Copenhagen climate deal: hope or hype?
COPENHAGEN -- After two weeks of intense and chaotic negotiations, more than two dozen countries, including those most responsible for current and future warming, promised to reduce their emissions and finance green growth and efforts to cope with climate change in developing countries. President Obama ended the deadlock that had plagued the talks by brokering an agreement with leaders from Brazil, China, India and South Africa on steps these and other large emitters will take to tackle climate change. While the Copenhagen Accord falls far short of what many €“ especially environmentalists and countries most vulnerable to climate change impacts €“ had hoped for, it is a politically significant stride forward in the international climate debate. The unconventional process that ultimately delivered the accord, which might not have happened at all had President Obama not stepped in, raises big questions about the role of the UN in future climate talks. Although the accord is not legally binding, it creates a foundation for future work to secure more firm commitments from the world's biggest polluters. What's in the deal? The accord has three main features.
1. Limited warming: The accord embraces the need to limit warming to no more than 2 degrees Celsius, the level scientists agree is the maximum threshold to avoid catastrophic climate change. Under the agreement, rich nations will commit to targets to cut emissions by 2020. Emerging economies will commit to actions that slow their emissions growth. All major emitters will specify these commitments before the end of January. Countries will also move immediately to create incentives to reduce emissions from deforestation and other land use.
2. Finance: Rich countries agreed to deliver $30 billion between 2010 and 2012 to help developing countries deal with the consequences of a warmer world. Developed countries also promised to ramp up support to meet climate needs in poor countries over the longer term by helping to raise $100 billion a year by 2020.
3. Transparency: The accord includes international checks “ i.e. monitoring “ to ensure that major emitters are living up to their obligations. This was a major point of contention between the United States and China up until the final hours of the talks. Emerging economies agreed to monitor their own actions to slow emissions growth but to allow "international consultation and analysis", lending credibility to the commitments in the accord. A high-level panel will assess the financial contributions by rich nations to help poor countries adapt to climate change and grow sustainably.
Why is the deal meaningful? Although imperfect, the Copenhagen Accord marks an historic shift in the international climate debate. The accord breaks from the old Kyoto model that bound rich nations to emission reduction commitments, with no such commitments for China, India and other major emitters in the developing world. In Copenhagen, leaders of all big polluting nations, including China and India, committed to implement specific targets and actions to curb emissions and to be held accountable to these commitments. This shift opens the door for the U.S. Congress to pass climate and energy legislation as it will help to alleviate U.S. lawmakers' concerns that such legislation would drive U.S. companies overseas in search of weaker emissions standards. The accord will also deliver immediate climate change assistance to developing countries and sets up a framework to strengthen commitments going forward.
What's missing from the deal? No deadline to create a legally binding agreement, raising some doubt that it will ever happen. Although the goal originally set by countries at the UN climate talks in Bali in 2007 was to finalize a climate treaty by December 2009, most countries and experts knew ahead of the Copenhagen talks that completing such a pact by this deadline was not in the cards. Nonetheless, many expected countries to set a new deadline for penning the treaty in Copenhagen. Early drafts of the accord included language that would have committed countries to finish the treaty "as soon as possible" and no later than the next high-level climate meeting in Mexico City at the end of 2010. But the final accord includes no such deadline. This omission raises questions not only about when a legally binding agreement will be finished, but more importantly, if such an agreement will come together at all. Without a clear deadline, there is little pressure to move toward a legally binding outcome in 2010 or in subsequent years. Despite urgent cries from environmentalists and low lying nations who fear they will literally be washed away by the wake of rising temperatures, there are several reasons why the initial thrust toward an internationally legally binding outcome fell away during the final hours of the talks.
First, China maintained its strong resistance to taking on legally binding commitments until the bitter end of the negotiations. Since the final year of the Bush administration, the United States has been open signing up for legally binding targets if China, India and other major emitters did the same. Without such a commitment from emerging economies, the language describing emission reduction targets and actions as legally binding was dropped. Secondly, experts inside Washington's policy circles agree that garnering the 67 votes in the U.S. Senate needed to win that body's blessing of a climate treaty would require a herculean effort with no guarantee that the votes would materialize. There's no doubt that U.S. negotiators did this Senate math, which in the end may have compelled them to drop the deadline rather than force the issue with China. Also absent from the agreement are shared mid and long-term emission reductions goals. Many environmentalists and countries most vulnerable to ravages of climate change expected the deal to include a collective agreement among nations to reduce emissions by 50 percent by 2050 and a shared commitment from developed countries to reduce emissions by 80 percent over the same timeframe. The UN is unlikely to be the main forum for climate talks going forward. When 120 heads of state from around the world arrived in Copenhagen during the final days of the two week negotiations, they were greeted with utter chaos rather than the near-final accord they had hoped for. Structured to achieve equity and inclusiveness, the UN-led process to reach agreement among nearly 200 countries broke down at several levels: Even before the talks began, the UN failed to adequately prepare for the crush of roughly 45,000 delegates, environmentalists, and other members of civil society that arrived in Copenhagen expecting to influence the negotiations.
With space for only 15,000 in the conference center, environmental groups were turned away en mass, leaving thousands outraged and literally out in the cold. €¢ The UN process also proved ill-equipped to knife through days of deadlock that threatened to collapse the talks. In the end, President Obama had to march into a private meeting among leaders of China, India, Brazil and South Africa and find the path to consensus. €¢ With the final accord sculpted primarily by the world's largest emitters, it's unclear whether the UN will continue to be the primary arbiter of such complex negotiations, or whether world leaders will lean more heavily on the G20, the Major Economies Forum or even bilateral discussions, to further progress on tackling climate change.
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