Interpreting Copenhagen

Obama in Copenhagen. Courtesy

What happened in Copenhagen? Was it unprecedented progress (Barack Obama) or a disappointing failure (Gordon Brown)?

Let’s break it down.

Question: What was unprecedented about Copenhagen?

Answer: Three breakthroughs occurred that bring a legally binding agreement closer to a reality (pending action by the US Senate.)

First, China stepped up. China indicated its willingness to be bound to targets and to submit to a level of transparency to make those targets measureable and enforceable. Opponents in the US frequently cite China’s unwillingness to participate as a reason not to act alone. As the world’s two leading emitters, neither can succeed in reducing emissions if either does not ratchet down emissions in a binding and effective way. Now China is part of the Copenhagen Accord and it appears that stumbling block is being removed. This key development was made possible by President Obama’s personal negotiation at the midnight hour.

Second, the United States stepped up, both by indicating its willingness to work towards binding limits and in its willingness to join with the developed world to ensure that $100 billion of public and private money would be available over the next ten years to aid poorer nations to adapt to the warming we cannot avoid. This commitment helped unlock the stalemate on Thursday that was preventing any possibility of an agreement.

Third, the developing world will get help sooner rather than later. The Copenhagen Accord includes a fast-start fund for earlier action, including the protection of tropical forests from destruction. Secretary Vilsack announced two days before the conclusion of the summit that the US would make $1 billion contribution to a $3.5 billion fund to fight deforestation around the world. This is a welcome recognition of the important role that forests are playing as they absorb the carbon that emitters have yet to curb. Some of our own old-growth national forests are champion carbon sinks and will receive new attention for this carbon storage role.

Question: How did it fail?

Answer: In three ways, the Accord falls short:

First, the Accord fails to meet the scientific test that we hold global warming at less than 2 degrees C (3.6 degrees F) by 2050 compared to preindustrial levels. While nominally the Accord aims for the 2 degrees C target, a UN memo leaked last weak concluded that target would not be met by the emissions cuts pledged so far.

Second, it is not a legally binding agreement. Essentially a group of 5 countries — Brazil, South Africa, India, China and Japan — worked out a modest Accord with President Obama while the others were left to take it or leave it. But this was no surprise. The failure of the US Senate to act in 2009 meant that the Obama negotiators could not bind the United States to anything ambitious at this time. Obama does not intend to repeat the frustration of Kyoto, where the commitments of the administration were so far ahead of the Congress that it could not follow through back home. Until the US Senate steps up, no comprehensive agreement is possible.

The third failure is to provide any deadline for this final phase of negotiation. There are UN meetings coming in 2010 in Bonn and in Mexico City, but no one is saying when the United States will be ready to re-engage because — did I say this already? — the US Senate needs to act first.

Bottom line — Copenhagen is a half-empty, half-full glass right now, and its full meaning will only be realized with time. Even if the Senate acts in a timely way, the terms of the Accord need a lot of work to control global warming at sustainable levels. But the Accord maintains progress toward a global agreement and served to engage both the United States and China more deeply in achieving a successful outcome, making Senate action more likely. The United States Senate must act to remove the remaining roadblocks to an effective global agreement.

That is why the opposition is mounting a furious response. They are redoubling efforts to block the Senate from agreeing to anything that would give the President the political consensus he needs to enter into a binding agreement. It has never been clearer that the fate of an effective global response to climate change rests with a very small number of US Senators.

photo: Obama in Copenhagen. Courtesy