Chewing On Copenhagen

What was achieved, or not, in Copenhagen?

The Copenhagen Accord's goal is laid out in Article 2:

2. We agree that deep cuts in global emissions are required according to science, and as documented by the IPCC Fourth Assessment Report with a view to reduce global emissions so as to hold the increase in global temperature below 2 degrees Celsius, and take action to meet this objective consistent with science and on the basis of equity. We should cooperate in achieving the peaking of global and national emissions as soon as possible, recognizing that the time frame for peaking will be longer in developing countries and bearing in mind that social and economic development and poverty eradication are the first and overriding priorities of developing countries and that a low-emission development strategy is indispensable to sustainable development.

Judging the accord almost solely on the basis of its domestic political implications, The New York Times declares a victory for Obama, who "may have improved his chances for passing global warming legislation in the Senate by forging an interim international agreement here that puts both rich and poor countries on a path to curtail greenhouse gas emissions."

Details of the Accord remain to be worked out before it becomes binding. The target for the global temperature reduction mentioned in Article 2 will not have to be met until 2020 – several election cycles from now. The Senate climate legislation mentioned above is a long ways away from being passed. The United States still refuses to sign the 1997 United Nations-sanctioned Kyoto Protocol agreed to by 187 nations.

The Copenhagen Accord, on the other hand, works outside the United Nations. Obama cut a deal that would put the United States, India, China, Brazil, and South Africa at the center of climate control -- leaving Europe out of the deal altogether. With no central authority, such as the UN, to monitor these countries' promises, the whole accord resembles something of a big handshake deal among these countries.

What do the experts think? Jeffrey D. Sachs, Professor of Economics and Director of the Earth Institute at Columbia University, takes an extremely negative view on the proceedings:

Two years of climate change negotiations have now ended in a farce in Copenhagen. Rather than grappling with complex issues, President Barack Obama decided instead to declare victory with a vague statement of principles agreed with four other countries. The remaining 187 were handed a fait accompli , which some accepted and others denounced. After the fact, the United Nations has argued that the document was generally accepted, though for most on a take-it-or-leave-it basis.
Obama’s decision to declare a phony negotiating victory undermines the UN process by signaling that rich countries will do what they want and must no longer listen to the “pesky” concerns of many smaller and poorer countries. Some will view this as pragmatic, reflecting the difficulty of getting agreement with 192 UN member states. But it is worse than that. International law, as complicated as it is, has been replaced by the insincere, inconsistent, and unconvincing word of a few powers, notably the US. America has insisted that others sign on to its terms – leaving the UN process hanging by a thread – but it has never shown goodwill to the rest of the world on this issue, nor the ability or interest needed to take the lead on it.

From the standpoint of actual reduction of greenhouse-gas emissions, this agreement is unlikely to accomplish anything real. It is non-binding and will probably strengthen the forces of opposition to emissions reductions. Who will take seriously the extra costs of emissions reduction if they see how lax others’ promises are?

Ed Millbrand in the UK's Guardian sees the glass half full, however. He blames China for not agreeing to 50% reductions in global emissions by 2050, or on 80% reductions by developed countries – although China could merely have been taking the fall for other developed nations. He sees hope in the international consensus acknowledging the science behind fears of climate change, and likes the idea that billions of dollars may soon trickle down from rich countries to poorer countries to ameliorate the effects of such change. In the end, he writes, that anything was done at all must be regarded as an accomplishment, particularly in the current economic climate.

The challenge for all of us is not to lose heart and momentum. The truth is that the global campaign, co-ordinated by green NGOs, backed by business and supported by a wider cross section of the public, has achieved a lot. We would never have had targets from so many countries, the engagement of leaders, and the agreement on finance without this sort of mobilisation.