Grist's coverage of Copenhagen climate talks

Climate delegates finally finished two years of negotiations Saturday by “taking note” of the two-and-a-half page Copenhagen Accord hashed out Friday night. It reminded me of a marathoner who slow-walks the course, hobbles across the finish line seven hours late, and then declares victory. Yes, there was a semblance of a deal by Saturday, but it’s not what any of the parties said they were coming here to do, and no medals are being handed out.

The most important part of this deal is what’s not in it. Crucial unresolved questions will continue to dog climate negotiators into 2010 and beyond:


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The Accord says there’s a “collective commitment” by developed countries to provide fast-start financing to developing countries “approaching” $30 billion. There’s also a “goal of mobilizing jointly $100 billion a year by 2020 to address the needs of developing countries.”

How these collective goals will go over with the national appropriators in the U.S., EU, and Japan who actually write the checks remains to be seen. Senate Republicans have already expressed opposition to the funding. The longer climate deadlock continues without a treaty and verifiable commitments, the harder it will be to justify funding on this scale.

Status of the Kyoto Protocol

Sign Up for More News from GristWhether the Kyoto Protocol should live on or be replaced was one of the bloodiest skirmishes in the Battle of Copenhagen. This issue held up substantive progress for 8 of the 10 days of the conference. The negotiators in the end decided on the so-called two-track process, in which working groups on the Kyoto Protocol and on “long-term cooperative action” will continue to negotiate (these two “ad hoc” working groups increasingly look permanent).There’s still a lot of uncertainty about how the Kyoto Protocol and any supplemental treaty would fit together, however. Look for this to be a contentious issue in Mexico City and beyond.

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Targets and Timetables

The Accord twice mentions the objective of limiting warming to 2 degrees Celsius, and the parties agreed to “take action to meet this objective consistent with science and on the basis of equity.” Yet the document has no firm targets for emissions or for greenhouse gas concentrations.

It’s been widely publicized that the existing commitments of all nations don’t come anywhere close to ensuring that warming is limited to 2 degrees. This news wasn’t first leaked in a UN memo on Thursday. In fact, we’ve known for a while that the commitments on the table don’t bring us below 2 degrees. See here and here.

International law often tolerates textual ambiguity, but the cognitive dissonance of a 2 degree objective and commitments that will likely lead to more than 3 degrees of warming is pretty glaring.   This gap will become a rallying cry for the emerging climate justice movement next year.

No deadline for a treaty in 2010

Remember back in November, when world leaders stated their hope for a “political” document in Copenhagen that could be made into a treaty in a matter of months, not years? In the accord, though, a reference to completing a treaty by the end of 2010 was deleted. Perhaps Obama, Wen, Singh, and other leaders did not want to raise expectations again about any timeline. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has called for fast action on a treaty, but will the key players want to run this marathon again within a year? The G-77 as a negotiating block is in a shambles, there is deep anger by developing states directed at China and other developing states, and the UNFCCC secretariat is widely seen as inept as a conference organizer.

Instead of a near-term treaty, we may see a kind of climate interregnum, a shift from an era of treaties (1992-2009), where addressing climate change was grounded in international law, to an era when climate change is addressed through national pledges with no binding international arrangements. Based on what happened in Copenhagen, it could be many years before we see a new global climate treaty, and possibly a decade before any new treaty enters into force.

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