And so — after all the hype, the hope, the hysteria — this is how it ends. Not with a bang but a whimper.

The Copenhagen climate change summit fizzled out late Saturday afternoon as delegates, exhausted after a final 31-hour negotiating marathon, agreed only to “take note” of the Copenhagen Accord that Barack Obama had hailed as a “meaningful breakthrough”.

The watered-down accord — hastily cobbled together on the last day of the talks by leaders of 28 nations — saved the summit from complete collapse, but does not include any medium- or long-term emissions targets or a mandate to create a legally binding treaty in the future. Countries will now choose whether to opt into it or not.

In fact, the Copenhagen talks were so shambolic that many are now openly pondering whether the United Nations should be stripped of its role as the primary forum for co-ordinating global efforts to combat climate change.

“The Copenhagen conference demonstrated the highly unsatisfactory and inefficient method of UN conferences,” said Jo Leinen, head of the European Union’s Copenhagen delegation.  “A deep reform of the decision-making process in the framework of the United Nations is an urgent necessity.”

As we saw in the drawn-out final day negotiations, at the UN climate change talks it takes only one nation — be it a tiny island state with a population smaller than that of an Australian suburb, or a genocidal regime such as Sudan — to block action, regardless of the views of the vast majority of nations.

Expect much debate over coming days as to whether global climate change policy should be handed over to a G-20-style body made up of the world’s biggest polluters.

The summit also closed without approving the Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation (REDD) pact, which had been the one ray of hope for a legally binding outcome during the talks. This means approval for REDD, a comprehensive plan to protect the world’s biologically rich tropical forests by paying poor nations to stop cutting down trees, will now be put off until COP16 in Mexico.

“It’s depressing,” said Kevin Conrad, executive director of the Coalition of Rainforest Nations, which includes many of the 40 tropical countries that would take part in the program. “It means I’ve got to spend another year … coming to meetings and talking about the same things.”

Hillary Clinton’s announcement that the US would contribute to a fund providing $100 billion dollars a year by 2020 to vulnerable countries was the summit’s most important concrete announcement. But the details are still fuzzy, with big questions remaining over how much each nation will commit and how much will come from the private sector.

The blame game is already well under way. Many NGOs and poorer nations are accusing developed countries of stalling progress at Copenhagen.

Indeed, the push by groups such as the European Union, United States, Japan and Russia to scrap the Kyoto Protocol was an enormous time-waster and fostered much bad feeling. It was foolishly naive to think that developing countries would give it up before a new legally-binding treaty is ready to go.

As UNFCC executive secretary Yvo de Boer, who has delighted journalists during the summit with his imaginative word pictures, said: “There is a saying in my language that if you only have one pair of shoes, don’t throw them away before you have new ones. So at the moment Kyoto is my shoes and I would like to keep them on until I know there are something better for me to have.”

But developing nations haven’t always distinguished themselves either. The G77 and China chief negotiator Lumumba Di-Aping seemed to be more concerned with headlines than consensus-building, insults raining forth from his mouth like bullets from an automatic machine gun. He certainly missed his target in the final negotiating session when he claimed that the Copenhagen Accord “is a solution based on the same very values, in our opinion, that channeled six million people in Europe into furnaces.”

Lost in his spiel was the fact that China and India — who sent ambassadors and diplomats to draft the accord, instead of heads of state — were among those keenest to water it down.

Copenhagen has offered the world a brutal reality check on the difficult road ahead in stopping runaway climate change. Perhaps, more than hope, that’s what we really needed anyway.

Peter Fray

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