Grist's coverage of Copenhagen climate talks

Shortly before leaving Copenhagen yesterday, President Obama announced that the terms of an interim, “political” agreement, the Copenhagen Accord, had been reached with the leaders of Brazil, South Africa, India, and China which very well may lay the groundwork for a new international agreement on climate change. Commentators are already lining up to decry this step as a toothless outcome proving the U.S.’s impotence in this forum. The Obama administration is defending it as a “meaningful” step forward. The truth right now is that this agreement is not only meaningful but potentially groundbreaking. Still, the jury will be out until the next U.N. climate summit in Mexico City in 2010.

As I’ve written about extensively, the proposal that got Obama to come to Copenhagen at the right time was the Danish “two step” proposal put forward by Prime Minister Lars Rasmussen at the APEC summit last month in Singapore and embraced by Obama in Beijing the week following. The original idea was that at Copenhagen we would finalize an interim political agreement to be followed by the commitment to completion of a final binding agreement in 2010. Acceptance of this proposal was critically important for allowing the administration to finally put targets on the table for emissions reductions for the first time, put money on the table for fast start financing, and effectively reassert our full participation in this process.

The Copenhagen Accord achieves much of the promise of the Danish proposal but not all of it. It is comprehensive, allows for parties to propose a full range of emission reductions rather than only economy-wide targets, which is a good thing, develops a pathway to more ambitious medium term financing, and binds emission pathways to halt warming over 2 degrees Celsius. In fact, it is the first international agreement to promise consideration of limiting warming to 1.5 degrees C.

Sign Up for More News from GristUnfortunately though the agreement does not have a hard deadline to take the second step and turn it into a final legally binding agreement by 2010 in Mexico City. Such a provision would have provided the basis for a good answer to those who find the numbers and reduction targets in the accord lacking. As they will expire in one or two years they would, of necessity, need to be adjusted to continue reducing emissions at an appropriate pace. Nonetheless, U.N. General Secretary Ban Ki-moon and other parties have committed themselves to taking the next step and turning this document into a binding legal agreement by the next U.N. climate summit in Mexico City in 2010.

There is however a different aspect of this deal that could be the beginning of a game changer in how the world looks at ending carbon pollution. The Copenhagen Accord was not forged among our closest allies in the developed world; it was the product of cooperation between the U.S. and a group of the largest carbon emitters in the developing world. In fact, this same group had met prior to the Copenhagen meeting in China to declare that they would never move beyond one of the core guiding assumptions of the Kyoto Protocol: that the world is divided between developed and developing countries and that only the former are required to take steps to curb their carbon emissions and be held accountable for those reductions.

This union of the U.S. with these four countries is premised on what could become a new guiding assumption: that the world is divided between the major emitters of carbon pollution and everyone else. In that respect the fact that the accord includes a robust compromise on measurement, reporting, and verification acceptable to both the U.S. and China is significant. 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. Though there will be differences among the expectations of emissions reductions among this group, the major emitting countries all will be expected to carry their fair share of emissions reductions thus avoiding the creation of a world where decreasing carbon pollution is only advanced at the expense of economic competitiveness.

That Copenhagen has resulted in good news and disappointing news should not come as a surprise to us. All of these meetings end with a mixed outcome. In addition to the weaknesses in the accord there were also problems in failing to come to closure on an international forestry deal and technology transfer. At the same time though, finally, real money was put on the table for both programs including $1 billion in U.S. financing for avoided deforestation, matched by other countries to create a $3.5 billion deal.

Finally, what does this outcome tell us about the U.N. process itself. Is it really the right forum to get the job done on carbon mitigation? Over the summer and into the fall interim monthly negotiations in the run up to Copenhagen have been hampered by a lack of cooperation by parties refusing to give up on the architecture of the Kyoto Protocol, and its hard division between developed and developing countries, as the only acceptable framework for an agreement. As a consensus process among 192 nations it is also extremely difficult to navigate and, as one would expect, seems to be capable of only creating weak agreements.

Additionally, while some parties will join us in moving forward some in this forum most likely never will. As the conference closed today many parties pledged their commitment to the Copenhagen Accord, and promised further emissions reductions, but it was impossible to get a full ratification of it by the full body. The accord will move forward this year but not as a finalized political agreement authorized by the U.N. framework convention. Instead it will be taken up for full endorsement when initial negotiations start for the Mexico City meeting in 2010. What is most important about this outcome though is that the biggest objections for getting agreement on the Copenhagen Accord came from Bolivia, Venezuela, Cuba, and Sudan. It’s highly doubtful they would ever go along with a U.S. led process.

As leaders continue to push forward into 2010 to turn the accord into a legally binding document we should also move forward on a parallel path: Exploring the possibility that multilateral emissions reductions can be achieved in smaller arenas like the G20 or the Major Economies Forum, MEF (which includes the 17 largest emitters in the world). This past September the G20 produced an agreement ending fossil fuel subsidies by 2050; throughout the year the MEF has produced an array of technology cooperation schemes fulfilling the promise made in 2007 in Bali to provide technology assistance to developing countries in exchange for emissions reductions.

As Joe Romm and I have argued before, we don’t need 192 nations to come to an agreement on mitigating carbon emissions in order to get the job done. We only need those countries responsible for 85 percent of emissions to move forward on the pathways identified by the IPCC with a promise to the world to do so in a responsible manner. Other agreements should be left to the U.N., such as instruments for dealing with adaptation and technology transfer. But it might be better to find a forum for carbon abatement that is less hampered by the procedural constraints that have hindered this process.

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