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Copenhagen – a new framework for climate chaos?

05 Jan 2010

The original intention of Conference of Parties (COP) 15 in Copenhagen was to complete negotiations on a new international agreement on climate change to come into force before 2012. What emerged was a slim three page Copenhagen Accord with a couple of blank appendices.

To the dismay of many EU countries, not even this rather watery three page Accord managed to secure the unanimous approval of the COP. A handful of countries, including Sudan and Saudi Arabia, refused to sign, and the COP thus only succeeded in “taking note” of its contents.

Legally it remains unclear how a non-binding Accord will function. “Takes note of” according to Yvo de Boer, head of the UNFCCC, “is a way of recognizing what is there without going so far as to directly associate yourself with it”.

Leaving this aside, in point 1 of the Accord itself, the parties “recognise” the scientific view that the increase in global temperatures should be below 2 degrees Celsius. In point 2, however, the seemingly stronger acknowledgment is given that:

“…deep cuts in global emissions are required according to science, and as  documented by the IPCC Fourth Assessment Report with a view to reduce global emissions so as to hold the increase in global temperature below 2 Degrees Celcius, and to take action to meet this objective consistent with the science and on the basis of equality”.

This is not the easiest sentence to decipher. Is it a commitment to the 2 degree target? This is certainly how Ban Ki Moon was spinning it, stating that: “All countries have agreed to work toward a common long-term goal to limit temperature rise to 2 degrees Celsius”. Within this context the Accord commits countries to come forward with targets (or lists of “actions” in the case of non-Annex 1 Parties) by 31 January.  

The rest of the Accord treats other central issues in non-concrete terms. In the area of financing, the EU had its way with €100 million annually committed for adaptation and mitigation by 2020. A little progress was made on deforestation and adaptation. 

What was more interesting than the outcome of the negotiations was the abject failure of EU diplomacy throughout. The final Accord was hammered out by the US, China India, Brazil and South Africa, and presented as “take it or leave it” to the rest of the Parties, including the EU.  

When we say the US, China, India, Brazil and South Africa, what we are really talking about here is the US and China. This is perhaps the first time that international negotiations of this nature have been so resoundingly dominated by two main players.  Is this the first example of the reemergence of a bipolar world? 

Or is this an indication that the EU’s opening negotiating position was somehow out of touch, or unrealistic? The EU saw the COP as an opportunity to share out carbon budgets to 2020, and perhaps beyond to 2050; and to establish the international structure to ensure compliance.  

For other countries, perhaps the negotiations were a step further back – exploring the very architecture itself. What seems now to be emerging is a different approach which reflects a proposal by Robert Stavins of the Harvard Project on International Climate Agreements. In a recent paper Stavins calls for what he describes as a more politically palatable approach based on a “portfolio of domestic commitments.”  

Under such an arrangement, nations would make commitments to emissions reductions in domestic law, with a portfolio or list of such agreements emerging or being compiled at the UNFCCC. Alternatively a number of major players could compile an initial portfolio, inviting other countries to join thereafter. This would be a shift from what can be perceived as internationally imposed targets with timetables for delivery.  

Stavins rather perspicaciously states that “Under a portfolio approach, these domestic commitments could be represented in a table of national schedules attached to an agreement”. For anyone who has looked at the layout of the Copenhagen Accord with its appendix, this approach will be familiar.  

This is realpolitik. Both China and the US remain skeptical about the prospect of establishing a strict set of international rules, or indeed devolving any power to international organizations. This is especially the case with China, and is particularly evident in its spat with the US over the monitoring of mitigation measures. China refused throughout the conference to consider any independent monitoring of its emissions reduction efforts, and the final Accord states that “mitigation actions taken by non-Annex 1 Parties will be subject to their domestic measurement, reporting and verification” and guidelines “will ensure that national sovereignty is respected”.  

For this reason, a domestic portfolio approach seems more viable. If this is the road that is chosen, a big question according to Stavins is “whether a domestic portfolio of commitments would prompt national actions ambitious enough to yield emissions reductions of the magnitude that science suggests may be required”.  

The answer would seem to be a resounding “no”. According to Climate Action Tracker, an independent science-based assessment of pledges: “the emission commitments and pledges put forward by industrialized and developing countries shows that the world is headed for a global warming of 3.5°C by 2100…there is at least a one in four chance of exceeding a warming of 4°C”.  

So that’s it in a nutshell. Countries won’t devolve sovereignty to an independent body which can require emissions reductions, and won’t make pledges that would contain global warming anywhere close to a safe threshold.  

The only silver lining is having a reference to the 2 degree target in the Accord. Perhaps stronger commitments will eventually emerge from what are sure to be long and protracted negotiations.


As an independent forum, the Institute does not express any opinions of its own. The views expressed in the article are the sole responsibility of the author.


Comments 1-10 of 27

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hobbes says: 13 Jan 2013 17:48

Such ill informed and naive comments. The issue is not that political leaders aren't aware or that they don't care. It is: a) they have to look at the economic impacts for their citizens. Even if you consider this short termism, its reality. In the long term, asd keynes said we are dead anyway. To take nkengla's example, no-one will starve today in order to have soimeone else live in the future. b) No one trusts that other states will do as much as them. Thus they could be made uncompetitive. c) Climate change is contended. It is not clear that climate change exists, if it does that it man made; the climate change scientists, al of whom are reliant upon its existence foir rtheir funding, keep changing their models or their explanations when weather patterns do not suit. The commitments being expected are too onerous and inflexible for governments thatcannot predict their economic position

David Egan says: 28 Apr 2010 15:18

Excellent critique david.egan@petrolworld.com

Tukundane Mbarara uganda says: 24 Feb 2010 13:04

please make sure that if you cut on tree plant one or two and stop bush burning, overgrazig,deforestation adn reduce on emition of carbondioxide carbonmonoxide.

Leo says: 04 Feb 2010 19:11

stop eating beef. this is a cause of devastation in forest and rainforest. cows eat a lot and humas have to overuse resources. Please plant a tree. Go green!

gyamfi,ghana says: 04 Feb 2010 11:28

the earth is our only home. stop polluting it

netra godbole says: 03 Feb 2010 9:40

please save trees other vise there will be no life on the earth

netra godbole says: 03 Feb 2010 9:38

please avoid smoke because it cntains CO2 gas in the air because there is a lot of harm to every one

divu says: 02 Feb 2010 14:17

these r total high tension drama of devloped countries

susan boyle says: 27 Jan 2010 17:07

I agree I like saussages aswell but more importantly I think that the COP15 was a great plan and should be re-considered in the future.

haider ali says: 25 Jan 2010 8:01

the problem why environmental issues are not being resolved is that our world leader are not aware of the armful and adverse situations which will come in near future we know the realities but still deny because we feel that we are save and dont think about our future generations . in order to have the susutainable world every one should contribute to hius maximum and should show flexibility in accepting others views.

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