After Copenhagen: Now a New Start?

December 30, 2009

Climate savants of every stripe–from our colleague Brad Plumer at The Vine to Andrew Light and Michael Levi at the Center for American Progress and the Council on Foreign Relations, respectively, to Bryan Walsh at TIME, Sharon Begley at Newsweek, and the writers at the Breakthrough Institute–are still trying to figure out what happened at the Copenhagen climate talks and what it means.  And they’re right to be uncertain, as the last days of the massive United Nations conclave were at once chaotic and extraordinary, with President Obama breaking free of the UN’s 190+ nation negotiating framework amid protests and parliamentary opposition to hammer out a three-page international accord with a small group of the largest carbon emitters in the world.

On the one hand, questions are flying about how seriously to take the highly general, three-page political final statement with its vague targets, lack of binding emission reduction commitments, and other uncertainties, since everything will depend on how individual nations act in the months and years going forward. On the other hand, confusion now surrounds the future status of the ungainly, largely ineffective, and now marginalized U.N. process–the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC).

On this point, it could well be, as Andrew Light and Michael Levi have been writing, that Copenhagen will go down as the last time that the world places such high hopes in the all-inclusive U.N. process, with its gargantuan and unworkable world plenaries. But what then? That question opens up new uncertainties about how and when new forums for carbon abatement might be located and agreed upon.

And yet, for all these uncertainties, good reasons exist to welcome the Copenhagen tumult and the glimpse it has provided of a new way of approaching world climate mitigation.  Most auspiciously, in the wake of Copenhagen, it appears that many of the world’s major carbon emitters — the U.S., China, India, Brazil, and South Africa — may at last be ready to move forward to reduce emissions and spur clean development with or without the rest of the UNFCCC nations, and with a more practical focus on direct dealings and technological innovation than characterized by the U.N. process.

To be sure, it is true that the Copenhagen Accord dropped the hoped-for goal of a halving of world emissions from 1990 levels by 2050, that it retained only an aim of keeping temperatures from rising more than two degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels, and that it is not legally binding.  However, those concessions to reality can only disappoint those who had unrealistic hopes.  After all, not only was such a “binding” deal always unlikely, given the U.N. approach, but even if one had been achieved, the weak achievements of the “binding” Kyoto pact have already demonstrated the limited efficacy of such abstract targets and timetables. Meanwhile, the fact is that President Obama’s trip to Copenhagen delivered real achievements, as Climate Progress has noted

  • There is now an accord, hammered out by 28 countries and accepted by 188, calling on committed parties to submit national action plans for emission reductions, consistent with a stated goal of limiting global temperature increases from carbon pollution;
  • Developing countries — including China, India, South Africa, and Brazil — are now for the first time engaged to make transparent emissions reductions, as they had not been by the Kyoto process;
  • A compromise agreement on verification of pollution reductions now exists for the first time, and subjects all reductions to “international consultation and analysis;”
  • Developed countries are committing significantly more financial resources than ever before to developing countries for mitigation, adaptation, technology transfer, and forest conservation.

Beyond all that, a new sense of practicality and a sense of starting over on a simpler, more realistic footing can be extracted from Copenhagen’s drama and controversy, nowhere more so than in President Obama’s remarks as he left the convention site.  In these remarks and answers to questions, Obama provided a clear-eyed review of the difficulty of getting politics to comport with science, the fundamental problems of getting a deal in a forum of 190 diverse nations, and the need to begin building new partnerships and forums among the willing to begin making real progress right now.  But what is also critically important and welcome is the extent to which, in acknowledging the shortcomings of the Copenhagen Accord, Obama recognized that technology innovation may be the best way to bridge the gap, as Jesse Jenkins of the Breakthrough Institute well summarized, between “the actions nations are willing (or able) to take today,” and those climate scientists argue are “necessary to avoid the worst consequences of climate change.” 

Obama declared, “Our hope is that by investing in clean energy, in research, in development, in innovation; that in the same way that the Clean Air Act ended up spurring all kinds of innovations that solved the acid rain problem at a much cheaper and much more rapid pace than we expected; that by beginning to make progress and getting the wheels of innovation moving, we are in fact going to be in a position to solve this problem. But we’re going to need technological breakthroughs to get to the goals that we’re looking for.”

This is a potential breakthrough.  For nearly two decades, international climate debates have been much too fixated on complex, abstract, and impractical regulatory targets and reductions, and too little concerned with the specific political, economic, and technological means by which such goals will be achieved.  Now, with the failure of the standard UNFCCC approach and the emergence of technology transfer as a crucial meeting point, a new pragmatism and perhaps actual progress may now be possible.