Why Copenhagen doesn’t matter

John Mikler, The University of Sydney

For its role in raising global consciousness on the emerging crisis of climate change the establishment of the Kyoto Protocol was an historic moment, heavy with symbolism. So was Australia’s ratification of Kyoto, finally, in Bali in late 2007. Symbols matter, the codification of widely held beliefs in formal agreements matters, and so too does discussion aimed at reaching such agreements. Yet it is important to know when action rather than symbolism should be more important, and therefore to question whether talkfests such as the United Nations Climate Change Conference to be held in Copenhagen in December matter for finding solutions to mitigate the impact of climate change.

Events like Copenhagen are given greater status than they deserve.

The conventional wisdom is that Copenhagen is important because global problems require global solutions, and we are told often enough that there is no more global problem than climate change. Therefore, all states, all societies, all corporations, and indeed every man woman and child on the planet must be part of the solution to it. As the problem is so ubiquitous, so must be the solution, and therefore a ‘result’ from Copenhagen is the next crucial step in achieving it.

This perspective is counter-productive. It is largely because climate change is framed in these terms that events like Copenhagen are given greater status than they deserve. While we focus on the meeting, and what will no doubt be a disappointing outcome however it is spun, opportunities for really addressing perhaps the most serious threat to humanity and the planet are being sidetracked. The global problem of climate change requires national solutions in the form of action by a handful of key states that are both the source of the problem and capable of finding solutions to it.


The conventional wisdom is that when problems are global, international agreements between states and non-state actors are what matter, not decisions taken at the level of the nation state, let alone sub-state levels. Related to this is a belief that size matters: international agreements and international organisations are judged by the number of their signatories and members. The rationale behind this is that there is a ‘logic’ of collective action which dictates that one shirker, or ‘free rider’, will lead to collective ruin. This belief is held by those who embrace a rational choice perspective of the world, such as mainstream economists, and underpins much analysis in international political economy and international relations. Adherents define actors’ motivations in terms of individualistic self-interest, and this gives rise to familiar arguments along the following lines. Because every state represented at Copenhagen has an incentive to free ride on the good efforts of others, and thereby derive benefits that others have denied themselves, they will always be tempted to do so. Each has an incentive not to abide by any agreement they strike, or to find ways of avoiding an agreement in the first place. This is one reason why climate change is said to be such a ‘diabolical’ problem by Professor Ross Garnaut (2008): ‘any effective remedies lie beyond any act of national will, requiring international cooperation of unprecedented dimension and complexity’ (p. xviii).

Framing the threat of climate change as a global collective action problem seems to be supported by observation. The United States has said that there is little point in ratifying the Kyoto Protocol if large, rapidly developing countries such as China and India do not commit to substantial cuts in their emissions. But China has said that it is reluctant to make such a commitment unless industrialised countries like the United States do so first. Without such big emitters on board, the rest of the world seems to have made only marginal progress in limiting emission increases, let alone delivering reductions. In fact, greenhouse gas emissions only decreased by around 4 per cent between 1990 and 2006 across all Annex 1 (that is, industrialised country) signatories to the Kyoto Protocol (United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, n.d).

The prevailing way of casting the problem risks making it unsolvable.

Framing climate change as a collective action problem might also explain why the Chair of the Australian Government’s new Australian Carbon Trust, Professor Robert Hill, declared at the US Studies Centre’s 2009 Summit in June that, by comparison to Copenhagen, negotiating the Kyoto Protocol had been ‘easy’. This is because only the rich countries were involved in making commitments. Now we need to get the poorer ones to do so as well, otherwise there is little likelihood of industrialised countries like the United States making further commitments. In short, when an effective agreement is defined as ‘one in, all in’, agreement seems worthless unless all countries make strong emission reduction commitments. Hence the focus on Copenhagen as a crucial and diabolically difficult event. If a global agreement on emission reductions and how to deliver these cannot be hammered out by all states, big and small, industrialised and developing, a crucial opportunity will have been lost. Yet, the more parties added to the negotiations, the more difficult it will be to reach an agreement between all of them.


This way of casting the problem of climate change risks making it unsolvable. The problem seems so intractable and so complex that it is almost easier to throw up ones’ hands and declare it all too hard. How many states must agree? All of them. That’s a big ask. However, I suggest three reasons why only a few key states actually matter.

First, those who say that countries like Australia don’t matter are to some extent correct; not because they remain unreconstructed climate sceptics (although some no doubt are), but because Australia accounts for such a small proportion of global CO2 emissions: a mere 1.4 per cent. Australia’s emissions pale by comparison to the six countries that emit more than one billion tonnes of CO2 per annum: China, the United States, India, Russia, Brazil and Japan. Together, they account for 49 per cent of global emissions. If we add the European Union, because it makes environmental laws and policies for its member states on a regional basis, and count the other members of NAFTA along with the United States, then five countries and two regions account for 68 per cent (International Energy Agency 2008, pp. III.43–47). Clearly, what matters for really tackling climate change is largely not an agreement among all the countries of the world, but action within and among the states and regions that are responsible for over two thirds of global emissions.

Second, although Australia’s own emission reductions may not be critical, its role as an exporter of fossil fuels and other resources is. Australia’s largest export sector is minerals and fuels, and our top three trading partners are China, Japan and the United States (Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade 2008, p. 21). Indeed, the Minister for Resources and Energy, Martin Ferguson, called Australia ‘a global energy superpower’ upon signing a A$50 billion deal to sell gas to China on 18 August 2009 (Australian Government 2009). Therefore, the contribution a country like Australia can make to addressing climate change does not predominantly hinge on being part of solving some grand global collective action problem. What matters is that key countries such as China stop demanding what we export to them in such volumes. This may not be good news for Australia in the short term, and we should not expect to hear such a policy position from the mouths of any of our politicians! Yet, for mitigating climate change this is Australia’s inconvenient truth.

Global effects are not created nor felt randomly, and not shared equally.

The third reason is largely a moral one. A global solution is the aim at Copenhagen, but the data on emissions demonstrates that climate change is not a placeless phenomenon. As authors such as Linda Weiss (2003) have long argued, the places where global effects originate, and where solutions are to be found, still fall within national boundaries. Global effects are neither created nor felt randomly, and they are not shared equally. While all nations will suffer the impact of climate change, some are creating it (for example, large industrialised countries like the United States, and rapidly industrialising ones like China), and some will feel its effects more severely while having done little to create it (for example, Bangladesh and Pacific island countries). Inflating finding solutions to climate change to the global level, and thereby conflating its national and regional sources with its global impact, may simply maintain the status quo: poor countries stay where they ‘belong’, so industrialised countries can get on with business as usual. If the global ‘solution’ is to establish a global market where the right to emit is bought and sold, the result will be that those who can afford to purchase the right to keep polluting will do so from those who would like to but cannot afford it.


International agreements are all very well, but if a handful of key states and two regions are the main emitters of CO2, then something much less than a global solution is required. Instead, domestic and regional politics may be more important in finding real solutions. But why should these states act?

If we step outside the frame that defines collective action problems in terms of a narrowly defined conception of rational self-interest, it is clear that there are incentives for states to act unilaterally, and in the case of states that belong to regional groupings such as NAFTA and the European Union, regionally. Over a decade ago, Michael Porter and Claas van der Linde (1990 and 1995) demonstrated that environmental inefficiency is a sign of economic inefficiency. Rather than seeing a world beset by economic versus environmental trade-offs, they pointed out that the economic and environmental successes (or failures) are often mutually reinforcing. More than this, competitive firms that aim to meet, or exceed, the standards of states that are regulatory leaders receive a first-mover competitive advantage ‘as other regions, and ultimately other nations, modify regulations to follow suit’ (Porter 1990, p. 648). It follows that so do the states with the strictest regulations.

Addressing climate change requires national solutions.

A case in point is the US car industry. When the United States introduced environmental regulations in the 1970s, the US car industry cried that the economic costs of the environmental regulations would drive it out of business. It had some lobbying success with this viewpoint, as fuel economy regulations were actually weakened in the 1980s. In the 1990s, the industry joined and funded lobby groups such as the Coalition for Vehicle Choice in the United States, and international lobby groups such as the Global Climate Coalition and the Climate Council. These consistently lobbied governments against emission controls to reduce greenhouse gases, again on the basis that the result would be severe economic impacts (Beder 2002). Yet, nobody would say that the current woes of firms such as General Motors and Chrysler are a result of them being too green! If firms that avoid seizing the environmental initiative do not obviously reap economic benefits, then the same argument may also be applied to countries. After all, the environmental degradation wrought by the polluting heavy industries of the former Eastern bloc countries was a symbol of their economic as much as environmental inefficiency.

So, there are reasons to be optimistic. Addressing climate change requires national solutions, and the co-ordination of action between key states, rather than solving what may be an impossibly large collective action problem at the global level. Further, we should stop ruling out the possibility of economic as well as environmental benefits for states and corporations that take unilateral environmental initiatives.


In his recent book, Anthony Giddens (2009) characterises the politics of climate change not just in collective action terms, but also in terms of inter-temporal choices. He writes that countries that continue emitting greenhouse gases at current levels are like a smoker putting off quitting. S/he chooses to avoid making sacrifices now, in favour of dealing with the health effects of her/his inaction later. Rather than pinning our hopes on global solutions, anyone concerned about mitigating climate change should be hoping that the few big emitters decide to act now, regardless of discussions at Copenhagen, and regardless of what other countries decide to do. Otherwise, the inevitable imperative of doing something will be thrust upon them, and us, in the near future anyway. When this happens, Australia risks being like a heavy smoker trying to sell cheap fags (that is, fossil fuels) to tempt ex-smokers. But we are a lucky country indeed. We are blessed with land in abundance, we are drenched in sunlight, surrounded by water, and have some of the best scientists and technical know how in the world. Why wait for Copenhagen before embracing more sustainable alternatives?


Australian Government 2009, China Buys Australian Gas Worth $50 billion – Our Biggest Trade Deal Ever, The Hon Martin Ferguson MP, Media release, 18 August [Online], Available: http://minister.ret.gov.au/TheHonMartinFergusonMP/Pages/ChinaBuysAustralianGasWorth$50Billion.aspx [2009, Sep 10].

Beder, S. 2002, Global Spin: The Corporate Assault on Environmentalism, Green Books, Devon, UK.

Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade 2008, Trade Topics: Quarterly Statistics Incorporating December Quarter 2008 Data, Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, Canberra [Online], Available: http://www.dfat.gov.au/publications/stats-pubs/downloads/trade_topics.pdf [2009, Sep 10].

Garnaut, R. 2008, The Garnaut Climate Change Review: Final Report, Cambridge University Press, Melbourne.

Giddens, A. 2009, The Politics of Climate Change, Polity Press, Cambridge.

International Energy Agency 2008, CO2 Emissions from Fuel Combustion: 2008 Edition, International Energy Agency, Paris.

Porter, M. 1990, The Competitive Advantage of Nations, The Free Press, New York.

Porter, M. & van der Linde, C. 1995, ‘Towards a new conception of the environment-competitiveness relationship’, Journal of Economic Perspectives, vol. 9, no. 4, pp. 97–118.

United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, n.d., Summary of GHG Emissions for Annex 1 [Online], Available: http://unfccc.int/di/DetailedByParty.do [2009, Aug 1].

Weiss, L. 2003, ‘Introduction: Bringing domestic institutions back in’, in States in the Global Economy: Bringing Domestic Institutions Back In, ed. L. Weiss, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

Dr John Mikler is Senior Lecturer in the Department of Government and International Relations at the University of Sydney. His research investigates the role of transnational economic actors, particularly multinational corporations, and their interaction with states, international organisations and civil society. His first book, Greening the Car Industry: Varieties of Capitalism and Climate Change, has recently been published (Edward Elgar, 2009).