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The Echo of Copenhagen

Editor's Note: This is a series of analysis and observations from the ground in Copenhagen. During the 15th annual climate change conference, Brookings expert Nathan Hultman tracks the negotiations, offering insight into the governance process.

The 45,000 people who converged on Copenhagen from all corners of the world have now mostly left the city, leaving behind the many forlorn and now snow-covered artifacts—civic art, signs, advertisements, leaflets—that, with good intentions, had been deployed in an attempt to unite the minds of the negotiators in common cause for new and substantive climate treaty. The Copenhagen climate conference did, with a great final effort by the heads of states of the world’s biggest emitters, produce an agreement. But weighing in at a wispy three pages, and having avoided mention of the most visible issues under discussion over the past months, most of those 45,000 people are likely returning home disappointed.

The Copenhagen Accord certainly does not manifest earlier hopes that this meeting would see a grand agreement covering emissions commitments for 2020 by the major emitting economies. It does not set a goal for global emissions reductions by the year 2050. It does not give details on international carbon market mechanisms, such as much-needed reform for the Clean Development Mechanism, beyond 2012. It is completely vague on technology transfer. It does not specify procedures for reducing deforestation in tropical countries. Finally, it does not even set out a timeline for concluding a larger treaty. Some of these areas were by most accounts close to consensus even before the Copenhagen conference began, so the lack of language on these initiatives could be seen as a step backward. Moreover, the “Accord” does not even represent a consensus document for the many countries gathered here; rather, it was assembled on the last day of the conference when the heads of state of the U.S., China, Brazil, India and a few others realized that the conference delegates had not made enough progress to conclude a larger deal. The other 185 or so country delegations merely conducted a cursory vote acknowledging this much narrower agreement.

Thus, judged against the hopes that Copenhagen might have produced a major treaty to replace the Kyoto Protocol and consolidate global consensus on the sharing of emissions reduction burdens, the conference was a complete failure. But within this apparently bleak outcome lie several small victories, all of which can support future discussions.

First, without the genuinely vigorous efforts of the heads of state, there would be no agreement at all. As discussed in my earlier post, until the final hours it appeared that the meeting was going to be an absolute failure. Negotiations by delegates and then ministers proceeded slowly, and often on distracting topics that should have been resolved long before this meeting (notably, on the question of whether the Kyoto Protocol itself must be retained). Faced with disarray upon their arrival, leaders of the world’s most powerful countries began negotiating personally the provisions of an eventual agreement. This direct negotiation by world leaders was unprecedented in climate politics and signals the arrival of climate change as topic of almost universal high priority in the international community. Such status will not evaporate because of failure at Copenhagen, and portends continued efforts to resolve the many outstanding questions of climate governance. 

Second, the agreement itself has solidified the approach on three fundamentally important topics:

  • The recognition of a global warming threshold of 2 degrees C, a level at which the global community judges the risks of climate change to be unreasonably high. This provision is a fundamental step in the process by which we as a community weigh and translate scientific information about climate change into global emissions reduction goals.

  • The hard-fought commitment by the international community to provide $100 billion per year in funding to the poorest countries to adapt to climate change. This provision represents recognition that we are already committed to climate change, that there is an obligation of the better off and more developed to provide assistance to people and communities in the poorest and most vulnerable countries; it is moreover a key component of addressing the interests of all parts of the world.

  • The method by which countries can establish internationally transparent goals for emissions reductions, and agreement in principle on monitoring and verification of those commitments. This provision is a first step for building consensus on the sharing of burdens in reducing emissions.

Third, the agreement provides a solid push to efforts to pass climate legislation within the United States. As discussed earlier, one of the key elements in the U.S. domestic debate on climate legislation is the question of whether any U.S. efforts will be matched equitably with efforts by China and India. Not surprisingly, the elements arising in the agreement negotiated by President Obama address the question of monitoring of international commitments, which is a necessary provision to consolidate support in Congress. Without such provisions, the domestic debate in the U.S. would have been even more difficult. This agreement may therefore increase the chances of passing U.S. legislation, which itself would pave the way for future international agreements.

Thus, while the Copenhagen Accord is not a definitive treaty, it signals a new period of engagement by the key countries and also provides a small boost for the climate legislation that will be discussed in Congress in early 2010. The chaos and disarray of the conference will not be remembered fondly, but perhaps it will represent the moment that countries looked into the abyss and realized the extent of the challenges before them and the substantial exertions needed to reach agreement. In that light, the small glimmer of cooperation witnessed in the final hours of the conference can set future negotiations on a more solid, sober, and determined course toward a meaningful agreement that will echo—and manifest—the hopes of Copenhagen.

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