Briefing: the Copenhagen Accord

What happened at the COP15 climate talks? Tan Copsey explains the new agreement.

After two chaotic weeks, 188 countries reached a limited agreement in Copenhagen to continue global efforts to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases in order to address climate change. 

The talks were quite unlike the more ceremonial proceedings at the 1992 conference in Rio that founded the United Nations climate-change process, and less fruitful than the 1997 negotiations that produced the legally binding Kyoto Protocol. The final, frantic negotiations featured unprecedented engagement between heads of state; an angry showdown between a British minister and the leader of the G77 group of developing nations over comparisons between the agreement and the Holocaust; and a bloody-fisted Venezuelan negotiator demanding that she be heard

Many members of environmental civil society reacted angrily to the deal, known as the “Copenhagen Accord”. Malini Mehra of the Centre for Social Markets suggested that it “may well prove to be the Munich Agreement of modern times”, referring to the appeasement strategy that allowed Nazi Germany to annex parts of Czechoslovakia. Bill McKibben, founder of – a campaign to limit atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases – suggested that the deal had destroyed the United Nations.

The Copenhagen Accord is a short document of around 1,400 words, limited in detail and ambition. Though it is largely in line with the text of the 1992 Framework Convention on Climate Change, it is not legally binding. The agreement also reflects a new political reality in which the pursuit of either a second phase of the Kyoto Protocol or a new, legally-binding Copenhagen agreement now appears unlikely. The 2007 climate talks in Bali created a roadmap towards a future agreement. Alex Evans, of the Center on International Cooperation at New York University, has described the Copenhagen Accord as “Bali 2”, since it is limited to repeating many of the goals set out in the Bali Action Plan, in place of making progress on them.

Though the accord formally recognises that average global temperatures should not be allowed to rise by more than two degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, it is not substantial enough to suggest that such a goal is achievable. Signatories “commit to implement …. quantified economy-wide emissions targets for 2020”, but these targets are self-determined and the targets submitted by the United States or China, for instance, are likely contribute to warming of more than two degrees. 

Copenhagen saw some progress on providing finance to developing nations. “New and additional, predictable and adequate funding” will be provided to developing nations for emissions mitigation, reducing deforestation, technology development and transfer and adaptation. Up to US$30 billion will be provided between 2010 and 2012. Developed countries also committed to find a more substantial $100 billion by 2020. A significant portion of financing will flow through a newly established Copenhagen Green Climate Fund. 

Compromise was also reached on the issue of monitoring the “nationally appropriate actions” taken on by developing nations – for instance, China’s target to reduce carbon intensity. Determining how these actions would be “measurable, reportable and verifiable” (MRV) was a sticking point in the negotiations. Many developing nations, particularly China, are wary of the prospect of intrusive international monitoring of industry. The accord allows for “domestic measurement, reporting and verification”, but requires that this be reported “through national communications, with international consultation and analysis.”

The United States and China, the world’s largest historical contributor to climate change and the world’s largest current emitter, were at the heart of the failure to reach a more substantial agreement. Negotiators for the United States rejected the possibility that they might surpass the targets currently being debated in the senate – despite the fact these targets are considerably weaker than those of most developed country counterparts. China remained closed to the possibility that after 2020, the country might take on binding emissions caps – or that it should set a target for the year at which its emissions peak. 

Not every developing nation supported this position. Tuvalu, a small island nation – most of which is no more than one-metre above sea level – staged a dramatic intervention during the first week of the conference. Echoing the cries of other small island states, Tuvalu called for the formation of a “Copenhagen Protocol”, including ambitious targets to limit atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases to 350 parts per million (ppm), as opposed to the 450ppm recommended by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, and temperature rise to no more than 1.5 degrees Celsius. China rejected this proposal as it would have required Chinese emissions to peak very soon. 

Further fractures between the previously aligned positions of developing nations became evident during the final days of the conference. A group of nations, including Sudan – which currently holds the presidency of the G77 – and a collection of Latin American nations refused to sign the accord. Cuban foreign minister Bruno Rodriguez denounced the accord, suggesting it was the work of an “imperial” and “arrogant” United States. China has since accused developed nations of “fomenting discord” among developing nations. But an obvious division has now emerged between the positions of more advanced developing nations – China, India, Brazil and South Africa – and the most vulnerable, least developed nations. This may explain why the US president Barack Obama chose to emphasise the crucial role that these emerging economies played in helping to reach a deal. 

The accord had significant implications for the future of the Kyoto Protocol. It drew the contours of a largely voluntary system, quite unlike the top-down, legally binding and international Kyoto Protocol, which allowed emissions trading between states and included a variety of flexible market mechanisms. If the agreement is used as a foundation in the coming months, then the prospect of nations complying with the Kyoto Protocol is likely to recede. Canada, already drastically above its Kyoto target, will have little incentive to purchase credits to offset this rise. Russia, which holds a surplus of these credits, will be a lot poorer.

Neither is this a good deal for those seeking to invest in renewable energy or clean technologies. Investors are faced with an uncertain terrain of diverse national policies on climate change. This creates an uneven playing field and increases the possibility of high-carbon industries “leaking” to those countries with less stringent policies; and some countries imposing tariffs on carbon-intensive imports. Carbon prices fell to a six-month low shortly after the talks; the long-term outlook for international emissions trading now seems bleak. The accord will also frustrate those expected Copenhagen would see real progress on reforming or extending the much-criticised Clean Development Mechanism.

Finally Some nations, including the United Kingdom, are looking toward the next global climate-change summit in Mexico City next November, in the hope there is an opportunity to turn this basic agreement into a full, legally-binding treaty. But as Yvo de Boer – the man in charge of the process – put it: “We have a lot of work to do on the road to Mexico.” The next step will come sooner, at the end of January, when the developed nations that signed the Copenhagen Accord are required to submit economy-wide emissions targets to the United Nations. 

Perhaps unsurprisingly, de Boer was a rare optimistic voice amid the clamour of blame and recrimination. “Never before have we seen so many world leaders gathered in the stride for the climate,” he said. “Even though it appeared to be very difficult [to get an agreement] 115 heads of state or governments chose to come to Copenhagen and engage. This is what we need to build on.” But for many, a question mark remains over the accord itself, and whether it is secure ground on which to build. 

Tan Copsey is development manager at chinadialogue

Homepage image from The White House