The UN climate change talks in Copenhagen ended in a dramatic flurry of activity, diplomacy, and negotiation early Saturday. The activity, however, did not translate into any significant momentum towards resolving the major impediments to a truly global response to the climate crisis.
The main takeaway from the talks was the “Copenhagen Accord,” [.pdf] a document largely negotiated by the large emitters, including the United States, China, India and Brazil. The details of how the accord was negotiated are still sketchy, although some the initial reporting suggests that world leaders were actually going line-by-line through the text–an activity normally reserved for lower level diplomats. Interestingly, it seemed as if China & India were savvy in keeping the EU and the US at bay. Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao sent his underlings into meetings with Western leaders and apparently rejected both the EU offer of reducing its emissions by 30% by 2020 from 1990 levels and the general developed country commitment of an 80% reduction by 2050 under the questionable guise that by 2050 they will be considered “developed” and subject to reductions.
After the accord was endorsed late Friday night by the few countries engaged in its drafting, it needed to be presented to the larger “conference of the parties” to the UN climate treaty. The floor debate began around 3:00am and was quite rancorous. There was significant opposition from Latin American countries and small island nations who were cut out of the accord’s drafting.
Decisions under the climate treaty generally require consensus from all participating countries and at one point it seemed as if the conference would break up without considering the accord. Apparently the head UK climate negotiator, Ed Miliband stepped in to defend the accord and the conference wound up “noting” the accord as opposed to “supporting” or “endorsing” it.
Such a tepid response sullies the accord’s significance within the context of the UN decision making framework.
So, what does the Copenhagen Accord say?
First, it is a political agreement, so there are no legal obligations on the part of signatories to follow its directives.
Second, the accord does say that “the increase in global temperature should be below 2 degrees Celsius.” This is in keeping with other political proclamations over the past year by developed countries–in particular the G8. However the use of the word “should”–rather than “shall”–doesn’t imply a significant level of commitment.
Third, instead of a timetable for a globally-binding treaty, the accord simply says that “we should cooperate in achieving the peaking of global and national emissions as soon as possible.” Again, no “shall,” and more significantly, no mention in the accord of translating its framework into a legally-binding treaty–an outcome of Copenhagen that was hoped for by many before the talks began.
Fourthly, the accord asks both developed and developing countries to submit their own national emissions targets by 31 January 2010 to include in the accord. Significantly, developing countries’ mitigation targets “will be subject to their domestic measurement, reporting, and verification” procedures. This represents a strike against the US position, which had insisted throughout the talks that China and India–in particular–needed to be subject to international “MRV” procedures. The accord does say, however, that if a developing country is receiving international financing for a specific mitigation action then that particular action needs to be subject to international monitoring.
Fifth, the accord does recognize the importance of forest conservation and endorses an “immediate establishment of a mechanism” to provide financing for stopping deforestation.
Sixth, the accord provides specific numbers for financing from developed countries to developing countries to deal with adaptation and mitigation. The commitment is collective–meaning the specific breakdown of each country’s share has not been established–and will be $30 billion for three years. By 2020, the number should rise to $100 billion per year. These aggregate numbers are lower than amounts discussed before the conference and the specific mechanisms on how money will be allocated are unresolved.
The accord discusses setting up a “Copenhagen Green Climate Fund” that will monitor climate aid and should be accountable to the parties to the UN convention. Although I’m not a lawyer, it is not clear to me what the significance of the parties’ lack of clear endorsement of the Copenhagen Accord might have on the governance of this fund.
Finally, the accord calls for its implementation to be completed by 2015 and a future “consideration of strengthening of the long-term goal referencing various matters presented by the science, including in relation to temperature rises of 1.5 degrees Celsius.” This, obviously, was a rather torpid attempt to placate small island states and the growing body of scientists and activists who argue that the risks of accepting a 2 degree rise in global temperature are too great.
The summation of the Copenhagen Accord has been best expressed by Kim Carstensen of the World Wildlife Fund, who calls it “half-baked and unclear.”
It doesn’t really resolve anything, but brings up even more questions about how the problem of global climate change can be addressed.
Some of these questions include: If the signatories to the declaration really want to keep the planet from warming 2 degrees, what are they going to do to see that goal realized? What will happen if/when, at the end of January after countries present their mitigation goals, it becomes apparent that the voluntary commitments will be insufficient to stave off harmful global warming?
The accord says that it should be fully implemented by 2015. This is also the year that IPCC head Rajendra Pachauri said that global emissions need to peak in order to stay within the 2 degree warming threshold. How can can emissions peak by 2015 given the leisurely timeline for implementation?
What is the future of the UN climate change convention? If the Copenhagen Accord is the product of a backroom deal that fundamentally eclipses the Kyoto Protocol and the larger UNFCCC process, does this mean that the effort for a legally binding treaty is effectively over? Regardless of what happens to the UNFCCC, how can differences in the US, EU, China and Indian positions be resolved if we are to live on a planet safe from the risks associated with escalated global temperatures?
Is the financing adequate to help the most distressed peoples of the world avoid catastrophe? The numbers in the accord don’t seem to add up and are not nearly ambitious enough to deal with the crises many less developed countries are experiencing right now in their struggles to adapt to changing climatic conditions.
These questions were the ones that were supposed to have been resolved at Copenhagen. The fact that nothing has been resolved is testament to a failure in leadership of many countries involved and especially those who pushed through the accord, namely the US, China, and India.
The next few weeks will be crucial. Pressure from civil society on national leaders will be essential if actual progress can be made on mitigation. If the numbers presented on 1 February don’t hold up to scrutiny, each of the signatories needs to be quite explicit on how the international community will actually address the reality of the science.
That leaves the last unresolved question which comes out Copenhagen, namely the future of civil society in pushing for a fair, binding, and ambitious deal. The UNFCCC and Danish government’s failure to adequately accommodate civil society in Copenhagen leaves a bitter taste for many who had hopes for the talks. Expelling civil society observers from the Bella Center for the last days of the conference undoubtedly made it easier for the major emitters to push through a “half-baked” accord. It will be difficult, but the many civil society groups involved in climate policy will have to regroup and redouble their efforts to pressure national leaders to develop an actual deal.