So where do we go from here? How do we get from the disorganized, disappointing, dispiriting debacle of Copenhagen to a new and worthwhile climate treaty?
Asking the question recalls the famous joke about the Irishman who, when asked by a motorist to give directions to his destination, replied: “If I wanted to get there, I would not be starting from here.” Indeed, it is rather worse than that — for we never expected to be starting from this point at all.
“When negotiations were launched two years ago in Bali, I was firmly convinced that we would be arriving in Copenhagen to adopt a legally binding document,” Yvo de Boer, the top UN official in charge of the talks, ruefully recalled as the summit ended. Even when the slowness of this year’s negotiating process made it clear by the autumn that this would not be possible, he went on, he thought that it would make decisions that could soon be translated into a treaty.
Indeed, even as the conference opened optimism was running high. All the major emitting countries, developed and developing, had announced targets for controlling their pollution by 2020. The pledges varied, with the most aggressive dependent on others taking similar action, but when the best offers were totted up they fell only slightly short of the lower end of the 25 to 40 percent that scientists say will be needed to avert dangerous climate change. Hopes were high that these emissions pledges would be improved.
There was also growing acceptance that a $10 billion annual emergency fund would be needed to help the poorest countries cope. A series of preliminary meetings between the major players had made enough progress for participants to see how an agreement could be concluded. And in the last weeks ahead of the conference, world leaders had rushed to register their attendance, confident of sharing in success.
Rarely have such high hopes been dashed so swiftly. From the start it proved virtually impossible to get negotiations going, as a constant stream of procedural motions and points of order — led by China — slowed efforts to move the talks out of the unwieldy 192-nation plenary and into the smaller group meetings where progress is traditionally made.
The summit was only saved from total disaster by unprecedented negotiations between the leaders themselves. Though the Copenhagen Accord announced late Friday stipulates that global warming must not exceed two degrees centigrade, it fails to set out how this will be ensured. It contains no emissions targets, merely encouraging signatories to register their own goals by the end of January. While it does endorse $10 billion a year in immediate financing for poor nations (rising to $100 billion by 2020), it does not even mention the possibility of a new treaty.
Furthermore, even this accord was not formally adopted by the conference, partly because it had not formally set up the leaders’ meeting where it was drafted. The conference almost rejected the deal altogether, but eventually “noted” it. Countries are invited to sign up to it — and will have to do so if they are to receive any of the adaptation funding.
So where, given this unexpected and unexciting starting point, do we go from here? Here are seven suggested steps, not to heaven, but perhaps to salvation:
First, work must be done to soothe feelings ruffled by the dramatic events of the final hours in Copenhagen. Many countries are upset that the deal was done by a relatively small, unauthorized group of leaders behind closed doors, with their agreement presented to the rest of the world as a fait accompli. They also dislike being forced to endorse it in order to receive any money. Unless dealt with, these feelings could erupt at the next meeting, in Bonn in the summer, bogging it down too.
Second, countries must be persuaded to pledge a significant amount of greenhouse gas reductions. The European Union is central to this. It has so far held back from increasing its emission reductions from 20 to 30 percent by 2020, which it said it would do if others took similar action. It must now do so, to encourage others to be more ambitious.
Third, the U.S. Senate needs to pass its energy and climate bill. Opinions differ on whether the outcome of Copenhagen will make this more or less likely, but it is clear there can be no real progress without it.
Fourth, the UN negotiating system needs reform. Smaller representative groups will need to hammer out compromises, but they will have to be properly authorized by plenaries. Ministers should get involved earlier; it was only when politicians arrived in the Danish capital in the second week of the gathering that movement occurred.
Fifth, the pledged money needs, as indicated in the accord, to be additional to existing aid programs. A nd it should start being disbursed very soon, building confidence.
Sixth, the question of the form of an eventual treaty needs solving. Developing countries, it became clear in Copenhagen, will not let the Kyoto Protocol be replaced. Just as clear is that the United States will not join it at any price. The answer is probably to keep it, with a separate linked treaty to cover the U.S. and developing countries.
And seventh, China must be persuaded that a treaty is in its interests. It seems China’s leaders turned against the idea in the weeks immediately before Copenhagen, fearing that their country’s formidable growth may soon classify it as a developed country and so subject it to much greater emissions controls. But as a leading developer and exporter of green technology, China has much to gain from a worldwide move to a low carbon economy.