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The Copenhagen Accord: lofty plans and blurred allegiances


The push for an international agreement to combat climate change in Copenhagen was erratic, to say the least. Even for those of us inside the conference centre, the negotiations were hard to follow, with so much of the work carried out behind closed doors.  The two weeks of talks, which followed two years of negotiations, came to a strange end with the sidelining of the slow but democratic UN process. President Obama arrived, determined to break through the climate deadlock. Bypassing the UN process, which infuriated those developing countries that lack any negotiating power outside the UN establishment, Obama gathered heads of state from China, India, South Africa and Brazil. What emerged from this meeting is the ‘Copenhagen Accord’. The Accord includes the following goals:
  • It confirms the continuation of the Kyoto Protocol and the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC).
  • It sets a maximum of two degrees Celsius average global temperature rise, and states that a review by 2015 should consider if it will be necessary to limit warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius.
  • Developed countries commit collectively to providing 30 billion US dollars in new, additional funding for developing countries for the 2010-2012 period.
  • Developed countries support ‘a goal of mobilizing jointly 100 billion dollars a year’ by 2020 from a variety of sources.
  • It includes a method to verify heat trapping gases, a key demand by the US given that China has resisted international efforts to monitor its actions
  • It requires developed countries to list their individual targets and developing countries to list the actions they will take to cut global warming pollution by specific amounts.

But now that the 119 heads of state have gone home, after the largest gathering of world leaders at any UN summit in history, what did COP15 really achieve for developing countries?

The Accord does not include any specific emission reduction targets for developed countries. Instead, it specifies that industrialised countries will commit to implement ‘quantified economy-wide emissions targets’ from 2020, to be listed in the Accord before 31 January 2010. Several developing countries, including major emerging economies, agreed to communicate their efforts as well, listing their voluntary pledges before 31 January 2010.

 The Accord is said to have been signed by about 30 countries, and as of 19 December, was ‘acknowledged’ by the Parties to the UNFCCC, though the 193 nations stopped far from a full endorsement of the accord. While the UN talks are meant to be agreed through a unanimous vote, under a compromise to avoid collapse, the accord will list those countries who are in favour and those who are against. This clearly underlines the shortcomings of the muddled and confused UN process.

The accord offers no targets for carbon cuts and no agreement on a legally binding treaty. In many ways, this accord signifies little beyond a political statement made by these heads of states, reminiscent of where we were two years ago in Bali. The accord itself represents little substance beyond lofty goals and provides no concrete plans for action.

But we shouldn’t underestimate the power behind the meeting of a small group of leaders that created the Copenhagen Accord. While the Accord itself may be weak, the group convened represents the core countries that must take drastic measures to lower their emissions  to create a sustainable future. This is a powerful and important step that should not be overlooked, indicating that their leaders are willing to work together, at least to determine areas where compromise is possible, and areas that are non-negotiable.

One primary concern is that the end-2010 deadline to reach a legally binding agreement has been cut out of the text. Delaying an agreement any further will make targets even harder to reach, giving countries more reason to avoid the necessarily stringent binding targets that will prevent the catastrophic impacts on developing countries. Action is needed to speed up the process so that there is some real conclusion at the COP16 in Mexico. Any further delay will put an already uphill battle on an even steeper hill.

Despite the recognition of the Accord within the UNFCCC process, what is left is a continued distrust between the rich and the poor, as highlighted in Neil Bird’s blog of last week.  Importantly, however, the once static dividing line between the rich and poor countries no longer appears to hold. The $100 billion per year target included in the accord and originally mentioned by Hillary Clinton a few days earlier, shows a new alignment with the African group of nations. The $100 billion figure was put on the table at the conference by Ethiopian PM Meles Zenawi, who heads the group. Furthermore, French President Sarkozy supported developing countries by proposing to maintain the Kyoto Protocol, against the EU’s preferred position to abandon the only legally binding agreement made on climate change. These represent two of the few major wins by developing countries in Copenhagen. But they show that the traditional lines of allegiance are beginning to blur and the normal division between rich and poor is breaking down. This may be just what is needed to get a strong legally binding treaty in place.