Copenhagen closes: too little, too late

By Gareth Renowden 20/12/2009

coplogoThe Copenhagen climate conference finally wrapped up in the wee small hours of Sunday morning NZ time (3:26pm Saturday in Denmark), with delegates agreeing to “take note of” a “Copenhagen Accord” [PDF here]. The agreement sets no legally binding targets, establishes no follow-on framework for Kyoto, only “recognises” the need to stay under 2ºC, and that parties “should cooperate in achieving the peaking of global and national emissions as soon as possible”. On the plus side, the accord does provide for assistance to developing countries of US$30 billion over 2010-12, and commits to a “goal” of US$100 billion a year by 2020. The meeting ended after an all night plenary session in which a group of developing countries including Bolivia, Cuba, Sudan and Venezuela blocked progress because of the lack of binding targets for the developed world.

Although late drafts of an agreement included references to 80% cuts by 2050 for developed countries, this disappeared from the final text. All the Accord requires is that developed countries “commit to implement individually or jointly the quantified economy- wide emissions targets for 2020″, with these targets to be appended to the agreement by the end of January 2010. Developing countries can do the same, for their preferred emissions targets. This will all be reviewed by 2015, and in a nod to the small island nations, the review will consider strengthening the goal to a 1.5ºC limit.

The final deal was stitched together by the US and China, in a meeting with India, Brazil and South Africa, and effectively imposed on the rest of the world. Here’s how BBC environment correspondent Richard Black describes it:

Ministers and scientists and campaigners who dedicated huge swathes of the last year to making a tough deal happen watched aghast as Chinese and US leaders and their entourages flew in, took over the agenda and emerged with what was basically their own private deal, with leaders announcing it live on television before others realised it had happened.

As you’d expect, leaders from EU countries and the developing world that really don’t like this deal have been assuming rictus grins and telling us it’s a “good first step”.

New Zealand’s climate change ambassador Adrian Macey was equally unimpressed, describing the process as “appalling” in the Herald this morning. Sudan’s environment minister said the weak deal would commit Africa to a holocaust, and Ian Fry, spokesman for Tuvalu said it would spell the end of his country. More reaction at the BBC report & analysis, Telegraph, Guardian (editorial), New York Times, and Stuff.

My take? Copenhagen was always going to end with a deal of some sort, because too many leaders had too much mana invested in the process for there to be an overt collapse. However, the deal that’s been done — essentially a private affair between the US and China, imposed on the rest of the world and accepted only because something is better than nothing — delivers little in the way of concrete progress. Unless the momentum that built up before COP15 began can be maintained through the next year, and targets agreed and implemented in some sort of credible fashion, then the prospects for emissions peaking early enough to give the world a chance of staying under 2ºC will be essentially zero.

What are we left with? I suspect this process will bumble on for years, with many fine words and minimal action. One report suggested that China’s real position was that it would prioritise economic growth until climate impacts grew too severe, then go for rapid adaptation. If that’s true, then we’re all toast. Nothing really transformative will be attempted until the effects of warming are so severe that the world will be plunged into a wartime response to the issue. That’s when the climate commitment — the 30 years of warming in the pipeline — will really bite. I fear that the only interesting questions now are how soon, and how bad will it be?