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Dec. 23 2009 - 8:06 am | 629 views | 1 recommendation | 10 comments

Why the ‘political agreement’ in Copenhagen was not a failure

Indian Minister of State for Environment and F...

Jairam Ramesh. Image by AFP/Getty Images via Daylife

A legally-binding agreement was never going to happen.

In testimony before India’s parliament yesterday, Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh said the BASIC countries–an acronym-jumble for Brazil, South Africa, India and China–would not have accepted a legally binding agreement:

“The BASIC group was able to… ensure that the Copenhagen Accord was not legally binding and there was no mention of a new legally binding instrument in the accord,” Ramesh testified.

“I did not go to Copenhagen to save the world. I went to Copenhagen to protect India’s national interests,” he added in a subsequent press conference. “For India, climate change is a developmental issue and my mandate was to protect India’s right to foster economic growth.”

Ramesh’s comments confirm accounts by European negotiators during and after the summit that a few key nations, led by China, opposed a binding agreement.

Without the BASIC countries, home to the world’s fastest growing economies, any agreement would have been meaningless. So a political agreement is all that could have emerged from the talks. And the difference between legal and political may be negligible anyway.

In 2007 Friends of the Earth sued Canada for failing to meet its obligations under the legally-binding Kyoto Protocol. A federal judge threw out the suit, saying it was not the court’s place to evaluate Canada’s compliance with an international commitment. A court order, he added, would be unenforceable.

Nonetheless, the UN has pursued legally-binding language, and officials from other BASIC countries have been less forthcoming than Ramesh has about their opposition.

Chinese officials reacted angrily yesterday after British Environment Minister Ed Miliband accused them Monday of obstructing the talks. But Miliband’s editorial was only the first salvo. In yesterday’s Guardian, a British journalist who sat in the talks also pinned the blame firmly on China:

The truth is this: China wrecked the talks, intentionally humiliated Barack Obama, and insisted on an awful “deal” so western leaders would walk away carrying the blame. How do I know this? Because I was in the room and saw it happen.

China’s strategy was simple: block the open negotiations for two weeks, and then ensure that the closed-door deal made it look as if the west had failed the world’s poor once again. And sure enough, the aid agencies, civil society movements and environmental groups all took the bait.

via Mark Lynas, The Guardian.

Lynas defends Obama from armchair lefty firebrands like George Monbiot and Naomi Klein, who have blamed Obama for a weak accord without considering what transpired in Copenhagen: ”I saw Obama fighting desperately to salvage a deal,”Lynas writes, “and the Chinese delegate saying “no”, over and over again.”

In my experience, likewise, it was Obama who salvaged an accord from a meeting that otherwise would have ended in a shambles.

Ramesh’s statement does more than help to focus blame. It shows the narrow path delegates from different regions had to walk, making convergence rare and agreement difficult.

Ramesh was defending himself and the Copenhagen Accord yesterday from opposition-party representatives who accused him of giving up too much and compromising India’s sovereignty. (Video of the hearing)

The sovereignty concern stems from an issue of oversight. The BASIC group opposed international oversight of emissions-control efforts, while the United States refused to contribute aid without oversight.

The U.S. wanted the phrase “examination and assessment” in the accord, while India favored the term “information.” In the summit’s final hours, President Obama and the BASIC heads of state compromised, settling on “international consultations and analysis.”

Ramesh took heat for agreeing to that phrase.

“I plead guilty. I moved from information to consultation. Yes, there has been a shift,” he said.

India agreed to that phrase to avoid being “responsible for failure,” he said, and only after all parties agreed to add another clause ensuring national sovereignty.

“We have been able to incorporate a specific provision that these clearly defined guidelines will ensure that the national sovereignty is respected.”

In this morning’s Times of India, Ramesh pledges flexibility in negotations in 2010. China seems bent on a harder stance:

“The diplomatic and political wrangling over climate change that is opening up will be focused on the right to develop and space to develop,” a Foreign Ministry official, Yi Xianliang, said Monday in China’s official newspaper, the People’s Daily.

The BASIC countries were collectively responsible for 8.5 billion metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions in 2007, compared to 6.0 billion metric tons for the U.S. Their emissions are expected to grow much faster. But leaders of the BASIC countries worry that a legally binding cap on emissions could imperil economic growth.

Miliband revealed it was China that refused to include a hard emissions target in the Copenhagen Accord:

“We did not get an agreement on 50 percent reductions in global emissions by 2050 or on 80 percent reductions by developed countries. Both were vetoed by China, despite the support of a coalition of developed and the vast majority of developing countries.”

Environmental groups have criticized the accord because it allows the signatory nations to volunteer the emission cuts they are willing to make. But it’s naive to think emission cuts could be imposed on any nation by the UN, especially in a proceeding in which 192 governments are trying to reach consensus.

The Copenhagen Accord does include a commitment to keep the mean global fever from exceeding 2 degrees Celsius. Climate scientists in Copenhagen argued that current national commitments would not achieve that goal, so nations are under pressure to make deeper cuts as negotiations continue in 2010.

In a concession to small-island states and least-developed countries, the accord mandates a review of that goal in 2015, with the option to adjust it to 1.5 degrees.

India could improve on its promise to reduce its carbon intensity 25 percent by 2020, Ramesh also said yesterday, and should do so for the sake of its people.

Index of posts from Copenhagen


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  1. collapse expand

    Mr. McMahon,

    I read your piece and I am confused, exactly how was the Copenhagen Conference not a failure? What was the meterstick of success or failure? Your piece seemed to say that if anything at all came out of Copenhagen then it was a success. Well by that standard, I suppose it was. Is that your standard?

    • collapse expand

      Thank you for your clarifying question, Mr. Los Angeles. In this post, I think I have been so excessively cautious to avoid repeating myself from earlier posts that I’ve written too little background. The claim that the conference failed emerged immediately upon the adoption of the accord because it is a political rather than a legally binding agreement. But the expectation of a legally binding agreement was uninformed from the start. That’s the basis of my claim. So we have a political agreement, which is all that was possible, in which, for the first time, almost all of the nations of the world commit to reducing greenhouse gas emissions and to keeping human-caused warming below 2 degrees Celsius. The commitments that nations have already made to reduce emissions, including bills and laws that have already passed, do not disappear or decline simply because of the nature of this agreement. Yet it is an agreement that can serve as a framework for deeper and more detailed commitments to be negotiated over the next year leading to Cop16 in Mexico City. China and India, which were steadfastly opposed to international oversight, budged on that issue. We also have a new fast-start fund that will channel $30 billion to the world’s poorest nations in the next three years to help them develop clean energy sources and adapt to climate change. We have the formation of the Copenhagen Green Climate Fund, which will channel hundreds of billions of dollars to those goals beginning in 2020. We’ve had numerous side deals struck that will channel hundreds of millions more to green projects throughout the world. We have new mechanisms established to encourage reforestation and discourage deforestation and to transfer clean-energy technology between nations. We also have 119 heads of state and hundreds of ministers who’ve been subjected to an intense education on this topic.

      I don’t mean to suggest that Copenhagen was an absolute success, just that it had its successes, that it makes more successes possible, and that it was not the failure it has been made out to be simply because the accord is not legally binding. It seems odd to me to suggest that an impossible effort has failed if it really was impossible. In those terms it also failed to cure cancer and end hunger. When we look at what realistically could have been accomplished, we find that much of it was.

      In response to another comment. See in context »
      • collapse expand

        Mr. McMahon,

        It is hard for me to say if I agree with you or not. The “Bali Action Plan”, which was supposed to be the roadmap (established at the UN Climate Change Conference 2007 in Bali) to the Copenhagen Conference had the goal of completing negotiating process and setting an ambitious global climate agreement for the period from 2012. There were supposed to be four elements to this agreement.

        (I) Emission reduction – “deep cuts in global emissions will be required to achieve the ultimate objective of avoiding dangerous climate change”

        (II) Forests – “policy approaches and positive incentives” to protect existing forest cover and minimize deforestation, if not actual re-forestation.

        (III) Adaptation – Measures to protect poorer countries from impact of climate change.

        (IV) Technology Transfer – Transfer of green energy technologies from economically developed states to less developed nations.

        Clearly the agreement worked out had these four elements. However, not all goals are equal, some are easy and secondary but others are difficult and central to the issues at hand.

        Sure giving poorer countries cash to prepare for the impacts of global warming is good, but that is easy, no big surprise there. It also does not address the central issue of global warming.

        There is little in the way verification of carbon emissions reduction or for forest conservation and no penalties for failure to comply. Earlier drafts had referenced a goal of 1.5C disappeared and the 2050 goal of reducing global CO2 emissions by 80% also vanished.

        The goal of the conference was not a laundry list items to be checked off, it was supposed to be a set of concrete steps to reducing global warming. With that as a goal, I cannot see how the conference was a success.

        In response to another comment. See in context »
        • collapse expand

          Ah, but neither a failure, Mr. Los Angeles. As Sarkozy has said, “the text is not perfect,” but there is a way to move forward. You’ve written a splendid summary. I would just amend a couple of points:

          “Sure giving poorer countries cash to prepare for the impacts of global warming is good, but that is easy, no big surprise there.”

          This was not easy at all, in fact, because foreign aid is rarely popular during hard times and because with cash goes oversight and no one wants international inspectors snooping around their power plants. The language adopted on verification, for which Mr. Ramesh was lashed before his Parliament, creates room for an international body to monitor progress the world over. That task will be negotiated in detail this year. The Brits are pounding the Chinese right now to tenderize them for this process.

          “There is little in the way verification of carbon emissions reduction or for forest conservation and no penalties for failure to comply.”

          For verification, see above. Quite the opposite is true on forests. The accord immediately launches REDD+, a reforestation and deforestation initiative that was one of the few accomplishments of the low-level negotiations during the first week.

          Before you can get countries to agree to penalize themselves for non-compliance, you have to get them to agree to the standards to which they’re asked to comply. We’re still in that earlier phase.

          “Earlier drafts had referenced a goal of 1.5C disappeared and the 2050 goal of reducing global CO2 emissions by 80% also vanished.”

          China opposed the 2050 goal of 50 percent because it is lowering its carbon intensity rather than its carbon emissions. I’ve linked to more on “carbon intensity” in the final sentence of the post above. It’s quite interesting. Both China and India are using this calculation, which initially will result in no emissions cuts at all. China and India both opposed that number during MEF meetings before Copenhagen. 80 percent was a more radical proposal by Japan, and never realistic.

          1.5C does remain in the accord, as a possible resettlement point if it begins to appear by 2015 that 2C is not going to be enough. It was an accomplishment to include 2C in the accord because the cuts required to get there are more severe than what the nations of the world have currently proposed.

          In response to another comment. See in context »
  2. collapse expand

    I agree with your assessment.
    Kyoto was not binding either till Russia signed in 2004 – because only then were 55% of global emissions covered.

    My take is that it was in many ways historic (China India and US)and overall notso bad. The money is a huge breakthrough.

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    About Me

    Environmental reporting recruited me 25 years ago—on my first day as a reporter for my college newspaper, when I discovered my college was discarding radioactive waste in the regular city trash. Since then I've written hard news for dailies, including the Arizona Republic, and slanty news for alternative weeklies, including Newcity. I've written a column for New Times, stories on the Web for Forecast Earth, essays for PEN International and other magazines. I lived in an idyllic California village nestled among volcanoes and vineyards until my batteries were full of sunshine, and then I returned to my origins on the South Side of Chicago, where hope persists with no illusions about the struggle ahead. I cross the asphalt jungle by bicycle and el, mostly to get to the University of Chicago, where I teach journalism. But what matters more than any of this is a lifelong love for the natural world. We are all born with it, I believe, but some turn away.

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