Mary Dejevsky: Don't panic... Copenhagen really wasn't such a disaster

The lesson is this: governments are elected; NGOs are not

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Napoleon's retreat from Moscow has nothing on the stumbling return of the climate-change crowd from Copenhagen. Angry, indignant and bedraggled, with nowhere to go but home, the troops are blaming the generals and the generals the troops. Leadership has evaporated; there's panic in the air.

Ed Miliband, Britain's Climate Change Secretary (is this a sensible title?), is blaming China – at least he's not picking on the little 'uns – while a grave Prime Minister intones "never again". "Never again should we face the deadlock that threatened to bring down these talks; never again should we let a global deal... be held to ransom by only a handful of countries," Gordon Brown said. In a podcast.

Small matter that a large part of the northern hemisphere has ground to a halt because of severe winter weather: early blizzards on the eastern seaboard of the US; traffic at a standstill in much of Britain; thousands stuck on the wrong side of the English Channel (fortunately no longer under it), and much of the rest of Europe frozen solid. Is it only die-hard warming sceptics who are wondering whether the climate might not be changing the other way? If so, then perhaps it's for the best that Copenhagen "failed".

But did it really fail? And if it did, then against what benchmarks? Did a clutch of self-interested national leaders really scupper the planet? Was China the only villain? Are we contemplating apocalypse now, or even in 50 years' time? Will, say, a year's wait for a global agreement to limit the projected temperature rise to C hasten the drowning of the Maldives? Or even parts of East Anglia? Forgive my inveterate optimism, but maybe we have time.

What happened at Copenhagen was not nothing – nor, as the Al Gore doom-mongers would have it, was it deep into minus territory. More than 100 leaders came together to discuss climate change. It has not happened before. All manner of different voices were heard, including those of small and developing nations which are usually smothered by those of bigger, richer countries. The US, which never came near signing up to the Kyoto Treaty, were represented by the President. So were the Russians and the Canadians, who could be forgiven for regarding warming in a rather kinder light than, say, the Australians or sub-Saharan Africans.

Does a framework document, accepted by the US, China, India, Brazil and South Africa, count for nothing? These five countries account for a large part of the global population and a large part of its development, not just now but into the future. The European Union held back, because it had hoped for something more ambitious. Was it wrong for the EU to bide its time in the hope of attaining something better at the second or third time of asking? But there was no breakdown. Everyone has agreed to meet again to talk targets and again in Mexico City in a year's time. Having explored such a diverse collection of bargaining positions, national negotiators will then be far better equipped to find a way through.

So why, if this much was achieved, is the message being put about that Copenhagen failed? First, because climate-change alarmists, prophesying doom just over the horizon, had agitated for a statutory undertaking to cut carbon emissions by 50 per cent by 2050. So high had they set their demands that anything less was going to constitute disaster. So Copenhagen "failed". And, second, because governments had allowed the campaigners to make the running – out of indulgence, negligence, misplaced idealism, who knows? – and they were left having to take the campaigners' word for it.

You can absolutely guarantee that if the – theoretically – legally-binding agreement had been signed, everyone would have rushed to claim the credit: the campaigners for pushing the politicians; all national leaders for seeing the light; the Danes for having hosted such a stellar gathering. What a party there would have been!

But with no actual success to boast of, as defined by the now near-hysterical activists, national leaders naturally sought to extricate themselves from blame, especially those, such as Mr Brown, soon to face the judgement of the electorate. There are times when avoidance of failure is actually not such a bad outcome after all. But that is only if you have prepared the ground.

Copenhagen is a salutary reminder that summits, especially summits on the grand scale, are not always crowned with success. But it is also a lesson to governments not to lose the initiative. They are elected; NGOs are not. Copenhagen did not fail, it simply did not live up to absurd expectations. Panic might have been in order either if major countries had walked out or if a statutory, but unrealisable, document had been approved. It is not in order now.

m.dejevsky@independent.co.uk

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