Achievements and Failures of Copenhagen

Friday, 15. January 2010     0 comment(s)
Thomas Spencer
Research Assistant
International Politics of Natural Resources and the Environment research programme
The Copenhagen Accord (CA) achieves three things, and leaves two big questions unanswered. 

It broadens the climate regime to include major emitters like the USA, China, Brazil, Indonesia and India. The Kyoto Protocol regulates just 30% of world emissions; the Copenhagen Accord was negotiated and supported by countries responsible for around 80% of global emissions. This is significant: the limited scope of the climate regime has been used to justify inaction by those whom it did cover. In the future comprehensive participation could be a key, normative tool in the toolbox to ensure that countries comply with commitments.     

Developing countries agreed to submit their mitigations actions to domestic “measurement, reporting and verification”, the results of which will be subject to “international consultation and analysis under clearly defined guidelines that will ensure that national sovereignty is respected” (CA, §5). This compromise on a crucial issue may be enough to assure developed countries (more particularly, the US Senate) that developing countries are sticking to their commitments. 

The Accord contains significant commitments for climate financing. Developed countries agree to mobilize around 30 billion USD from 2010-2012 for mitigation and adaptation. Although the Accord defines this as ‘new and additional resources’, it will most likely include redirected funds from existing aid programs. The Accord also contains provisions for 100 billion USD in climate financing by 2020. Supporting this was a positive step for the otherwise risk-averse Obama administration, committing to financing before the passage of the hotly-contested US climate bill, drafts of which contain mechanisms to generate significant international funds. How this 100 billion annually by 2020 would be generated remains unclear, as talks on reliable financing mechanisms, e.g. levies on aviation and maritime fuels, remain stuck. 

These three points could form the outline of a future climate regime. However, the legal and procedural ambiguities surrounding the Accord undermine the progress that was made on substance.  

Copenhagen extended but did not clarify the mandate for negotiations in 2010. It remains unclear whether, when and what kind of a legally-binding agreement should be achieved. Even the pressure of Copenhagen couldn’t precipitate progress on this decisive issue.    

The Accord itself occupies a legal no-man’s-land. On the one hand, it could form the core of a process external to the UN, with the UN being left to facilitate technical matters like emissions inventories and the management of the CDM. On the other, the Accord set out to establish operational institutions under the UN, e.g. on climate financing. According to some analysts, the mechanisms envisaged could not be established under the UN until the Accord is formally adopted. Failure to do so, or to at least feed its conclusions constructively into the UN process, may strengthen the push for a process outside the UN.

The Copenhagen talks thus revealed a growing tension in the UN process, between the evident need for expedited negotiating fora with high-level participation, like the one which produced the Accord, and the continued role of the UN as the only global forum on climate change. How countries balance this tension looms as a key question for 2010.          

Finally, countries’ mitigation actions fall well short of the recommendations of science; and the targets inscribed by January 31st may even fall at the lower end of proposed ranges.This is despite the fact that the Accord recognizes "the scientific view that the increase in global temperature should be below 2 degrees Celsius” and that countries agreed to take action “to meet this objective”. The Accord also calls for an assessment of “implementation” in 2015, including a review of the global goal. Anchoring a more stringent target of 1.5 degrees sets an important political precedent for more stringent action in the future.  

As President Obama said “ultimately this issue [climate change] is going to be dictated by the science”. However, establishing a legal framework, which can win trust, action and stronger commitments from parties over time, may ultimately be a more important priority than getting emissions targets “right” the first time round. For this, Copenhagen may have been a small, ambiguous step forward.    

Texts reflect the opinions of the individual authors

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