agreement within the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) should be the objective of these negotiations. However, so-called “mini-lateral” negotiations (between the EU, the USA, Japan and the BASIC bloc of China, India, South Africa and Brazil in particular) may offer more promise initially as they are not beset by the same procedural obstacles as UN negotiations.
The failure of Copenhagen is read in Ireland as a failure of EU diplomacy first and foremost. More creative avenues may now have to be found. Progress made at fora such as the G20, for example, might later be presented to UNFCCC for approval. In some cases (e.g., China’s alliances with G77) partners in strategic alliances at Copenhagen which opposed the EU seemed to have little in common. The EU needs to learn from such manoeuvres by cultivating bilateral relationships with a variety of developed and developing country partners. It must also prioritise the mainstreaming of climate change objectives into its external policy instruments such as its aid, trade and energy programmes.

The Minister for the Environment has said that developing countries argued “strongly” in Copenhagen that they should not be denied development due to global climate change mitigation measures and that Ireland is willing to play its role in contributing to EU financing commitments as required. Although he personally has confirmed that he wishes Ireland’s contribution to be “additional” to existing aid commitments, the government has yet to officially confirm that this will be the case. At a time of severe budgetary tightening and uncertainty, this is a central issue for many of the Irish development and environmental NGOs active in this area.

[1] Irish Times: Climate talks venue becomes hothouse as key debate looms, 14 December 2009, available at: (last access: 18 May 2010).

[2] Reported in the Guardian: Copenhagen: The last-ditch drama that saved the deal from collapse, available at: (last access: 18 May 2010).

[3] Joseph Curtin: 2010. The Copenhagen Conference: How Should the EU Respond?, available at: (last access: 18 May 2010).

[4] See for example Frank Mc Donald: Europe must lead the way against climate scepticism, Irish Times, available at: (last access: 18 May 2010).

[5] Ibid.

[6] See for example Green Tech. Energia takes on Ireland’s wave power, 10 May 2010, available at: (last access: 18 May 2010).

[7] See for example Green Tech. OpenHydro to deploy 200MW tidal energy farm off Scotland, 16 March 2010, available at: (last access: 18 May 2010).

[8] See the Spirit of Ireland Website, available at: (last access: 18 May 2010).

[9] See for example this presentation by Eddie O’Connor, of Mainstream Renewable Power, to the IIEA, available at: (last access: 18 May 2010).