Answers to Copenhagen Questions

In December I led the NRDC delegation to the Copenhagen climate summit. Many people have asked me about my experience there and what the Copenhagen Accord means for global climate change. Here are my answers.

Q. Leaders from 128 countries, and senior officials from 65 more, gathered in Copenhagen to take action against climate change. What did they accomplish?

A. President Obama and other world leaders agreed to take real and unprecedented action to curb climate change. With dissent from just five countries -- including Cuba and Sudan -- they agreed to work to keep the global average temperature from rising by more than 2 degrees Centigrade, or 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit. 

Q. How?

A. The Copenhagen Accord calls on the United States and other developed countries to set specific 2020 targets for reducing the carbon pollution that is warming the planet and to spell out, by the end of January, the specific action each country will take to make the cuts. Developing nations, in turn, will set targets for mitigating their heat-trapping pollution by paring back the growth of carbon emissions or preserving forests that take carbon from the atmosphere and store it in tree trunks.

Q. Did countries set specific targets for holding down carbon pollution?

A. The countries responsible for the bulk of the world's carbon emissions announced targets at Copenhagen or earlier. These include the United States, the European Union, China, Japan, South Korea, Brazil, Mexico, India and South Africa. These countries, and others, agreed to formally list their targets and other emission-curbing policies in the Copenhagen Accord by the end of January. 

Q. How do we know countries will do what they say?

A. This was an important point for Obama and his negotiating team. The Copenhagen Accord provides for countries to report on their emissions and the specific actions they've taken at least every two years. Results will be analyzed and reviewed, in consultation with other countries, to make clear whether pledges are broken or kept.

Q. What did the United States promise?

A. President Obama said the United States would reduce carbon emissions by about 17 percent below 2005 levels by 2020. That's the target in the legislation the House passed in June. Obama is working to get a similar bill passed in the Senate, which is considering its own version of the legislation.

Q. How about China?

A. China has pledged to cut carbon intensity -- the amount of carbon released per unit of economic output -- to 40-45 percent below 2005 levels by 2020. By cutting carbon intensity, China can hold down emissions growth while its economy develops. To further help mitigate carbon pollution, China has pledged to plant 100 million acres of forest by 2020 and to produce at least 15 percent of its total energy from solar, wind and other renewable sources by that year. 

Q. What does the accord say about helping poor countries cope with climate change?

A. It calls for the United States and other developed countries to chip in on a global fund to provide $30 billion over the next three years to help the world's poorest people deal with drought, floods, famine and other disasters made worse by climate change. The fund will ramp up to $100 billion a year in private and public investment by 2020. Some of the money will go to help low income countries invest in clean energy and preserve forests.

Q. How much of that will the United States pay?

A. That hasn't been determined. The funds will include both public and private money. The United States typically pitches in about one-fifth of the public portion of global aid funds. That reflects our share of global wealth. It's a smart investment in U.S. security and prosperity. Environmental devastation is a growing factor in forced migration, conflict over scarce water and farmland and other sources of regional instability. A portion of U.S. aid commonly goes to purchase American products. That helps build markets for U.S. goods, materials and expertise, so some of the money flows back to U.S. workers and families.

Q. Is the Copenhagen Accord enough to lick global warming?

A. No. More needs to be done, as Obama and other proponents of the accord have acknowledged. This is, though, an important step forward, something we can build on moving ahead.

Q. What more is needed?

A. We'll need deeper cuts in carbon emissions, especially after 2020, from both developed and developing countries. We'll need greater use of renewable fuels and more forest preservation action. The number one need in the United States is for the Senate to pass clean energy and climate legislation this spring that will put Americans back to work improving the efficiency of our homes, cars and workplaces in ways that cut carbon emissions while reducing our reliance on foreign oil.

Q. How does the Copenhagen Accord help to advance U.S. legislation?

A. It addresses, at least partly, three key concerns. With most other countries - including all the world's big carbon emitters -- taking action against climate change, Americans aren't being asked to act alone. The transparency provisions need to be fleshed out, but they go a long way toward assuring lawmakers that countries can't say one thing and do another. And the forest protection provisions are meant to prevent U.S. carbon cuts from being cancelled out by deforestation abroad.

Q. What's the next step?

A. All of us who believe the time has come to take action against climate change need to write our U.S. Senators and urge them to pass clean energy and climate legislation. We should thank President Obama, as well, for the leadership he has shown on this issue.

Q. Why are some groups so disappointed in the outcome at Copenhagen?

A. The accord wasn't all some had hoped for or all we ultimately need. After two years of delay, though, it's an important step forward that we can build upon and strengthen. Climate change has been two centuries in the making. We won't fix it with one meeting, or turn it back with the stroke of a pen. What that's going to take is a long-term commitment to action. We have to be willing to work to build the national consensus needed to pass good legislation at home and then to take that message abroad to help advance the global momentum for change. Real progress was made at Copenhagen.

Q. Why couldn't more be done in Copenhagen?

A. This summit brought together, for the first time, the leadership of the planet to take meaningful action on climate change. At the same time, each country brought its own set of priorities, problems and resources. It isn't easy getting 193 countries to agree to anything. Climate change touches on fundamental issues: economic questions, energy use, the environment and the future of each country. And American leadership was limited because the U.S. Senate has yet to pass clean energy and climate legislation. 

We understand why people were disappointed at Copenhagen. It's important, though, to recognize what actually got done: a global accord that provides a new approach for nations to take action toward curbing climate change.

Rather than dwell on ways the summit came up short, we urge Americans who care about climate change to direct their energies toward helping to pass clean energy and climate legislation in the U.S. Senate. And that will then help to create a virtuous cycle that promotes stronger international action.

Q. What does this mean for NRDC in the months ahead?

A. Passing clean energy and climate legislation is the top priority for NRDC. We will be focused on that objective in the months to come. We will be in Mexico City later this year pushing to strengthen the Copenhagen Accord with even stronger international agreements.

Our supporters and staff have worked on this issue for decades. We have worked with scientists, policy makers, activists and members of Congress. We have met with labor leaders, workers and business owners who understand that curbing climate change can create jobs. I have personally discussed this with President Obama and with Ban Ki-moon, the secretary-general of the United Nations. I've listened to our opponents, I've heard from our friends and pretty much everyone in between. And what I can tell you is this.

Climate change is the single greatest environmental challenge on Earth. It's an economic challenge. It's a national security challenge. It's a humanitarian challenge. And it's a moral challenge, the great moral challenge of our time. This isn't going away, neither will our efforts to pass U.S. energy and climate legislation and to carry out the Copenhagen Accord, and we'll stick with it for as long as it takes.