The Copenhagen Accord
The international climate change conference in Copenhagen took an important step this past weekend toward tackling the "mortal threat" of climate change. After a week of rancorous talks that descended at one point into a public row between U.S. and Chinese negotiators and a walk-out of developing nations, major emitters reached an agreement which was grudgingly acknowledged by nearly all countries in attendance. This step was not as large or as bold as many nations, NGOs, and experts had called for. And if additional steps are not taken, the world will remain in tremendous peril as the threat of climate change grows. However, the fact that an agreement was reached with China and India and other developing countries is a significant step that potentially signifies a major structural shift in international climate change negotiations and lays the groundwork for bolder future action. After eight years of obstructing action at international negotiations by the Bush administration, the Obama administration has sought to reassert America's role as a global leader. However, while President Obama played a critical role in brokering the accord, American negotiators were hamstrung by lack of action in the Senate, which served as a major obstacle to bolder action.
WHAT WAS ACHIEVED: The agreement that emerged out of Copenhagen contains emission targets for greenhouse gases for both developed and developing countries, as well as commitments on the part of developed countries to contribute $100 billion per year to assist developing countries deal with the effects of climate change. Importantly, the agreement moved past one of the major points of contention between the U.S. and China, as the Chinese -- as well as all major developing countries -- agreed "to a regime of reporting and verification of their emissions goals." The deal was brokered in rather dramatic circumstances, with Obama crashing a multilateral meeting involving the leaders of China, India, Brazil, and South Africa, amidst fears that leaders were about to depart Copenhagen with no accord in hand. The New York Times noted that "Obama deserves much of the credit. He arrived as the talks were collapsing, spent 13 hours in nonstop negotiations and played hardball with the Chinese. With time running out...he forged an agreement that all but a handful of the 193 nations on hand accepted." Shortly before departing Copenhagen, Obama gave a brief statement where he said the conference had delivered a "meaningful and unprecedented breakthrough," but noted that "we have come a long way, but we have much further to go."
THE SHORTCOMINGS: To those hoping for and demanding bold action, the agreement fell far short. The deal failed to set concrete targets for mid- to long-term reductions in greenhouse emissions and failed to set a deadline to reach a binding treaty for next year. Additionally, initial optimism over deals to protect forests and transfer technology from rich to poor countries were premature and devoid of detail. As the Washington Post noted, "Some of the targets included, meanwhile, aren't adequate. A U.N. report leaked last week concluded that, taken together, pledged emissions cuts would almost certainly allow for warming far beyond 2 degrees Celsius, the threshold beyond which scientists say global warming could be disastrous." During the conference, a group of top climate scientists warned that "global GHG emissions would almost certainly need to decline extremely rapidly after 2015, and reach essentially zero by midcentury" for warming to stay below two degrees. A significant number of developing countries -- those most at risk -- vehemently argued that the agreement didn't go far enough. The German center-left newspaper, Süddeutsche Zeitung, explained that "without the minimum of figures that the powerful countries should have committed themselves to in Copenhagen, an agreement in Mexico will not be enough to achieve the distant goal of climate protection -- insofar as an agreement is even possible. The fight against global warming has been set back by years." While the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung described the conference as "an all-out failure." The Financial Times noted that Obama "might have angered Europe by agreeing a hasty deal with key developing countries and disappointed environmental activists calling for bold action but...with Congress a long way from passing legislation to cut carbon emissions in the world's second largest polluter, Mr Obama could not have signed up to any binding agreement."
NEXT STEPS: While there is no question that the Copenhagen conference did not do enough by itself to mitigate the threat of climate change, it did however lay the groundwork for bolder action in the near future. The agreement may signal a structural shift in future international climate negotiations. The New York Times summed up the agreement in an editorial this morning, "For the moment it is worth savoring the steps forward. China is now a player in the effort to combat climate change in a way it has never been, putting measurable emissions reductions targets on the table and accepting verification. And the United States is very much back in the game too. After eight years of playing the spoiler, it is now a leader with a president who seems to embrace the role." Andrew Light of the Center for American Progress pushed back against claims that the deal was meaningless. "The truth right now is that this agreement is not only meaningful but potentially groundbreaking. ... The Copenhagen Accord was not forged among our closest allies in the developed world; it was the product of cooperation between the US and a group of the largest carbon emitters in the developing world." Contrary to the assumptions behind the talks in Kyoto, which pit developed countries against developing and placed the sole responsibility for action on the developed, in this agreement "a framework has finally been advanced for cooperation between developed and developing countries on reductions rather than continuing a process mired in the old divisions which have hampered us for so long." Carl Pope, the Executive Director of the Sierra Club, agreed, "This deal is still not nearly enough, even for these four countries, but it is a major step forward." Robert Stavins of Harvard's Belfer Center concluded, "We may look back upon Copenhagen as an important moment...the foundation was laid for a broad-based coalition of the willing to address effectively the threat of global climate change."
BATTLE IN THE SENATE: The attention of the world will shift to the U.S. Senate. This past summer, the House passed significant legislation to tackle climate change, but it has been bogged down in the Senate. The Copenhagen Accord should strengthen the President's hand, as well as those in the Senate trying to tackle the threat of climate change and promoting clean energy jobs. The Center for American Progress Action Fund's Daniel J. Weiss, noted, "Although the Accord is not yet binding, this agreement should quell some senators' uncertainty about China, India and other developing nations' level and transparency of pollution reductions. These concerns have been a major reason that some senators from Midwestern states were reluctant to support domestic global warming legislation." A recent poll indicates that three out of four Americans view climate change "as a serious problem that will harm future generations if not addressed." Weiss concluded, "President Obama's international and domestic leadership, the Copenhagen Accord, the need for jobs, EPA's enforcement of the Clean Air Act, completion of health care, and the public's support for reform are all factors that should improve prospects for Senate legislation in 2010."