What happened at Copenhagen?

Guest post by Martin Bunzl, director of the Initiative on Climate and Social Policy at Rutgers University, New Jersey.

A few initial remarks about what has just happened at Copenhagen:

1. The concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is now over 380 parts per million (ppm) and growing at more than 2 ppm per annum. It is broadly recognized that continued output at these rates for the next decade will make it extremely difficult to achieve stabilization at 450 ppm later in the century. Yet the prospects for a binding international agreement with country specific verifiable limits seems increasingly illusive. Absent such an agreement, what are the chances that the parties can blunder into de facto arrangements that accomplish the same thing?

2. Given how intent China was on preventing binding limits, one has to wonder. At the same time, even with binding limits, the absence of any realistic international enforcement mechanisms would have made such limits inherently weak. The only workable agreement is going to arise if and when the major players see it in their own interest to adhere to such limits. And they don’t, at least now.

3. What is immediately at stake is whether what has happened will help or hurt US efforts to legislate its own limits. At this point it is too early to tell. If the gloss on the “deal” is that it is a plausible first step, things may go one way. If the gloss is along the lines above, I suspect not.

4. Perhaps more important is the fate of the Environmental Protection Agency regulations, which if they stand, could do the same job as the legislation and only depend on the Obama administration’s determination.

5. Looking to the longer term, the chances of a global cap-and-trade system being established are surely weaker, and with it, the chances of properly pricing the true cost of carbon. That is bad news for efforts to prime market forces to drive alternatives.