After the Copenhagen Accord was “noted” by the UN in December, there was a great deal of insta-analysis. In truth, there was no real way to evaluate the Accord because the meat of it — the emission-reduction commitments from participating countries — was blank. Literally:

Copenhagen Accord appendices

The deadline for participating countries to submit their commitments was Jan. 31 — yesterday. So, how do things look now that the cards are on the table? Where do we stand on international efforts to address climate change?

Here’s the bad news:

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[Climate consultancy] Ecofys reckons that the promised curbs will set the world towards a [disastrous] 3.5 degrees Celsius rise in temperatures, not 2.

PricewaterhouseCoopers LLP said that on current projections the world would exceed an estimated “carbon emissions budget” for the first half of this century by 2034, 16 years ahead of schedule.

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The question is, how bad is the bad news? We’re-doomed bad, or we’re-maybe-doomed bad?


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The big underlying story in international climate relations is that focus is steadily shifting from top-down, legally binding targets to bottom-up, voluntary national action. The BASIC countries — the emerging economies of Brazil, South Africa, India, and China — have made it clear that they are sticking with the Kyoto framework in one key respect: developing countries will accept no legally binding commitments. According to the Guardian (which is, admittedly, pessimistic about climate negotiations 100% of the time), a binding treaty is unlikely next year in Mexico:

… a global deal at the next major climate summit in Mexico is impossible, says the former deputy prime minister John Prescott, now the Council of Europe’s rapporteur on climate change. “I don’t care if it’s government ministers or NGOs, if they think you can get a legal agreement all signed up by November in Mexico, I don’t believe it.”

Similar opinions are being expressed worldwide. “In 2010 perhaps we’ll manage some success, but I think a definitive deal is very difficult,” said Suzana Kahn, a key negotiator in Copenhagen and Brazil’s national secretary for climate change.

Despite what folks on both sides say, it’s quite difficult to determine if this is a net positive or negative. Climate Internationalists have long been fixated on binding targets, but as some people have pointed out, ambitious targets are entirely abstract (and thus highly polticized) until there are national policies and programs to support them. Just because targets are legally binding doesn’t mean unprepared or unwilling countries will hit them, as Kyoto should have made clear.

Climate Nationalists argue that what matters above all is action, not signatures. Every country needs to get started and learn over time what it is capable of. Grand pledges can be built only on a foundation of smaller successes. From that perspective, the commitments in the Copenhagen Accord are heartening: they represent the first time all the world’s major emitters have made separate, concrete, public commitments.

The Internationalists don’t have a ton to show for the last 20 years. We’ll find out in the next decade if the Nationalists do any better.

What, from whom?

Let’s take a look at a few of the commitments. (The best place to see all of them in one place is this chart from the US Climate Action Network. According to their latest estimate, “30 countries are likely to or have associated, representing 73% of global emissions.” UPDATE: As of Feb. 5, “92 countries, including the 27-member EU,  are likely to or have engaged with the accord, representing 80.6% of global emissions.”)

The U.S. has formally committed to the target contained in the Kerry-Boxer climate bill: 17% below 2005 levels (aka 4 percent below 1990 levels) by 2020. This pledge is at once criminally weak, relative to what the international community expects and what will be required to avert catastrophe, and quite risky, given that the climate/energy bill in the Senate could easily fail and leave only the EPA to achieve the target.

Another way of saying “quite risky” is “unreliable.” Why should international partners believe that Obama can back up his pledge? As Matt Yglesias points out, the fact that Obama can’t credibly promise anything that would require Congressional approval means that “essentially all diplomatic intercourse with the American government is worthless.” In the end the U.S. will achieve what votes 55 through 60 in the Senate allow.

On the other side of the spectrum, the Maldives, which has become a moral clarion call on climate, has promised 100% carbon neutrality by 2020. In a letter to UNFCCC chief Yvo de Boer, Maldives Foreign Minister Dr. Ahmed Shaheed said that the commitment is “voluntary and unconditional” and that it should be “internationally measured, reported and verified.” That’s what ambition (not to say desperation) looks like.

Aaaand … back to the other side of the spectrum. China has promised to continue on the trajectory it determined in its latest economic development five-year plan. (Read Michael Levi on China’s commitment.) In its official letter to the UN, China said it “will endeavour to lower its carbon dioxide emissions per unit of GDP [“carbon intensity”] by 40 to 45 percent by 2020 compared to the 2005 level.” That would, of course, allow China’s emissions to continue rising in absolute terms; it has said it foresees emissions peaking in 2030.

If China stays on this trajectory it will be very, very difficult for developed countries to make big enough cuts to compensate. But there’s some grounds for thinking that China is being deliberately conservative in its estimates (it has reduced traditional pollutants far faster than it projected). I discussed China’s under-promise-over-deliver strategy — at once resisting international commitments and aggressively pursuing clean energy developmentin a Seed piece last month.

The big news from the EU is that it will not raise its 2020 target to 30 percent, as it said before Copenhagen it would do if the US raised its target. Instead it will stick with 20% by 2020 from 1990 levels.

Other biggies:

  • India has pledged carbon intensity cuts of 20-25 percent by 2020.
  • Brazil has pledge absolute emissions cuts of emissions by 39 percent from 1990 levels by 2020, mainly through measures to slow deforestation.
  • South Africa reportedly plans to submit a target of 34 percent below projected levels by 2020, though there’s some concern whether it can back that ambitious target with action.
  • Japan reiterated its plan to achieve absolute emissions cuts of 25 percent below 1990 levels by 2020, provided other major emitters pledge ambitious plans as well.
  • Indonesia may be late, it’s said to be contemplating a cut of 26 percent below projected levels by 2020.
  • Canada will submit the same lame target as the U.S.: 17 percent below 2005 levels by 2020.
  • Australia has pledged absolute emissions cuts of at least 5 percent below 2000 levels by 2020, up to 25 percent contingent on the actions of other countries.

What to make of all this

It’s now fairly clear that the long-time environmentalist dream of having a binding international treaty that imposes ambition on participating countries is forlorn. The iron law of geopolitical relations is asserting itself here: countries will do what is in their own best interests based on their own circumstances … and no more.

If there is to be a solution to the climate crisis, it will come because a) clean energy becomes an economic prize, and b) the impacts of climate change threaten to become crippling. When that happens countries will compete to lower their emissions. If that dynamic doesn’t take hold, and fairly soon, it is unlikely that future generations will avoid immense suffering.