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Strength in numbers

Faith in international cooperation was severely dented at Copenhagen – but it is still our best bet for tackling global warming, argues Tan Copsey.

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The January 31 deadline set in Copenhagen for nations to submit national plans to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions to the United Nations under the newly formed Copenhagen Accord has been and gone. By February 1, 55 countries had made pledges to either cut or limit their emissions. Despite this positive news, it is unclear where international negotiations go from here.

The voluntary pledges submitted to the United Nations in association with the accord vary noticeably in form and substance, with a range of baseline years and commitment levels. Norway, for instance, is committed to reducing its emissions by at least 30% on 1990 levels by 2020, while the United States will probably seek to cut its emissions by 17% on 2005 levels – although, as made clear in their very brief submission, US action is dependent on securing domestic legislation, the prospects of which have dimmed significantly in the last month since the Democrat party lost the Massachusetts by-election, bringing an end to the party’s senate supermajority. China and other members of the newly formed BASIC block of countries – Brazil, India and South Africa – have re-affirmed their pre-conference pledges to limit the rise of their emissions.

No one is yet sure how the accord fits in with the existing framework of global climate governance and negotiation. Yvo De Boer, who coordinates the United Nations negotiating process, hailed the submissions as “an important invigoration of the UN climate-change talks”. China’s prime minister, Wen Jiabao, meanwhile, is one of many who have expressed hope that the accord will set the stage for the agreement of a binding global climate deal at negotiations in Mexico this year that expands on the institutions and mechanisms of the Kyoto Protocol, with binding targets for industrialised nations.

But economists Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger of the Breakthrough Institute, a California-based think tank, recently argued that “the entire Kyoto framework for reducing carbon emissions died with the UN climate negotiations at Copenhagen.” In its place, they suggest the Copenhagen Accord may be a step towards a more fractured series of national- and regional- policy measures and a non-binding, bottom-up international system. “The real international action will involve bilateral and multilateral negotiations to develop and deploy clean-energy technologies,” they say.

Such an approach presents new dangers and may be insufficient to meet the specifically global challenges presented by climate change. Put simply, a more voluntary approach may be less successful in reducing emissions. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has recommended that developed-country emissions drop by 25% to 40% on 1990 levels by 2020. According to the World Resources Institute, the voluntary targets pledged in association with the accord are likely to result in developed-country emissions decreasing by between 12% to 19% on 1990 levels by 2020.

Recent reports from the UN Environment Programme, Project Catalyst and Ecofys have suggested that current pledges are not sufficient to prevent a rise of two degrees Celsius or more. Janos Pasztor, a climate advisor to UN secretary-general, Ban Ki-moon, reaffirmed this after reviewing pledges made in association with the accord. An analysis by Climate Interactive goes a step further, suggesting that “if current proposals were fully implemented, average global temperature would overshoot the two degrees goal and would in fact increase by approximately 3.9 degrees Celsius by 2100.”

In the past, international negotiations have acted as a catalyst for ambitious national commitments that push countries beyond domestic constraints. A voluntary, non-binding system may instead promote an unfortunate race-to-the-bottom scenario, where nations renege on the voluntary commitments they make. We are already seeing examples of this: Canada submitted a weaker target to the United Nations on January 31 than it was committed to at the start of Copenhagen. Feeble targets, coupled with an absence of measures to enforce compliance, will most likely result in a larger rise in temperatures.

Progress on securing finance was one of the few areas where the Copenhagen summit may be judged a success. Developed countries pledged US$30 billion (205 billion yuan) over the three years from 2010 to 2013 and US$100 billion (683 billion yuan) a year from 2020 for developing countries to mitigate and adapt to climate change. But as a recent report from the International Institute for Environment and Development highlights, crucial questions remain about where this funding will come from and how it will be distributed. Billionaire philanthropist Bill Gates also recently expressed concern that climate-change finance would not be additional and may eat into existing aid budgets. These concerns seem justified – the Guardian newspaper reported that some of the United Kingdom’s initial commitment would be recycled from existing government-aid budgets.

The accord also lacks supporting legal architecture and institutions to facilitate international finance for low-carbon development. In the short term, countries like Brazil, which is reliant on international finance to support efforts to reduce deforestation, are likely to face difficulties in implementing national climate-change policies.

Without binding commitments and strong institutions, a new regime would rely more heavily on trust between nations. At some point, it is likely that this trust would break down, triggering new threats to trade and financial flows between nations. The United States and France have already openly discussed the possibility of placing tariffs on carbon-intensive imports from countries seen to be failing to do their share. Such tariffs would likely be implemented unevenly, creating further international friction and possible retaliation.

Faced with these serious challenges it might seem logical for countries to renew attempts to secure a deal in Mexico that builds on the Kyoto Protocol and the twin-track negotiating process begun in Bali in 2007. But the problems with these institutions create political impediments to a deal that are not likely simply to disappear.

A degree of pragmatism is therefore required when assessing the Copenhagen Accord. It is still possible that the agreement, combined with more progress on key issues mentioned briefly in its text – avoiding deforestation, providing finance for low-carbon development and adaptation in the developing world and monitoring efforts to reduce emissions – can form the basis of a new international architecture for dealing with climate change.

On the evidence of the past month, this architecture may well be messy, incomplete and inefficient. But it is still preferable to international anarchy. Climate change is a global challenge that cannot be dealt with by nations acting in isolation. At this particularly difficult moment, we should welcome any moves towards international cooperation and recognition of interdependence.


Tan Copsey is development manager at chinadialogue.

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