Dec 242009

The Copenhagen UN climate conference ended last Saturday with a weak agreement, not the groundbreaking treaty many had hoped for. With more than 100 heads of governments and many more parliamentarians and dignitaries, COP-15 became the largest assembly of world leaders in diplomatic history. The Copenhagen conference had been planned out for two years in many small informal and large official meetings, following the 2007 Bali Action Plan in which nations had agreed to finalize a binding agreement this December. The outcome falls far short of this original goal. Delegates only “noted” an accord (“the Copenhagen Accord”) struck by the United States, Brazil, China, India, and South Africa that has two key components: first, it sets a target of limiting global warming to a maximum of 2 degrees Celsius over pre-industrial times; second, it proposes $100 billion in annual aid for developing nations starting in 2020 to help them reduce emissions and adapt to climate change.

2 degrees Celsius is seen by mainstream science as a threshold for dangerous climatic changes including sea-level rise and accelerated glacier melt, as well as more intense floods, droughts, and storms. Many scientists also believe that a majority of worldwide ecosystems will struggle to adapt to a warming above that mark, and more recently have set the threshold even lower, at 1.5 degrees Celsius. The accord, however, lacks any information on how this goal of preventing “dangerous” climate change, which had already been set by the 1992 United Nations Framework Convention, would be achieved. It is generally assumed that in order to keep global warming below 2 degrees, worldwide emissions have to peak before 2020 and have to be at least halved before mid-century, but the Copenhagen accord doesn’t outline global emissions scenarios nor individual countries’ pathways towards either of these two goals. Regarding the money for developing countries, the declaration does not specify precisely where the $100 billion annual support would come from nor who would profit from it.

Accordingly, the assessment of the accord was mixed. U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon praised the Copenhagen Accord as “an important beginning” and U.S. President Obama said that “for the first time in history, all of the world’s major economies have come together to accept their responsibility to take action on the threat of climate change.” Others, like German chancellor Angela Merkel, could hardly hide their disappointment. “The decision has been very difficult for me. We have done one step, we have hoped for several more,” Merkel said. Likewise, many U.S. commentators considered the deal just a small step forward, however an essential one in the domestic context. A friend of mine wrote to me that “without the accord, the Senate process would be dead. I think we can push forward domestically with the elements in the accord.”

The next COP is set for November 2010 in Mexico City, with a likely high-level preparatory meeting mid-year on invitation of the German government. “We have a big job ahead to avoid climate change through effective emissions reduction targets, and this was not done here,” said Sergio Serra, Brazil’s climate change ambassador.

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