China has bought some time but legality will be strengthened

After an intense and dramatic sleepless night, Copenhagen time, December 19, at 10:30 am, the summit was re-convened and completion of their draft agreement was announced. All parties agreed to “take note” of the December 18, 2009 Copenhagen Accord.

For those familiar with the language of United Nations law, the outcome of this resolution is confusing. Did it pass or not? Was agreement reached or not? 

In the press conference following the announcement, the UN Assistant Secretary-General for Policy Coordination and Strategic Planning, Robert Orr, explained that the language “take note” is equivalent to “accept” in the context of United Nations law. However, nations and areas with issues with the document are not required to sign. 

The executive secretary for the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), Yvo de Boer provided further explanation in the closing press conference: “take note” means all parties acknowledge the existence of the accord, but maintain the right to decide whether or not to join it.

According to reports, 188 countries voted in favor of the accord and five countries opposed it. The latter are: Venezuela, Sudan, Nicaragua, Bolivia and Cuba.

Coming to this kind of agreement after two weeks of difficult negotiations has been an enormous disappointment to most environmental NGOs and other observers. But Mr. de Boer stated that he does not agree that the summit was a disaster, or a failure.

He acknowledged that the Copenhagen Accord does have flaws and is not legally binding. There is no specific emissions-reduction goal for developed countries to reach by 2020; there is no clear direction for developing countries, and it is not clear where the $30 billion in start-up funds for developing countries will come from. However, Mr. de Boer says this is still an important accord because all countries have come to one platform.

Some environmental NGOs have the same view. The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) in the United States issued a statement saying that although the accord was not what had been hoped for, it is truly an important step. The details can be solidified in the future; it lays a political foundation for drawing up a legally binding document. It absolutely is not an empty “government declaration”. The emissions reduction goals raised by each nation during the talks were very real; at the very least, countries acknowledging the document will begin to take action.

To everyone’s surprise, the much-noticed Chinese delegation did not have any comments early Saturday morning when the Copenhagen Accord was announced. However, on Friday evening a reporter ran into the head of the Chinese delegation, the vice chairman of the National Development and Reform Committee (NDRC), Xie Zhenhua. Mr. Xie would not make an official comment on the accord, he just said that negotiations were still in process, and that it was beneficial to developing countries. 

While US President Obama and leaders from the four “BASIC” coalition countries (China, India, Brazil, and South Africa) were in talks behind closed doors regarding the final Copenhagen Accord, China made a relatively large concession regarding MRV (“measurable, reportable, and verifiable”), but also received a compromise on “achieving at least 50% reductions in global emissions by 2050”. The World Wide Fund for Nature’s (WWF) director of global climate solutions, Yang Fuqiang, believes that China has bought itself time. The truth is, the Chinese government knows that eventually they will have to go in that direction.

UNFCCC executive secretary Yvo de Boer said in the closing press conference that, although some items were not included in the final Copenhagen Accord, such as a global reduction in emissions of 50% by 2050, and a reduction in emissions of 80% by developed countries by 2050, he believes that with time, scientific pressure will drive the world to work towards a global temperature of no more than 2 degrees Celsius over pre-Industrial Revolution temperatures. What that really means is, although the current Copenhagen Accord does not have any regulations, eventually they will be written in and it will become a document legally binding by international law.

This Copenhagen Summit, developing nations have been successful for the time being in retaining the two-track mechanisms of the long term cooperation agreements, the Kyoto Protocol and the UNFCCC. This was the bottom line that China emphasized during negotiations. 

However, Mr. de Boer expressed hope that at the 16th global climate conference to convene in Mexico next year, a legally binding treaty based on UNFCCC could be achieved. What that means is, China and the United States, the two countries with the greatest carbon emissions, will be bound by the force of international law.