The Copenhagen Accord: A Big Step Forward

The Copenhagen climate deal that President Obama hammered out Friday night with the leaders of China, India, Brazil and South Africa broke through years of negotiating gridlock to achieve three critical goals.  First, it provides for real cuts in heat-trapping carbon pollution by all of the world’s big emitters.  Second, it establishes a transparent framework for evaluating countries’ performance against their commitments.  And third, it will start an unprecedented flow of resources to help poor and vulnerable nations cope with climate impacts, protect their forests, and adopt clean energy technologies. 

This was not your ordinary leaders’ summit, where presidents and prime ministers place their stamp on outcomes agreed in advance.  Rather, President Obama and his counterparts came into a conference on the verge of collapse.  As Brazilian President Lula candidly said:  “I did not expect . . . to submit Heads of State to certain discussions such as we had yesterday, I did not see for a long time.”  It reminded him of his days as a trade union negotiator.  Yet over the course of some 13 hours, President Obama personally forged an agreement that was endorsed by the four developing country leaders, then by the leaders of 28 developed and developing countries, and – after a raucous all-night debate – by nearly every nation on earth (see here and here).

And by securing both action and transparency from all big nations, the president boosted the odds for Senate passage of comprehensive energy and climate legislation next year.

Not a bad day’s work, huh?

Why then howls of disaster in European media, and rather tepid reviews in many U.S. stories?  Some of the second-day reporting is beginning to highlight what was actually achieved.  But too many observers, in my view, are judging the Copenhagen Accord by the wrong yardsticks. 

They are holding the accord to standards and expectations that no outcome achievable at Copenhagen could reasonably have met – or even should have met. 

So here I’ll respond to some of the concerns I’ve read or heard.  Along the way I’ll refer to parts of the Copenhagen Accord – you can read it here

1.  The agreement isn’t enough to keep us under 2 degrees C.

There’s a broad consensus among scientists and policy makers that extraordinary dangers lie in letting average world temperatures increase by more than 2 degrees Celsius (3.6° Fahrenheit).  Paragraph 2 of the Copenhagen Accord reflects this 2 degree goal.  Paragraph 12 calls for a review of the science by 2015, and consideration of a more protective target of 1.5°C.  (Big countries had blocked proposals by small island and African countries to adopt a 1.5°C target now.) 

The accord’s critics express disappointment that the emission cuts intended by the big emitters will not be sufficient to achieve to meet even the 2°C limit.  That currently planned emission cuts will not meet this goal is, of course, true.  But even cock-eyed optimists should have known going into Copenhagen that an agreement ambitious enough to keep to 2 degrees was not achievable there.  The U.S. is ready to act, and though its pending legislation calls for aggressive emission cuts after 2020, it starts somewhat slowly.  China and other big developing countries are also ready to act, but (with the exception of South Africa) none of these countries is yet ready to commit to a peak year and to deep emission cuts thereafter. 

No one is hyping the accord as all we need to stop global warming.  President Obama was candid Friday night that it is only “a first step.”  Why then did some critics mistake his truthful assessment as some kind of admission of failure?

The real goal going into Copenhagen was to get the U.S., China, and the other fast-growing developing countries to take their first steps to curb their emissions.  That goal was achieved.  And that was no mean feat.

2.  But the emission cuts aren’t specified.

Pointing to the blank tables at the end of the Copenhagen Accord, some observers have derided it as an empty agreement.  They misunderstand the agreement’s structure and the context of recent national commitments upon which it was drafted. 

(Some people, myself included, were briefly thrown off track by a draft circulating through the conference center mid-afternoon Friday with both the blank tables and filled-in tables that purported to show the commitments and actions of more than two dozen developed countries and 11 developing ones.  The filled-in tables turned out to be only an illustrative example reportedly offered by the European Union at the November negotiating session in Barcelona.  But for a couple of hours, observers thought they were looking at the real McCoy.)

In reality, paragraphs 4 and 5 of the accord create an “open enrollment” period through the end of January 2010 for countries to record their emission reduction commitments and actions in the two tables.  Countries that sign up in this period will be sort of original co-sponsors, although later arrivals and enhanced commitments can be recorded anytime later.    

This structure made sense because the principal countries have already announced their likely commitments over the course of the last year.  The European Union, of course, has had post-Kyoto targets on offer for some time.  But in recent months there has been a cascade of additional policy announcements, from the U.S. and Japan, and from China, India, Brazil, South Africa, Mexico, South Korea, and others.  Indeed, many leaders summarized their targets and planned actions in their speeches on Friday morning (we’ll post a summary soon).  So President Obama and the other leaders knew on Friday, to a reasonable degree of certainty, what one another will inscribe come January. 

As many observers have noted, the announced commitments are not enough to prevent dangerous climate change. To be sure, more is needed (see #1, above).  But the targets and policy announcements on offer today from big developing countries would have been unthinkable a year ago. 

Even the U.S. position has evolved:  President Obama supported a 14 percent reduction from 2005 levels by 2020 during his campaign and as president-elect.  The House of Representatives raised the bar to 17 percent in the climate and energy legislation passed in June, and the president followed suit in his November announcement (“in the range of 17 percent”).  Senators are is considering a proposal from Senator Max Baucus (D-MT) that could allow the president to raise the 2020 target to 20 percent reduction, based on a finding that other countries have put forward sufficient commitments and are carrying them out. 

In short, the Copenhagen Accord creates a dynamic situation, with the potential for a virtuous circle of countries reinforcing their commitments over time in response to similar moves by others.

3.  The commitments aren’t legally binding.

Let us start by observing that there is a lot of confusion on what it means for an agreement to be “legally binding,” and on why it is important. 

At the highest level, many campaigners see this as an acid test of seriousness.  Any agreement that is “legally binding” is serious; a political agreement is not.  That’s too simple.  Agreements can be effective even though non-binding, if the parties are motivated by self- and mutual interest to observe them.  And legal agreements can be ineffective; if parties are not inclined to comply, there are few formal international legal tools to compel them.

At another level, arguments that one group of parties “shall” undertake commitments, and that another group “should” or “may” do so, reflect the fundamental policy disagreement over whether developing countries should agree to take action at this time.  Those arguments also reflect efforts to maintain the Kyoto Protocol’s strict dichotomy between developed and developing countries, a distinction that the Copenhagen Accord blurs.

And at a third level, some contend commitments need to be “legally binding” in order for market-based systems, such as emissions trading, to work across borders.  Paragraphs 6 and 7 of the Copenhagen Accord reflect the importance of markets to preventing deforestation and to reducing costs and mobilizing clean technology.  But what markets need is rules and predictability, and these can be supplied through a variety of means.  The Kyoto Protocol and the Marrakesh agreement (which took an additional four years to negotiate) attempted to provide a fully elaborated, universal set of market rules from the beginning.  Another way to get the needed predictability is by elaborating the rules through a smaller multilateral group (e.g., the participants in the Copenhagen Accord), bilateral arrangements, and even unilateral rule-setting.  Both the House-passed climate legislation and the pending Senate bills would set basic eligibility requirements that other countries’ programs must meet in order to gain access to our carbon markets.   

So it is incumbent on those who lament the absence of “legally binding” commitments to be clear on what they mean and why it is important.

The one thing critics should not have been is surprised.  All through the past year, it has become increasingly obvious that negotiators were not coming to agreement on key issues.  The negotiating text was a mess to start with and got worse as the year went on.  The formal texts considered in the first 13 days of Copenhagen were not even close to resolution. 

That is why, at the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in November, leaders of most big developed and developing nations joined with the Danish presidency to downshift expectations for the Copenhagen meeting from a legally binding outcome to a politically binding one.  Expectations were lowered and the prospect of a Copenhagen collapse was reduced.  Only then were most world leaders, including Obama, prepared to attend.

But in the poisonous dynamics of the negotiations, the “legally binding” dispute then took on a supremely political function. The EU quite reasonably insisted that it would not take on targets for a second Kyoto commitment period before the U.S. and big developing countries make appropriate commitments of their own.  (The U.S., of course, has the same need from the big developing countries.)  A curious alliance then formed – between the most vulnerable nations and their NGO advocates, on the one hand, and some of the most ruthless OPEC obstructionists, on the other – to beat the EU with the stick of “killing Kyoto.”

The Copenhagen Accord ultimately sidestepped “legally binding” in favor of achieving action commitments from both the big developing countries and the U.S.  It is clear that China, India, and others would not have made those commitments if they were classified as legally binding.  It is a matter of abstract principle for them; they can defend the targets they offered precisely because they did not give in on “legally binding.”  It is also a defense against being sucked too quickly into deeper emission cuts than they are ready for.  As UNFCCC executive secretary Yvo de Boers noted last week, some countries are more inclined to get on the train if they know they are allowed to get off.  Since action is paramount and time is short, it makes little sense to reject the Copenhagen agreement simply because it is not “legally binding.”

Many campaigners also lament that the Copenhagen decisions dropped the clear objective of reaching a “legally binding” agreement in Mexico City next year.  There may never be another legal agreement, they say.  But countries cannot be forced in advance to agree to this formulation.  We should be focusing on what it will take to motivate countries to commit to the strongest possible targets and actions, and to follow through on them after.  If countries can be bound by a web of interests and economic forces to make and follow through on commitments, that will mean more than any legalistic formulation of their duties. 

4.  The Copenhagen Accord threatens the future of UN Framework Convention on Climate Change.

Some critics were, and remain, angry that President Obama and his counterparts from China, Brazil, India, and South Africa bypassed the formal negotiating structure of the 193-member Conference of the Parties under the UNFCCC.  But the fact that the intervention of top leaders was necessary should be a sufficient demonstration that the formal process had failed us.  As President Obama said Friday morning: “We know the fault lines because we’ve been imprisoned by them for years. . . . [W]e can again choose delay, falling back into the same divisions that have stood in the way of action for years.  And we will be back having the same stale arguments month after month, year after year, perhaps decade after decade, all while the danger of climate change grows until it is irreversible.”

The anger erupted late Friday night as the all-night debate began.  (I was there to feel it first hand.)  But as the debate unfolded, the anger began to spend itself, and the curious alliance between NGOs, vulnerable states, and obstructionist regimes began to break down. 

The debate was initiated by Tuvalu, a tiny island country in danger of extinction from rising seas, with possibly the highest moral claim to more ambitious action.  Tuvalu’s delegate lamented the absence of a 1.5 degree C target and denounced the promise of adaptation assistance as “30 pieces of silver.”  “My country is not for sale,” he said.  He earned heartfelt applause from many NGOs and other delegates.

But Tuvalu was soon joined by others with obstructionist and collateral motives. The process was “undemocratic” and “not transparent,” argued such paragons of democracy and transparency as Venezuela, Cuba, and the Sudan.  (Venezuelan President Chavez had indulged earlier that day in an insulting anti-American, anti-Obama tirade.) 

Next came the delegate from the Sudan.  Notably, he spoke on behalf of his country alone, not in his usual role as representative of the G-77 and China. With China and other big developing countries, and many smaller ones, already backing the accord, the G-77 had no unified position. 

The Sudanese delegate nonetheless charged that the Copenhagen agreement would condemn Africa to millions of deaths.  He then went over the edge, comparing the “values” behind the accord to those that consigned the six million to the ovens in Europe. 

That turned the tide.  The excess was so clear.  Country after country raised their flags to defend the accord and denounce the Holocaust comparison.  Among the most eloquent was the President of the Maldives, the highest ranking leader to participate in the all-night debate.  Nearly all other low-lying and island nations, and many African countries, raised their voices in support. 

The Sudan’s other delegate – a hired hand from the Philippines, a career obstructionist in negotiations for nearly two decades – spoke next, interminably as always.  And here was her core argument:  We career negotiators should reject the interference of presidents and prime ministers, who do not know what they are doing.  We should seize back control of the process that the leaders were wresting away!

This was too much even for some of the most obstructive delegations.  Saudi Arabia even spoke up for the accord.

As the final demonstration that the Conference of the Parties does not work, five delegations (Venezuela, Bolivia, Cuba, Nicaragua, and the Sudan – notably not Tuvalu) blocked every effort to adopt the Copenhagen Accord by consensus decision.  The rules of the COP require consensus – adoption of a rule to allow majority vote in cases as a last resort has been blocked for 15 years.  Finally, after removing the incompetent Danish President Rasmussen from the chairman’s role, a way was found to persuade the objectors to allow a decision “taking note” of the Copenhagen Accord – a step UN officials say has the same practical effect as an adoption decision.  The compromise involved listing at the top of the accord those countries that endorse it, thus allowing the dissenters to distance themselves. 

So the Copenhagen Accord will go forward under the name of those countries that endorse it and with the participation of those that elect to inscribe their commitments and actions by the end of January.

By the end of the debate, the anger in the room had spent itself.  NGOs deeply sympathetic to Tuvalu and the other island nations could not abide either Venezuela or the Sudan.  With China, India, Brazil, South Africa and many other big developing nations set to join the accord, the G-77 may have reached its end as a unified force.  This will have enormous implications for the future of the UNFCCC and the functioning of the Copenhagen Accord, which is my next topic.

5.  So the Copenhagen Accord is just like George Bush’s Major Economies Process.

The Bush administration created a 17-member Major Economies Meeting – the MEM – in 2007, consisting of the largest developed and developing economies and CO2 emitters.  The Obama administration continued the group under the name the Major Economies Forum (MEF).

What’s the difference, I’ve been asked.  In a nutshell, the premise of the MEM in the Bush days was “cover” – a mutual non-action pact.  We won’t act because you won’t act.  The premise of the MEF under Obama is the opposite – a mutual action pact.  We’re going to tackle global warming, we expect you to, and let’s do it together.  

Other nations surely are frustrated that the U.S. has not yet adopted domestic legislation – indeed, that’s the number one limitation on our power to persuade.  But they do see a dramatic difference between the new administration and the old one, as evidenced by the recovery act investments in clean energy, fuel economy standards, action to curb greenhouse gases under the Clean Air Act, and House passage of energy and climate legislation.  That is why President Obama was ultimately able to convince the leaders of the big developing economies to join this new effort.

Another difference from the original MEM is that the Copenhagen Accord will not be limited to big emitters.  It includes substantial assistance to developing countries – and especially the poorest and most vulnerable – for adaptation, forest protection, and clean energy.  See paragraphs 6 and 8-11.  Some assistance will likely go to big countries to support their emission cutting plans.  China’s leaders know, however, that their country will not receive much of this money (although they did take umbrage at the suggestion that China should be categorically excluded).  Most will go to the nations most exposed to droughts, floods, and sea level rise, and to nations willing and able to stop tropical forest loss.  These countries are expected to sign up to the new agreement in significant numbers.

This raises unanswered questions about how the new accord will be governed.  Presumably, the current members of the MEF will have a key role.  The role of other countries that offer commitments and actions to curb emissions and stop deforestation must addressed, as well as the role of countries that are intended to benefit from adaptation and other assistance.

And what of the relationship to the UNFCCC?  One can see several possibilities.  The members of the new agreement are likely to meet at least several times this coming year.  The developing country parties will not want to break away from the UNFCCC entirely, so at a minimum they will report on their activities at the mid-year meetings in June in Bonn, and at the next COP in Mexico in November.  The members of the accord, however, are unlikely to want to get tangled up in the subsidiary bodies and plenaries of the COP.  They will not give the obstructionists that leverage.

That poses a dilemma for those still hoping for an extension of the Kyoto Protocol, both those who want that for the best of reasons, and those who play the game to block any real progress.  The existing convention has, at best, one last chance to get its act together.  That will require transforming itself into a functional body, capable of overcoming rogues and obstructionists and capable of making practical, timely decisions.  And it cannot succeed by trying to compete with the Copenhagen Accord.  The only way forward for the UNFCCC is to embrace the new agreement wholeheartedly.  Otherwise, the UNFCCC will wither away.

6.  The Copenhagen Accord won’t move the Senate.

The quick conventional view that the Copenhagen agreement is weak suggested the quick conventional view that it will not change the calculus of the Senate.  I disagree.  It is not weak, and it will change the Senate.

The Copenhagen Accord delivers the two principal things that swing Senators have demanded from the international process:  meaningful commitments to reducing the emissions of key developing countries, and a transparent framework for evaluating their performance against those commitments.  When President Hu announced that China would adopt a carbon intensity target at the UN this fall, many Senators were impressed.  The focus then shifted to questions of reliability:  how can we be assured that China and other countries will do what they say.  This is why President Obama insisted so strongly that transparency had to be part of the accord.

As a matter of substance, the differences between the U.S. and China were not that difficult to bridge.  But the U.S. push begat a Chinese pushback, as questions of national honor and sovereignty came into play.  Several times this year and during the first 13 days of the COP, word went round that the two countries were close to agreement on language, and then lines hardened again.  The U.S., joined by the EU and Japan, kept pressing reasonable demands for energy and emissions statistics and a process for raising questions where data was unclear or deficient.  The U.S. also offered China assistance, through a bilateral EPA-NDRC agreement, on improving emissions inventory methods.  China also began to feel pressure from smaller developing countries that did not want to lose the opportunity for significant adaptation, forest protection, and clean energy resources. 

As I have described here, the breakthrough came on Thursday, when U.S. Secretary of State Clinton offered a proposal for expanded long-term public and private assistance, and when Chinese Vice Foreign Minister He offered an opening to international dialogue and cooperation in review of national emissions and energy data.  Chinese Premier Wen Ji Bao repeated this key offer in the opening statement of the leader’s summit.

It still took the two leaders the rest of the day to personally work out acceptable language that incorporated both respect for sovereignty and suitable transparency.  The story of the meetings between Obama and Wen has been told elsewhere.  Late in the day, they worked out the artful phrases in paragraph 5 of the Copenhagen Accord: 

[Emissions mitigation actions by developing countries,] including national inventory reports, shall be communicated through national communications consistent with Article 12.1(b) every two years on the basis of guidelines to be adopted by the Conference of the Parties. . . . Mitigation actions taken by Non-Annex I Parties will be subject to their domestic measurement, reporting and verification the result of which will be reported through their national communications every two years. Non-Annex I Parties will communicate information on the implementation of their actions through National Communications, with provisions for international consultations and analysis under clearly defined guidelines that will ensure that national sovereignty is respected. . . . [S]upported nationally appropriate mitigation actions [i.e., actions supported by international financial assistance] will be subject to international measurement, reporting and verification in accordance with guidelines adopted by the Conference of the Parties.

This language has something for all sides.  The U.S. wins regular biennial reporting of developing country emissions inventories and other data – something China has previously provided only once – and a transparency procedure effectively equivalent to the review that developed countries already undergo.  China and India win respect for sovereignty and a verbal distinction between “international consultations and analysis” and “verification,” a politically-charged term in their domestic political contexts.

Obama’s success on developing country targets and transparency will have important implications in the Senate.  It should give swing Senators the assurance that U.S. is not acting alone, without the emerging economies.  As E&E Daily reports (subscription required): 

“Home run,” said Mark Helmke, a top staffer to Sen. Richard Lugar (R-Ind.), the ranking member of the Foreign Relations Committee. “Satisfied the Europeans. Made China into a major world player, but made them accountable. Elevated India, Brazil and South Africa to world stage. Cut an important side deal with Russians on arms control.”

Together with tools already in the bills to address concerns about China from manufacturing industries and labor, the formula is there for legislative success.

* * *

So give up the sour and grudging reviews.  The Copenhagen Accord is a significant breakthrough that signals a new era of effective cooperation between all major emitters, and opens the door to finally enacting U.S. climate and energy legislation next year.