Rewinding Copenhagen, Students Invent Climate Solutions

Over the course of five days of simulated, but, nevertheless, intense, negotiations last June, more than 150 master’s students resurrected the 2009 United Nations climate conference. Beyond learning about UN procedure, the reenactment allowed them to feel personally the struggle of negotiating the future of the planet and to innovate new solutions, which may indeed find a place in global climate programs.

Over the course of five days of simulated, but, nevertheless, intense, negotiations last June, more than 150 master’s students resurrected the 2009 United Nations climate conference. Beyond learning about UN procedure, the reenactment allowed them to feel personally the struggle of negotiating the future of the planet and to innovate solutions, which may indeed find a place in global climate programs.

Rewinding Copenhagen


“I felt I was submitting them to torture, to some kind of weird psycho-social experiment!”

Sébastien Treyer, of the Institute for Sustainable Development and International Relations (IDDRI) in Paris is remembering, of all things, a student project he helped organize at France’s prestigious Sciences Po university.  But this was no ordinary classroom activity.  Dr. Treyer is referring to an ambitious reenactment of the 2009 United Nations climate conference, organized over the course of the school year and carried out last June by 160 master’s students. Called Copenhague, et si ça s'était passé autrement?(“What if Copenhagen had happened differently?”), the simulation sought to answer just that.

At the time of the climate talks in Denmark, Dr. Treyer, explains, “the world had this illusion that an international agreement would solve everything.  But this was utopist.  It became clear that this was not the solution.”  Indeed, 192 country delegations left the European capital with only a non-binding agreement to reduce emissions, on a purely voluntary basis, without any official enforcement on the international level.  This did not bode well for achieving the goal, agreed upon at the 2007 UN climate conference in Bali, of limiting global warming in the year 2100 to 2°C, relative to average temperatures of the pre-industrial era. This number came from the Fourth Assessment by the Inter-governmental panel on climate change (IPCC) and reflects climate scientists’ belief that a greater temperature increase would result in irreversible and dangerous changes to the climate.

Bruno Latour, sociologist of science and Vice-President of Research at Sciences Po, along with Laurence Tubiana, Director of IDDRI, asked themselves what would happen if they rewound the ill-fated Copenhagen talks and gave them a fresh start.  They would have a new cast of characters—students—replay the negotiations, and see what could result.  Did the conference necessarily have to end with an impotent agreement, or might these new players approach the problem in a totally different way?  Would new minds bring fresh ideas and an innovative solution?

The Copenhagen simulation involved more than 150 students at Sciences Po.
Copenhagen simulation  150 students Sciences Po

“Today, simulations are seen as useful only for pedagogy,” Treyer explains, “but we thought it could bring new ideas."  Pedagogically, the experiment was extremely fruitful. The students were affected “emotionally and physically,” he says, “in a way no lesson could transmit. They learned there is no easy solution.  Either there will be very bad damage to the Earth, or we will have to severely constrain developing countries, and there is no space for negotiation between the different international players.” That’s an important lesson, but it was only the beginning.

Instead of being crippled politically by this impossible choice, participants in the simulation found a way out.  The carbon emission goals defined for 2050, en route toward achieving the maximal temperature increase stated for 2100, were too restrictive.  Faced with such tough objectives, conference delegates found themselves at a political impasse.  The students’ innovation was to agree on less demanding, yet still quite ambitious, goals for 2035. And, in the meantime, countries would work on creating a global environmental organization that would be better placed to make the necessary changes between 2035 and 2050.  A solution that, to Treyer, seems like the only viable option today.

The realistic, five-day simulation of the international talks spared participants not even the full night of negotiations that proved necessary to reach an agreement in 2009.  The 19 countries represented were chosen to reflect the diversity of alliances that exist in the world: the European Union, the BRICS economies, the JUSCANZ states, the Maldives, speaking for small island nations...  Also present were students in the role of environmental NGOs, the IMF, the energy lobby, and journalists.

Rewinding Copenhagen

Dr. Treyer describes how Copenhagen à la Sciences Po unfolded:  “The first day, the talks went very smoothly. It was very organized and they seemed to reach an agreement.  I thought, ‘This is bad! It’s too soon! They’ll learn the procedure of the UN, but nothing more.’”  He needn’t have worried: At 9 p.m. on the Thursday night, the student in the role of India said, “Let’s look at the numbers.”  He laid out all the data, showing that, even with significant effort on the part of developed countries to reduce emissions, developing countries would still bear too much of the burden.  With current technologies and capacity to finance, he said, we cannot agree on these ambitious goals for 2050.

“Reality jumped to the face of every delegation.  People didn’t want to believe him,” Sébastien Treyer recalls. “They cried out.”  They were disappointed, both because the game they had been on track to “win” with a successful agreement had been ruined, and because the reality for the planet was so bad.  “You can’t separate the two – they were really concerned for both reasons.”  Here was the “torture” that Treyer felt responsible for inflicting.  What followed was an all-night negotiation, reminiscent of the one in 2009.  Teams from different delegations formed working groups, dissecting the data and calling for input from scientific advisors in their search for a solution.

Even now, the simulation long over, Treyer says the students remain changed by their experience.


“They still haven’t come down.  They felt that what they were playing was so close to reality, they felt why Laurence Tubiana fights.”


Founder of the IDDRI think tank, Tubiana has served as a government advisor on environmental issues, represented European NGOs at the World Bank, and participates in international negotiations on climate change.

Fueled by the energy of the experience and the lessons learned, students involved in the reenactment have independently created two spin-offs.  CliMates is an international network of students designed “to research, debate, and find innovative solutions for the fight against climate change in a collaborative process.”


Paris+20 is a simulation, scheduled for next June, which will play out the Rio+20 United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development.  Much like the Copenhagen simulation, the first goal is to get young people involved in the issues and aware of the negotiation process, but a secondary hope is that potential solutions will emerge.


Clearly, simulations like these cannot fully represent the complexities of such international talks.  In the Sciences Po negotiations, members of NGOs attempted to convince the delegations of their point of view.  But without the backing of public opinion, their arguments carried little weight.  Additionally, all delegations have the constraints of their own internal negotiations, as well as obligations to their constituencies back home.  “This is always the case, for every country, but we couldn’t represent these two levels in our simulation,” Sébastien Treyer concedes.

Nevertheless, the results may yet prove useful.  Dr. Treyer was very interested to see how the students’ Maldives delegation managed to be very efficient, even when facing the G77 group of developing countries—states whose growth is threatened by restrictions designed to protect at-risk island nations.


“The proposal for a global organization for the environment seemed empty at the start, but the Maldives kept this building block.  Later, they came back to it and insisted on it in the final agreement.  The simulation allowed the students to enrich the catalog of standards of reference for negotiation strategies.  Negotiation researchers would be interested to observe this because it was very efficient.”


Equally important for Sébastien Treyer was the reality check provided by the Indian delegation.  “Nobody dares raise the question of numbers because the idea is to keep the momentum, keep people around the table.”  His impression of the most recent climate conference, in Durban, is that most of the talks centered on steps to take, the next phases to pass through.  “At IDDRI we think it’s important to say ‘Things are still rolling!’, but at some point you have to address the numbers.  Even if it’s just graphs drawn on a white board, it’s really important to represent this.”

geometric figures

The students involved in the Sciences Po simulation have certainly had their reality check.  This unique experience allowed them to live the challenges faced by the UN, by every country’s delegation, by the entire global community when negotiating a subject of such great consequence as climate change.  Dr. Treyer was impressed by the students’ ability to use the scientific evidence and to reinvent a political solution.  There may be something here that today’s leaders can work with.  In any case, some of tomorrow’s leaders are likely among this group and they, hopefully, will remember that Copenhagen could have happened differently.

  To find out more: "Copenhague : et si ça s'était passé autrement ?" on Facebook Why did Copenhagen fail to deliver a climate deal? - BBC News Durban climate deal: the verdict - The Guardian United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change Climate Interactive – The Climate Scoreboard