The Copenhagen Accord: Not Everything We Wanted, But Something to Build On

Published Dec 23, 2009

Statement by Alden Meyer, director of strategy and policy, UCS.

On Saturday, December 19, 2009, in Copenhagen, the vast majority of countries signaled their support for the Copenhagen Accord (pdf), a 12-paragraph framework hammered out by a group of world leaders in a marathon series of closed room sessions the day before.  A handful of countries, including Bolivia, Cuba, Peru, and Venezuela, objected to formal adoption of the Accord, so the closing Copenhagen plenary agreed to "take note" of it instead.  Since the Accord is a political framework, not a legally binding instrument, this is a distinction without a difference.

The Copenhagen Accord is clearly a work in progress, with key details such as the emissions reduction targets for industrialized countries and emissions mitigation actions of developing countries to be filled in later.  It is also a voluntary framework, with negotiations to continue in 2010 towards a legally binding instrument that would either accompany or supersede the Kyoto Protocol. 

But the Accord does represent movement forward on several fronts:

Global temperature limits—the Accord acknowledges that "deep cuts in global emissions are required . . . so as to hold the increase in global temperature below 2 degrees Celsius," and pledges countries endorsing the Accord to "take action to meet this objective consistent with science and the basis of equity."  While disputes between industrialized and developing countries blocked agreement on a specific timeframe for peaking of global emissions or on cutting global emissions by at least 50 percent by 2050, this does establish the 2 degree C target as a clear litmus test for success of the global effort. 

Emissions limitation pledges—One of the achievements of Copenhagen was that it set a deadline that encouraged most of the major emitting countries to put forward pledges of what they were prepared to do to limit their emissions of carbon dioxide and other heat-trapping gases.  The Accord establishes appendices for countries to list these emissions reduction targets (for industrialized countries such as the U.S. and Europe) or emissions limitation actions (for developing countries such as China, India, and Brazil).  Initial commitments and actions are to be submitted to the UNFCCC secretariat by January 31, 2010, for compilation in an information document.  While this is no substitute for enshrining these pledges as commitments in a legally binding treaty such as the Kyoto Protocol, it will give them greater political heft and make it more difficult for countries to back away from them later.

Developing country reporting—the Accord calls on developing countries to increase the frequency of reporting on their national emissions inventories and actions to limit emissions to every two years, "with provisions for international consultations and analysis [of these reports] under clearly defined guidelines that will ensure that national sovereignty is respected."  This was the hardest-fought phrase in the whole agreement, with President Obama and others pressing for greater transparency on whether countries like China are meeting their emissions limitation goals.  This language is essential to assure the U.S. Senate that the world will be able to track progress by China and other major emitting developing countries.  Of course, the devil will be in the details as countries negotiate the "clearly defined guidelines" called for in the Accord.

REDD—the Accord recognizes the critical role of reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation (REDD) in the overall effort to address global warming, and calls for "the immediate establishment of a mechanism . . . to enable the mobilization of financial resources from developed countries" for this purpose.  Securing incentives for REDD has been a key focus of UCS in this process, and the language in the Copenhagen Accord represents real progress towards this goal.  Read more about progress made on REDD on other fronts in Copenhagen.

Climate finance—the Accord commits developed countries to provide "new and additional" financial resources of $30 billion over the next three years for developing country actions to reduce deforestation, deploy clean technologies, and adapt to the impacts of climate change.  Developed countries also "commit to a goal of mobilizing jointly $100 billion a year by 2020 to address the needs of developing countries."  Secretary Clinton's support for such a goal in her Copenhagen press conference last Thursday helped break the negotiating deadlock and paved the way for final agreement on the Accord.  However, working out the details on this pledge—how much of the $100 billion per year will be public financing as opposed to flows from the private sector and carbon markets, what the sources of this public financing will be, and the many institutional and governance issues—will not be easy.

Technology—the Accord calls for establishment of a Technology Mechanism to accelerate technology development and transfer, to be "guided by a country-driven approach."  Clean technology demonstration and deployment, for both mitigation and adaptation, would be eligible for support from both the short-term and longer-term resources pledged under the Accord.  Much progress was made in the detailed negotiations on technology issues in Copenhagen, though the draft text was not formally adopted; this broad agreement should provide a good basis for near-term action on this front.  Read additional details on the discussion of technology issues at Copenhagen.

Despite this progress, the Accord falls short of what is needed in several areas:

Level of ambition—Assuming that industrialized and major developing countries only put forward their current offers on emissions targets and actions, the collective level of effort will not put the world on a track to stay below the 2 degrees Celsius temperature limitation goal the Accord endorses.  The Accord represents a "bottom-up" approach of countries putting forward what they are willing to do, and then adding it all up to see how far it gets us, rather than a "top-down" approach of determining the overall emissions limitation budgets needed to meet the scientific objective, and then allocating those budgets among countries.  The fact that the Accord was largely negotiated among three countries—the United States, China, and India—that have resisted calls from others to put forward a greater level of ambition in limiting their emissions, has led many to wonder whether the Accord will prove adequate to the task, or as some fear, represents a "coalition of the unwilling."  The Accord holds out the prospect of addressing the issue of emissions goals again in 2015, when an assessment of its implementation would be conducted in light of the latest science. 

A move away from legally binding—when Danish Prime Minister Rasmussen lowered expectations for the Copenhagen climate summit by calling for a two-step approach—a "politically binding" deal in Copenhagen, to be followed by negotiation of a legally binding agreement in six months to a year—there were concerns that the second step would never come to pass.  The Accord, with its voluntary framework on emissions limitations, its lack of any compliance provisions, and its open-ended review in 2015, does little to calm those concerns.  In fact, the deletion of language calling for a legally binding instrument from the mandate for continued negotiations under the Ad Hoc Working Group on Long-Term Cooperative Action (the parallel body to the one negotiating post-2012 commitments under the Kyoto Protocol) only serves to amplify these fears.  For without creation of a legally binding framework for the United States, it is clear that Japan, Russia, and Canada will refuse to accept deeper reduction targets for the next commitment period of the Kyoto Protocol, and that instrument will wither away after 2012—and with it, the whole framework of meaningful, legally binding international commitments on climate change.

The negotiations process itself—the way the Accord was hammered out, in a process starting with just 28 countries in the room, and ultimately being decided after President Obama walked in, uninvited, to a coordination meeting of Brazil, China, India, and South Africa, raises questions about the continued relevance of the whole United Nations negotiating process.  While the UN process leaves much to be desired, and can allow small groups of countries—or even individual negotiators—to hold the process hostage for a time, it is not clear that replacing it with a less transparent process of deal-making among a handful of powerful countries will produce superior results, either in terms of overall ambition or equity.  It remains to be seen whether elaboration of the Accord takes place under the auspices of the UN process, through other multilateral processes such as the Major Economies Forum (MEF) launched by President Obama or the G-20 Economic Summit meetings, or most likely, through some combination of the two.  After last Friday's events, fears in Europe and Japan that the future climate policy landscape will be determined in a "G-2" process involving only the U.S. and China don't seem so far-fetched.

Where Do We Go From Here?

The formal negotiations will continue in 2010, with a negotiating session in Bonn, Germany next June, and the sixteenth meeting of the Conference of the Parties held in Mexico from November 29th to December 10th.  The issue of climate finance and perhaps other aspects of the Copenhagen Accord will be on the agenda for the G-20 leaders' summits in Canada in June and South Korea in November.  And the Major Economies Forum process will likely continue, with an expected focus on climate-friendly technologies, emissions registries and monitoring, and other relevant issues; no dates for future MEF meetings have yet been set.

Many eyes will also be on the United States Senate, to see whether it joins the House in passing comprehensive climate and energy legislation.  The failure of the Senate to act before Copenhagen clearly limited the Obama administration's ability to negotiate a more comprehensive agreement.  Action by the Senate this spring would improve the ability to nail down the gains made in the Copenhagen Accord, particularly those involving actions by major developing countries such as China. 

For UCS and our allies working for strong action to safeguard the climate, 2010 will continue to require substantial effort on both the domestic and international fronts.  Progress here at home is essential to create confidence among our negotiating partners that the United States is fully committed to action on climate change, and to convert the bare-bones outline of the Copenhagen Accord into a meaningful international regime that's up to the challenge posed by climate change.  Similarly, continued progress in the international negotiations and by key countries such as China and India will assure policymakers that the U.S. is not alone in the effort to combat climate change.

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