Causes for optimism (1)

The bare-bones climate agreement produced at Copenhagen has provoked international gloom. But, argues Michael Grubb, history may judge it more kindly.

“Diplomatic disasters don’t come much bigger than this” was the verdict of one European-based newspaper on the outcome of the Copenhagen climate-change conference. What had been billed as the summit to save the planet became the summit which, just barely, scraped a deal that many felt did not go much beyond an agreement to keep talking – a deal widely seen as being thrashed out in a single day between five major powers and then presented as a fait accompli to the rest of the world. The paradox is that it may be as good as could be reasonably hoped for. And it sets the stage for a very interesting 2010.

First, a word on the blame game. Most of the European media focussed on Chinese intransigence and agonised about the European Union’s apparent impotence. The US media likewise cast China as the bad guy but praised president Barack Obama as the saviour, extracting an important deal in the face of this. The Japanese media were a mix – aghast at the dilemmas and their limited role, while most of the developing world attacked the industrialised countries for insufficient progress on money and almost no progress on emission cuts.

Personally, I prefer to focus on my home territory. The European Union acceded to an apparently obvious and widespread logic that the problem can’t be solved without the United States, the United States will never join the Kyoto Protocol and thus the world needs to abandon the current main instrument in favour of some new unified structure.

Unfortunately, there was never any clear articulation of what this might be – nothing about what the world (or the European Union) would get in return for abandoning the only existing legally binding structure. The United States did not move an inch from its position – a bottom-up regime, defined by domestic, not international, law and made conditional on the Chinese offer. The resulting proposition was therefore to reduce the legal standing of commitments expected of industrialised countries while raising those placed on developing countries: a combination that is totally unacceptable to the developing world and understandably so.

The EU response to the US reiteration of its fundamentals (and the cacophony of condemnation from developing countries) was apparently to reach for the earplugs and hope that the summit itself would provide a magic answer. The world found itself staring at a chasm defined by the fact that most countries’ vision of an adequate international regime is totally in conflict with what the United States or China will accept.

The United States at least displayed a clearer grasp of political reality and planned for it. The pity is that, having “plucked a phoenix from the ashes”, Obama almost shot it by prematurely proclaiming the success to the media. Heads of state do not like being told on the world’s media that they have reached a deal, particularly when they have spent the previous 24 hours wondering what on earth they came to Copenhagen for.

It took agile political footwork by a number of countries, and for United Nations secretary general Ban Ki-moon to draw upon the political capital he had built up over the year, to get about 180 countries to accept that a deal hammered out initially between five of them (albeit with a larger penumbra then engaged) should be officially recognised. The problem with the blame game, as a colleague drily observed, is that there are just too many targets to choose from.

Thus was born the Copenhagen Accord – largely derided in Europe but praised by the US administration. People should pause for thought before they condemn a process that most declared to have as its number-one aim to get the United States “back on board”. Whatever Copenhagen has done to the process of negotiation (on which much will be written and debated), my own hunch is that history will judge the accord more kindly than did most of the media.

The accord itself contains just 12 paragraphs. In a nutshell, it recognises the scientific view that a rise in global temperature must be below two degrees Celsius and commits countries to “meet objectives consistent with the science and on the basis of equity”. It also includes reference to the need for peaking of global and national emissions. The requirement to have made official submissions by January 31, 2010, formally establishes countries’ opening pitches on what they think this means for their emissions and policies up to 2020. We can be assured that the numbers do not meet the scientific needs. This in itself could set the stage for an interesting year of negotiations, as the accord implies a formal need to reconcile the two.

The longest paragraph spells out more fully the processes around developing-country contributions. This establishes a requirement to report emissions inventories and emissions-reduction actions every two years, and includes those that do not have international funding – itself a formal burial of the antiquated idea that developing countries would not do anything without finance. Additionally, anyone with experience can read between the lines of struggle on “clearly defined guidelines that will ensure that national sovereignty is respected”. Internationally supported measures are further subject to direct monitoring, reporting and verification.

The text contains some useful steps forward on adaptation and forestry, although most of the important detail actually remained in the draft negotiating text. The deal received most plaudits for its progress on finance. However, this risks remaining the most vulnerable part. The US$30 billion (205 billion yuan) prompt-start package for 2010 to 2012 to help developing countries adapt to climate change has some political substance and commitment behind it but a huge amount still remains to be resolved.

For the much larger scale of longer-term finance, the deal defines expectations but fails to clarify who really accepts responsibility for providing the funding at the scale indicated, or almost anything about the actual status and governance of the much-vaunted “Green Fund”. Raising and managing US$100 billion (683 billion yuan) per year by 2020 is not for the faint-hearted. Explicit reference to “alternative sources of finance” provides probably the only way to bridge the gap between the collective goals and the political realities of squeezing more finance out of industrialised-country taxpayers. The panel established by the accord to study potential sources of revenue will indeed have to chart a course through “interesting times”.

This, coupled with the refusal to include the words “legally binding” or to set any official deadline for processes under the accord, other than a review of its implementation in 2015, are, of course, reasons for pessimism. They combine with the destructive campaign around the “Climategate” emails, a serious error uncovered in a text box of the 2007 report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and the coldest northern winter for many years to create a potential “perfect storm” of scepticism and disillusion.

So what does all this imply? Well, no one knows. But the wider sweep of scepticism can be set against the remarkable fact that about 35,000 people cared enough to travel to Copenhagen and register the force of global civil concern about the future of the planet. On the science, the truth will ultimately win through, for most governments at least. The 35,000 will have forged connections and raised a voice that will not be lost on the accompanying 120 heads of state. The heads of state attendance was in itself testament to the extent of high-level concern. Copenhagen may have been the death of some hopes, but it was also the crucible of many new developments.

Michael Grubb is the editor-in-chief of Climate Policy, chair of research organisation Climate Strategies and senior research associate at the Faculty of Economics, Cambridge University.

An earlier version of this article was published as “Copenhagen: back to the future?”, Climate Policy 10.2 (2010) 127–130, doi:10.3763/cpol.2010.ED83. It is used here with permission.

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