Causes for optimism (2)

Copenhagen failed to deliver – but it also revealed truths about climate geopolitics that might just make it easier to tackle global warming, says Michael Grubb.

From a research perspective, Copenhagen was a call to arms for a community that it seems has never paid enough attention to political analysis. In a 2008 editorial in Climate Policy on the UN climate-change summit in Bali in 2007, “The Bali COP: plus ça change”, I noted that we had launched “the most complicated and interrelated set of global negotiations in diplomatic history”; and much of that complexity is at the interface of the technical and the political.

Each major region came to Copenhagen with a view of what “it” wanted; a few came with a vision of a “global” solution that reflected its own views, projected globally. Hardly any research emerged to offer objective analysis to governments globally of just how different their perspectives were – and credible options for navigating solutions fashioned around these differences.

What are the implications of the political outcome? I offer two observations, along with a personal and unconventional view. First, the positive side of the big lesson of Copenhagen: we learnt about new structures of power and where the bottom lines of China and India lie – and indeed the United States, in the absence of clarity on the outcome of congressional processes on climate change legislation.

If Europe or others still cannot handle this reality, they really now have only themselves to blame. The United States is not willing to accept a top-down process of multilaterally negotiated, legally binding, economy-wide constraints. (Why did anyone think that the United States could ever raise the 67 senate votes required to ratify an international treaty of this nature?) The United States is suspicious of any agreement that does not include concomitant legal commitments for China, which further lowers the bar on legal ambition. These two mega-powers are fundamentally inward-looking; they will work their domestic way to stronger action and multilateral needs will always play second fiddle to domestic processes.

My own view is that Copenhagen achieved just what was needed: a US–China reality check so strong that the rest of the world cannot ignore it. The logic is now startlingly clear. The rest of world (particularly other industrialised countries) made their willingness to adopt binding commitments conditional upon the United States doing so. The United States made its conditional on China. China, for multiple reasons, is not going to adopt binding commitments. Therefore the regime will be “bottom up”, simply codifying the pledges that countries are domestically willing to take, with no real role for international law.

Unfortunately, if we are to solve the problem, most countries of the world – approaching 200 nations – do need a multilateral structure of agreed common rules and commitments. We are trapped: one of the four conditions must change, if we are to have any hope of solving the problem. My own view is that we should now look at the first condition to change. Other countries need to know the mega-powers are taking action that represents a reasonable and comparable contribution to solving the global problem. But that does not mean that we all have to be in the same legal (or not) structure. To suggest that the United States and China need to assume commitments on the same legal basis as Norway, Singapore or Burkina Faso is a fundamental fallacy laid bare at Copenhagen.

The other observation is that the Copenhagen Accord embodies the most essential need on which to build solutions that encompass this reality. Above the 12 paragraphs, situated in the header text, the accord explicitly endorses the continuation of twin-track negotiations under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. The huge negotiating efforts of the previous years have not been cast aside, as most media commentators seemed to believe. On the contrary, they are explicitly endorsed, also by the United States and China, and given more time to complete.

That, in my view, is exactly what was needed: another year for the United States and China, in particular, to progress their domestic processes. A year which they always intimated they really needed. A year in which to get serious about negotiating the future of the Kyoto Protocol, the reform of its mechanisms and the adequacy of emissions caps in its second commitment period from 2012 to 2016, including a larger group of countries. The process steered by the Copenhagen Accord can fill the crucial gaps in the Kyoto Protocol; it may not need to replace it.

I don’t float this thought just because Copenhagen demonstrated how deeply developing countries care about Kyoto – and the extent to which abandoning binding caps on industrialised country emissions could devastate efforts to get developing countries to agree stronger action themselves. It is also of the EU experience, where the legally binding nature of the Kyoto caps was fundamental to strengthening the EU Emission Trading System (ETS). With countries having invested so much to ensure compliance with Kyoto commitments, it would seem odd then to quit, rather than raise the game by seeking wider participation. There are real benefits to having a widespread, harmonised set of rules that could build upon what exists to underpin an effective multilateral system.

Currently, the European Union, Japan and Australia are locked in a sub-game of the “common-action dilemma” – with no party willing to step beyond the United States’ antipathy to internationally binding commitments without the others. If they can escape this trap, there is every prospect that some others might join them, including manufacturing giants such as South Korea. With the European Union already having made a bedrock unilateral commitment, along with a number of others, it is hard to see why those should not be inscribed in a successor to Kyoto’s first period if no more compelling alternatives are on offer. Emerging commitments under a Kyoto-like structure could then be weighed against the clarifying contributions of the United States and China in particular.

A combination of “pledge and review” for the mega-powers, with a development of the Kyoto Protocol for most others, sounds, at first glance, like an ill-conceived combination of the first and second half of the 1990s. Fantasy? Maybe. But perhaps what we have learned from the culmination of the “noughties” is that such a combination actually reflects a deep reality about the structure of climate geopolitics for the twenty-first century. I look forward to seeing what else researchers conceive – and countries propose – in the cold light of Copenhagen.

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.

Homepage image from the White House shows president Barack Obama at Copenhagen.