A positive view of Copenhagen

By Bryan Walker 29/12/2009

coplogoI wrote a column early in December trying to discern reasons for hope even in the face of the likelihood that Copenhagen was not going to produce a legally binding agreement. In the event it not only did not produce a legal agreement, but endorsed an Accord quite different from the kind of document we were expecting.  I’ve asked myself since whether the measure of cautious hope I  expressed in advance was foolishly optimistic.  Certainly some commentators have suggested so. But not all. Joseph Romm’s Climate Progress website has been upbeat about the Accord.  And today he has drawn attention to an article in the Huffington Post by David Doniger, policy director of the US Natural Resources Defence Council’s climate centre.  Doniger hails the Accord as a gridlock breakthrough on three counts:

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. 

Doniger writes warmly of Obama’s personal involvement in forging the agreement and rescuing the conference from collapse. Brazil’s President Lula commented that it was unlike the kind of discussions that Heads of State normally have, and reminded him of his days as a trade union negotiator. I have read some accounts of the events which suggest that Obama showed little concern for climate change and was revealed as just another political leader manoeuvering to preserve the perceived interests of his own country ahead of those of the global community. It would be deeply disappointing if that were the case. Earlier this year I read both of Obama’s books, Dreams From My Father and The Audacity of Hope, as well as the collection of his election policies and speeches in Change We Can Believe In, and felt they represented an authentic and decent commitment to human welfare. I have written positively on Hot Topic several times about his unequivocal statements on climate change and the measures his administration has already begun to take to address it. ’The science is beyond dispute and the facts are clear. Now is the time to confront this challenge once and for all.’ I certainly don’t want to hastily credit the possibility that this has all been shown up as nothing more than hot air.

Back to Doniger, who addresses some of the concerns he has seen expressed about the Accord. First is the argument that the Accord isn’t enough to keep us under 2 degrees. He concedes that the agreement is not in itself ambitious enough to achieve that, but points out that Obama was quite candid that it is only a first step. Doniger thinks a significant one:

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.

A second expressed concern is that emission cuts aren’t specified. In reply Doniger points to the open enrollment period through to the end of January which allows countries to record their emission reduction commitments. He considers that a year ago the targets and policy announcements on offer today from big developing countries would have been unthinkable. The 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.

In reply to the objection that the commitments aren’t legally binding, Doniger replies that the Accord sidestepped ’legally binding’ in favour of action commitments from both the big developing countries and the U.S.  Otherwise there was unlikely to have been an agreement. And there are other ways of getting there:

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. 

In response to the objection that the Accord threatens the future of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, Doniger points to the limitations of the Conference of the Parties in requiring consensus of all 193 countries — a requirement which finally resulted in the Conference agreeing to ’take note’ of the Accord rather than adopt it, because of the continuing opposition of Venezuela, Bolivia, Cuba, Nicaragua, and the Sudan. 

Doniger expects the government of the new Accord is likely to depend in part on the Major Economies Forum on Energy and Climate. Gareth noted in his Copenhagen post that the mix of this organisation covers just about all the necessary bases.  This doesn’t mean the UNFCCC will necessarily have no function, as Doniger sees it, but it will need to find ways of working which do not leave it open to rogue obstructionists and it will need to embrace the new agreement wholeheartedly.

Finally Doniger addresses the claim that the Accord won’t move the Senate.  It will:

[It] 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.    

Political disappointments are not hard to find in the issue of climate change. I’m willing to hope that the kind of analysis of the Accord that Doniger and others offer proves to have some substance.