By Julian Wong Dec.21.2009
In: climate change, solar

Good Cop, Bad Cop - Analyzing The Copenhagen Accord

ufhlAUflagflWhat a dramatic sprint to the finish lime of COP15!  When all was said and done, what resulted in the form of the Copenhagen Accord (available here) was a non-binding three-page agreement which the conference of parties “took note” of rather than voted for or signed in order to get round the objections of a handful of petro-states such as Bolivia, Venezuela, and Sudan, in addition to Cuba and Nicaragua (Jacob Werksmen of the World Resources Institute provides a good explanation of the legal implication of this).  I’m not sure any of these states could ever be trusted as genuine international partners anyways.

The mainstream media was quick to dismiss the outcome as a failure, and very soon, new puns such as “flopenhagen”, “brokenhagen” and “nopenhagen” were uttered.  Is this surprising?  No, of course not.  The mainstream media, at least in the Western world, likes headlines that shock and rouse up negative feelings.  Its much simpler to convey to the public the message that the Copenhagen climate talks sputtered, than articulate the modest but important steps that the Copenhagen Accord yielded.

Well The Green Leap Forward is not the mainstream media.  I will endeavor to provide a takeaway of some positive outcomes of the accord, and also try in a subsequent post to reflect on how China came out of this with respect to their negotiating position going in.

The Copenhagen Accord was not a breakthrough, but it wasn’t a complete failure either.

Those who were disappointed that COP15 did not produce a legally-binding outcome clearly were not doing their homework.  Going in to the metings in Denmark on December 7, that was never an expected outcome.   As I made clear in my “Copenhagen Kickoff” post, the goal of Copenhagen was to agree on a political statement or accord.  At the emergency meeting at the APEC in Singapore in mid-November, leaders agreed that Copenhagen would be the first step of a two-step process, with the second step being a fully-ratifiable, legally-binding treaty.  In Beijing days later for the US-China presidential summit, President Obama elaborated on this, expressing hope that what would come out from Copenhagen:

Our aim there, in support of what Prime Minister Rasmussen of Denmark is trying to achieve, is not a partial accord or a political declaration, but rather an accord that covers all of the issues in the negotiations, and one that has immediate operational effect.

So was this achieved?  Let’s take a closer look (I’ll start with the bad stuff so that I can end on a high):

Bad Cop

Two aspects of the Copenhagen Accord make it admittedly disappointing:

First, the emissions mitigation targets that the nations have tabled (but will as a technical matter only submit formally by January 31, 2010) will not get us on the path to the accord’s stated objective of avoiding a global temperature rise of more than 2 degrees Celsius, unless they are miraculously strengthened over the next 5 weeks.  Indeed, analysis by my colleague has shown that such commitments only get us 65 percent of the reductions we need to meet the 2 degrees C goal, to say nothing of the 1.5 degrees C goal that Tuvalu and other small island nation states have pushed for.  Over the course of the next months, governments must be challenged to commit to deeper cuts.

Second, the Copenhagen Accord does not set a deadline for the critical second step–the legally-binding agreement.  Most would have hoped for December 2010, where the 16th Conference of the Parties, or COP16, convenes in Mexico City.  Some like Nobel Prize-winning climate change advocate Al Gore has even pushed for COP16 to be pushed up to July.  The only consolation on this point is that UN General Secretary Ban Ki-Moon has used leadership to urge governments to translate the Copenhagen Accord into a fully ratifiable treaty in 2010.  In my own assessment, the parallel use of non-UNFCCC multilateral fora such as the Major Economies Forum, G8, G20, as well as bilateral interactions, will be critical towards getting to Step Two.

Good Cop

Pictured right, Premier Wen Jiabao and President Obama in a bilateral discussion at Copenhagen on December 18.

Despite its shortcomings, there are at least three reasons to be optimistic:

1.  Mitigation.  The accord starts to move away from the artificial distinction between developed versus developing countries towards one of major emitters versus everyone else.  It is not a complete shift, since references to Annex I and non-Annex I countries still exist in the text and both are held to different standards of mitigation actions.  Yet, the Copenhagen Accord marks the first time where major developing countries such as China and India promise to commit to mitigation actions.  Governments will have up to January 30, 2010 to submit their mitigation commitments.  What is just as important is that the governments explicitly agree to avoid global temperature rise of 2 degrees C, and the last clause of the accord provides for an assessment on a more stringent 1.5 degrees C target to be completed by 2015.

2.  Transparency.  The accord contains important language on transparency.  This has been an especially divisive issue between China and the United States, or so the mainstream media would have had you believe.  However, as I wrote on Friday (December 18) morning, there seemed to be clear signs that the gap between both countries on the transparency issue appeared to be closing.  Apparently, though, it would take another bilateral meeting between Premier Wen and President Obama, and a multilateral meeting among Obama, Wen, Lula (Brazil), Singh (India) and Zuman (South Africa) to hash out the final agreement on transparency.

The ends result appears to be a satisfactory compromise.  Developing countries will have mitigation actions that are supported by international financial/technological assistance to the full force of “MRV” (measuring, reporting and verification), while unsupported actions would be subject to domestic MRV processes, but also reported every two years through national communications and subject to “international consultation and analysis,” but only in such away where “national soveriengty is respected.”  This is not only consistent with my prediction on the moring of December 18, but also with the BASIC position going into the Copenhagen talks itself (see previous post “China in Copenhagen Day 4: Back to BASICS!).   Whether this is something that the United States negotiators can take back to the U.S. Congress to appease those who are skeptical of whether the developing countries can be trusted to live up to their commitments remains to be seen, but President Obama, in his press briefing shortly before leaving Copenhagen, seemed satisfied with the outcome on transparency.

3.  Finance.  The accord produced additional commitments for financial assistance from developed to developing countries, especially the most vulnerable and poor countries.  The US$30 billion quick-start funding for 2010 to 2012, which eventually rises to a $100 billion per year global climate fund by 2020 may fall short of the $300 or $400 billion a year that some developing countries are calling for, but is non-trivial.  The United States, for its part, will pay its fair share of these global figures, including at least $1 billion over the next three years for forest conservation, and another $350 million on four specific technology assistance initiatives.  These are real and new commitments that would not have occurred but for Copenhagen.

As brief as it is (3 pages to be exact, or 5 pages if you count the Appendix), Copenhagen Accord is comprehensive in that it covers all the major issues (including forestry-Article 6-as some media outlets have incorrectly claimed was dropped) and is *somewhat* operational immediately–once the parties declare their mitigation commitments by the end of January, they can proceed to implement them, while the $30 billion quick-start fund commences next year as well; other aspects such as transparency and the global climate fund will require further action from the Conference of Parties to proceed.

The Copenhagen Accord is, in the final analysis, a stepping stone that will require much hard work in the months ahead.

Further Reading

For a more thorough analysis, I leave it to people who are smarter than me.  Rob Stavins of Harvard has the most thorough yet concise analysis.  My colleague Andrew Light at the Center for American Progress, Michael Levi of Council for Foreign Relations, Jeremy Symons of National Wildlife Federation and Jake Schmidt of NRDC provide useful commentary.  (It strikes me that the optimists coming out of COP15 are those who actually know a thing or two about international climate policy.)

A MUST READ, though, is this entertaining piece by AP which provide much color on the chaotic but central role that President Obama had in brokering the final deal, including a final frantic multilateral with China, India, Brazil and South Africa (the four BASIC countries) as pictured right. One is left with the strong impression that  suggesting that we might have come away with nothing at all at Copenhagen if not for President Obama’s intervention in the final hours.

In my next post, I will examine how the Copenhagen Accord measures up to China’s negotioating position going into the summit.

Picture credits: Cartoon by; photos by White House.

Comments (9)

  1. Madam Miaow Dec.21.2009@11:13 am Reply

    Very useful, Julian. Thank you very much.

    I enjoyed hearing what you had to say when we were on the BBC this week. I’m alarmed by the Sinophobia of our British press, though, and the hysterical attempts to blame China like some pantomime villain. Those old colonialist attitudes never go away.

    Looking forward to your analysis of China’s role. Whatever your criticisms of China, I’m confident you won’t be adopting the same tone.

  2. Patrick Lynch Dec.21.2009@6:07 pm Reply

    Thanks for the analysis Julian. One of the problems with Copenhagen was that so many people declared that meeting, that date as the last and only chance to do what needed to be done. The struggle of course, continues.

    I would like to add one more bad to the list. The United States clearly lags in what it intends to do. The US promises (3-4% from a 1990 base) were never sufficient, and clearly the US needs to do a lot more. It was successful for the most part in selling the misleading 17% number and shifting attention to China and India (for obvious reasons, China makes a better villain/scapegoat in the US). No matter what other countries do, the US has to do much more. Whether it can happen remains to be seen.

    Another part of this story is the failure of media to deal with the idea of total emissions versus per capita emissions. Per capita is the only fair measurement. Until we consistently use per capita comparisons, we will get no where. The large population countries cannot and never will accept total emission agreements. To do so would be suicide for their governments. Won’t happen.

    The media also at some point needs to get more sophisticated in its analysis of what per capita means. It needs to be clear that this does not mean individual changes and sacrifices necessarily, but often means institutional changes. (Pentagon anyone?)

    The other worrisome thing is the tendency in the US to tie global warming measures in with trade and energy sourcing issues. Both of these can become distractions that distort what is likely to be a difficult enough struggle against the energy industry in the US and the flat earthers.

    Obama needs to call some of the corporate leaders who are opposing progress to Washington and ask them if they really want the US government to become their enemies. Remove all of their tax breaks, audit their overseas operations for corruption and bribes, make permits more transparent and difficult. He can make them come around if he chooses.

    Thanks again for the analysis. I feel that the best thing out of Copenhagen may be the realization of just how difficult this is going to be, and a clearer sense (after the whining dies down) that any solutions that are not “win-win” will fail.

  3. alice Dec.22.2009@9:49 am Reply

    It’s clear that there is alot more to be done but I’m a little sick of the sinophobia.
    Take Britain for example, I don’t think that the country has even fulfilled its Kyoto requirments. Secondly, it’s not like much has been done in Britain to build alternative sources of energy. If David Milliband is going to play the blame game, I think alot of fingers can be pointed the U.K’s way as well.

  4. Calvin Quek Dec.22.2009@12:25 pm Reply

    Thanks Julian for your insights. I am going to disagree with you on this one. It’s hard for anyone to digest of all the intricacies of international negotiations, let alone the understand the extraordinary complexity of negotiating a global climate deal. I wasn’t in Copenhagen and I can only rely on what i read to get a sense of where. I do not claim to be an expert on these things, but my hunch is that the vast majority of people feel let down by the Copenhagen result. Critically, the uncertainty of this agreement leaves many businesses in limbo about their future investment plans, contributions from the private sector that were key toward kick starting the green bubble that we need. When the conference started, I was a cautious optimist. I am now hopeful pessimist. I have less faith in the UN’s ability to forge a common consensus to deal with climate change. Instead, I think private sector, and regional and state initiatives are likely to lead the way, but these will be limited to the enlightened forward looking types. This may be the plan B that we need in light of the failure of Copenhagen.

  5. Elizabeth Dec.24.2009@1:09 am Reply

    Hi Julian,
    What do you think of the following that appeared in the Guardian…and James Fallow’s analysis?

    Your thoughts appreciated.


  6. Julian Jan.4.2010@8:51 pm Reply

    Thanks everyone for your comments and sorry for the delayed response. I’ll try to address a bunch at one go here:

    @Madam Miaow: the pleasure was mine. Sinophobia, I think is a convenient means to defend the status quo, not just in Britain, but certainly in the U.S. as well. The way to cut through this is to bring the best quality information to light, which is what bloggers like you and me try to do. Good luck for the new year!

    @Patrick Lynch: Thanks as always for your thoughtful comments. I don’t think the US was successful in selling the 17% below 2005 levels as you say; indeed a lot of parties certainly called out the US on this. However, I think we also need to consider what the emissions reductions picture looks like after 2020, i.e. 2025, 2030, 2050. Under the U.S. plan, it does achieve 80% reductions by 2050 from 1990 levels. Here too a more reflections on Obama’s actions over the past year: Excellent point about the true meaning of per capita, though. As much as bottom-up measures like business solutions and individual volunteerism can help, a top-down reorg of our institutions is instrumental.

    @Calvin Quek: I can understand the frustration and disappointment of many following the conclusion of COP15. It is very clear that we are far off the mark at this stage. Yet, one thing we can say is that talks did not collapse, which was not so clear in the final 24 or 12 hours of the summit. That we now have a path forward, though not perfect, should keep climate warriors living to fight another day!

    @Elizabeth: Very incendiary and I’ve largely tried to stay out of this bickering. The most balanced analysis I’ve seen on this comes from journalist Jonathan Watts, which you’ve probably seen by now:
    I don’t agree with everything Jonathan usually writes, but I think he is spot on on this one.

    Happy New Year everyone!

  7. pdm Jan.29.2010@11:15 am Reply

    You say: “The United States, for its part, will pay its fair share of these global figures, including at least $1 billion over the next three years for forest conservation, and another $350 million on four specific technology assistance initiatives”

    Are you serious when you say that the US pay a FAIR share? Over the 2010-2012 period the European Union contribute with $10,6 bn and Japan with $11 bn while the US with a mere $3,6bn. US contribution is about 1/3 of EU’s one and even less than Japanese one and you call it a “fair share”?


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  1. Greenhoof » Blog Archive » Copenhagen: a look back at the most striking narratives Dec.21.2009@2:21 pm Reply

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