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The COP26 Climate Summit Is Drawing Parallels to the Disastrous Copenhagen Meeting of 2009

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  • Asad Rehman, a spokesperson for the COP26 coalition, a U.K.-based civil society that represents indigenous communities, frontline activists and grassroots campaigns from the global south, told CNBC that he had been struck by the comparisons between the meeting in Glasgow and previous talks in Copenhagen.
  • The 2009 summit in Denmark's capital city is widely regarded as a failure, with a deal many countries criticized for falling short of the action needed to tackle the climate crisis.
  • "There are, of course, already parallels in that it is a cold, wet northern European city," Rehman said. "But there are also the more important comparisons."

GLASGOW, Scotland — U.N.-brokered climate talks in Scotland's largest city have been compared to a summit held in Copenhagen over a decade ago that ended in disarray. It is a bleak early assessment of one of the most important diplomatic meetings in history.

World leaders and delegates representing almost every country have convened in Glasgow, U.K., for talks aimed at bringing climate change under control.

Less than a week into the meeting, known as COP26, and the mood is mixed. There have been positive developments, such as pledges to end and reverse deforestation, a deal to cut methane emission levels by 30% by 2030 and new commitments to phase out coal power.

Ultimately, however, the success of the summit will be judged on whether countries and companies can keep the 1.5 degrees Celsius goal alive. This critically important temperature threshold refers to the aspirational target of the landmark 2015 Paris Agreement.

Experts say it is difficult to see how COP26 can steer the world toward 1.5 degrees Celsius.

Crossovers between COP15 and COP26?

Asad Rehman, a spokesperson for the COP26 coalition, a U.K.-based civil society that represents indigenous communities, frontline activists and grassroots campaigns from the global south, told CNBC that he had been struck by the comparisons between the meeting in Glasgow and previous talks in Copenhagen.

The 2009 summit in Denmark's capital city is widely regarded as a failure, with a deal many countries criticized for falling short of the action needed to tackle the climate crisis.

"There are, of course, already parallels in that it is a cold, wet northern European city," Rehman said. "But there are also the more important comparisons."

German Chancellor Angela Merkel (C) negotiates with president of the European Commission, Jose Manuel Barroso (L), Sweden's prime minister and standing president of the European Council, Fredrik Reinfeldt, (R), French President Nicolas Sarkozy, US President Barack Obama and British Prime Minister Gordon Brown during the final night of the UN Climate Change Summit on December 18, 2009 in Copenhagen, Denmark.
Steffen Kugler | Getty Images News | Getty Images
German Chancellor Angela Merkel (C) negotiates with president of the European Commission, Jose Manuel Barroso (L), Sweden's prime minister and standing president of the European Council, Fredrik Reinfeldt, (R), French President Nicolas Sarkozy, US President Barack Obama and British Prime Minister Gordon Brown during the final night of the UN Climate Change Summit on December 18, 2009 in Copenhagen, Denmark.

As with COP26 in Glasgow, Rehman said talks in Copenhagen were billed as humanity's last and best chance to prevent the worst of what the climate crisis had in store. Both summits were "hugely expensive" for the global south, he added, with a lack of affordable accommodation and civil society groups "locked out" of negotiations.

The U.K. COP26 presidency had pledged to make the Glasgow summit "the most inclusive COP ever" and rejected calls from campaigners for the event to be postponed again. Instead, the U.K. government said they would implement additional measures to alleviate concerns about safety and inclusivity at the event amid the coronavirus pandemic.

Rehman noted the meetings in both Copenhagen and Glasgow were preceded by a change in U.S. leadership in which the newly elected president announced America was "back at the table" to lead on climate. There were similarities too, he said, in how former President Barack Obama steered the U.S. back into the Kyoto Protocol and President Joe Biden brought the country back into the landmark Paris Agreement.

At COP15 in 2009, when talks were centered on limiting global heating to 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, the chair of the G-77 group of developing nations rejected the proposals put forward by high-income nations, likening the terms to a "suicide pact."

In 2021, policymakers and environmental activists representing people most threatened by climate change issued a rallying cry for the world not to compromise on 1.5 degrees Celsius, warning that surpassing this level was akin to "a death sentence" for many countries.

It was in Denmark 12 years ago that high-income countries pledged to provide $100 billion a year to low-income countries by 2020, a promise that remains unfulfilled in Glasgow. What's more, Rehman said both COPs took place after economic crises in which rich countries "poured trillions into saving their economies," referring to the 2008 financial crisis and the coronavirus pandemic.

"I just find it a really uncanny moment in terms of the politics, the organizational ineptitude and, of course, the context in which it takes place," Rehman said. One key difference between COP15 and COP26, he added, was that a new generation of climate justice movements in the global north now had much more understanding of the systemic causes of the crisis. "It is a deeper awareness of the kind of demands that are needed," he said.

'One very significant parallel'

Jason Hickel, an economic anthropologist and visiting senior fellow at the London School of Economics, told CNBC that he could also see the similarities between the Glasgow and Copenhagen COPs.

"To me, this is really problematic," Hickel said, noting the sense of frustration among campaigners that the Glasgow summit has been particularly exclusionary.

"I think that we have to have caution with any excitement about what leaders are saying on stage at this COP because its easy to say things. As far as I'm concerned, if they were serious then they would make sure that they have their critics in these spaces to challenge and hold them accountable – and I don't see that happening," Hickel said.

"These COPs have become like PR spin games," he added.

Not everyone is of the opinion that the Glasgow summit poses a striking resemblance to the Copenhagen meeting, and some have expressed optimism about the climate discussions.

"I see one parallel, one very significant parallel, which is really serious, and that is the same bad quality of coffee — but that's the only one," said Johan Rockstrom, director of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research and one of the world's most influential Earth scientists.

A lesson from the failure at Copenhagen, Rockstrom said, was for host countries to ensure that they provide a comfortable setting to delegations from around the world. "I feel Glasgow has not really taken that on seriously enough," he said.

"The rest I totally disagree with … In Copenhagen, it was perceived as a big environmental problem that needed to be solved. Period."

"What made us succeed in Paris was that it was no longer an environmental problem that needed to be solved, it was a major systemic challenge for the world economy, meaning that businesses were there, and cities were there to play ball," he continued. "And then you come to Glasgow and we are even further down that line. Now we are so far down that line that I can assure you the discussions here in Glasgow are not whether we have a problem, it is not whether or not we will solve this problem, it is whether or not we will go fast enough."

"The question is now is well beyond the discussions in Copenhagen … and so I see very few analogies to go on," Rockstrom said.

Patricia Espinosa, the executive secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, told CNBC's Steve Sedgwick on Thursday that she had been "really encouraged" by the progress made in Glasgow so far.

"Of course, we're coming to this conference with the clear message that the numbers we have in terms of emissions are not good," Espinosa said. "So, that means that we really must come out of here with clarity on how we are going to move forward."

Speaking to CNBC earlier this week, Irish Prime Minister Micheal Martin said he was upbeat on the progress made in Glasgow so far. "I think there's a real strong sense of momentum here in relation to the whole agenda around climate change," Martin told CNBC's Steve Sedgwick on Tuesday.

"With the major commitments made by individual countries but also collectively, the tone was very strong yesterday at the opening," he said. Nonetheless, Martin said there would need to be more progress made in the arena of climate finance. "[We need to see] concrete reality to the pledges around finance," he said.

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