Although most countries endorsed the Copenhagen Accord, few left Copenhagen in a positive mood. The general lack of enthusiasm about the outcome was exacerbated by the procedural wrangling on the final day about whether to “adopt” or merely “take note of” the Accord, which left delegates in a dispirited mood, both about the prospects for halting climate change and about the UNFCCC process more generally, which was hijacked at this meeting by the likes of Sudan and Venezuela.
Is the Copenhagen Accord a cause for celebration or sorrow? Should it be deemed a success? As always, the answer depends on how we define success (and, of course, on future events).
If our standard is problem-solving, then I think virtually everyone would agree that the Copenhagen Accord does not put us on an emissions pathway that would achieve the UNFCCC’s ultimate objective, namely, to prevent “dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system.” Most scientists think that preventing dangerous climate change requires us to limit CO2 concentrations to, at most, 450 ppm and to limit temperature change to 2 degrees Celsius – and some think that we should be aiming for 350 ppm (less than current concentration levels) and 1.5 degrees temperature change. A UN report leaked during the conference confirmed what most observers already knew – namely, that the emissions reduction pledges that the US, EU, Japan, China, India, Brazil and other major economies put on the table prior to Copenhagen (which the Copenhagen Accord is intended to memorialize) do not put us on a pathway to 450 ppm/2 degrees temperature change, much less the more ambitious goals of 350 ppm and 1.5 degrees.
Another test of effectiveness proposed by political scientists is behavioral change: Is the Copenhagen Accord likely to cause states to change their behavior? Again, the answer depends in part on our reference point. The emissions reduction numbers that are expected to be memorialized in the appendices to the Accord are likely to be the same as those that countries already made public prior to Copenhagen: a 20% reduction in absolute emissions (relative to 1990 levels) by EU countries, a circa 17% reduction by the US (relative to 2005) levels, a 40-45% reduction in carbon intensity by China, a 20-25 reduction in carbon intensity by India, and so forth. So it would appear that the Copenhagen Accord will merely confirm what states were already planning to do, rather than leading them to ratchet up their level of effort. But I think that Copenhagen supporters are also probably right that, but for the Copenhagen process, countries would not have made these emission reduction pledges in the first place. So the Copenhagen conference was arguably important as a means of spurring national action (or at least pledges of action – whether countries actually meet their pledges remains to be seen).
A third test of success is whether Copenhagen achieved as much as politically possible. Was it the best that one could have realistically hoped for, or did it leave money on the table, so to speak? This is the test of effectiveness proposed by Arild Underdal (of the University of Oslo) and others. Scored on this basis, I think Copenhagen was a big success. Granted, the Copenhagen Accord is weak in many respects: it is a political rather than a legal instrument (nor does it even call for negotiation of a legal agreement); it does not include any long-term goal for emission reductions (for example, the 50% reduction by 2050 that OECD countries have endorsed) or greenhouse gas concentrations; it does not contain more ambitious emission targets; and it does not establish a compliance system for either developed or developing countries. But I don’t think anyone could have reasonably expected any of these outcomes, given the opposition of some developing countries (in particular, China) to emissions reduction commitments or to international verification much less a compliance system, and given the unwillingness of (a) the US to accept binding emission targets if China does not do so and (b) the EU to accept a second commitment period of Kyoto if the US does not have comparable, legally-binding commitments and if China and other major developing country economies do not accept a legal agreement with emissions reduction pledges.
The Copenhagen Conference put in sharp relief the inconvenient truth that the legal position of China and other major developing countries (including India) has moved very little since the UNFCCC process began almost two decades ago: they continue to argue (with some justification!) that they should not be subject to emissions reduction commitments because they did not create the climate change problem and have less capacity to address it. The 1995 Berlin Mandate allowed the regime to “progress” by focusing only on developed country emissions, leaving developing country emissions to the side. But since the adoption of the Marrakesh Accords in 2001, the central axis in the negotiations has shifted from EU-US to developed-developing.
At each successive COP, the inability to make progress on the core substantive issues has been papered over by decisions that focused either on procedure (setting up the two ad hoc working groups on the KP and UNFCCC in 2005 and 2007 respectively) or on less controversial issues such as adaptation. But this situation could not continue indefinitely, and Copenhagen brought to a head the continued divisions between developed and developing countries.
Given this dynamic, the Copenhagen Accord represents a potentially significant breakthrough, which required direct negotiations between President Obama and the leaders of China, India, Brazil and South Africa (joined later by the EU and another dozen or so other countries). As a political necessity, the Accord continues to reflect the principle of common but differentiated responsibilities. On the one hand, developed countries committed to implement economy-wide emission reduction objectives (which will be listed in an appendix), subject to international monitoring, reporting and verification (MRV). On the other hand, developing country actions are explicitly subject to international MRV only if they receive financial support. Nevertheless, the Copenhagen Accord reflected a considerable shift by China, India, Brazil and South Africa, which begins to break the so-called “firewall” between developed and developing countries. For the first time, the major developing countries agreed to reflect their national emission reduction pledges in an international instrument and to report on their mitigation actions in biennial national communications, which will be subject to “international consultation and analysis under clearly defined guidelines that will ensure that national sovereignty is respected.” This may seem like a rather modest achievement; but it represents the first time that these countries accepted any type of “internationalization” of their pledges and any kind of international review.
Only the future will tell whether the Copenhagen Accord represents a genuine shift of views by China, India and other developing countries, or a one-time event, grudgingly accepted under unusual pressure. Although the Accord asserts that it will be “operational immediately,” fully operationalizing its terms will require further acts – for example, to spell out the “guidelines” for international consultation and analysis of developing country actions, and to establish the various bodies envisioned in the Accord (a High Level Panel to study potential sources of revenue, the Copenhagen Green Climate Fund, and a new Technology Mechanism). Ordinarily, this work would be carried out by the COP. But given the inability in Copenhagen to get a COP decision adopting the Copenhagen Accord, the prospect for implementing the Accord through COP decisions appears uncertain at best, and it is unclear what other forum could do so. Thus, it would be relatively easy for a subset of developing countries to undermine the Copenhagen Accord through procedural gambits.
The first test will come next month, when countries are supposed to come forward with their emission reduction numbers for the Accord’s appendices. Will some developing countries attempt to block the Accord from taking effect, by not allowing the UNFCCC secretariat to serve as the focal point for receiving these national submissions? Let us hope not, since the Copenhagen Accord – as the most that world leaders could agree through extraordinary, direct negotiations — is likely to represent the high-water mark of the climate change regime for some time to come.