Apparently, after much drama, intrigue, and sleepless nights, we have some sort of agreement at Copenhagen. We’ll probably get the text of the Copenhagen Agreement soon. But I think the gist of it is as follows:
The Copenhagen agreement contained no specific targets for greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. A proposed 50% cut that was in earlier drafts was removed.
The pact calls on developed nations to provide $30 billion to help developing nations deal with the effects of climate change from 2010 to 2012. By 2020, the text says rich nations “set a goal of mobilizing jointly $100 billion a year” for poor nations. The text says the money will go to the “most vulnerable” developing nations.
The deal pledges countries to try to keep atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide low enough to keep average global temperatures less than two degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels — a threshold beyond which many scientists say dangerous consequences could result.
But the agreement doesn’t specify how countries will achieve that goal.
And as reported by Time:
[T]he deal was not legally binding for anyone — neither developing nations like China, nor the U.S. Each country will list its climate actions in an appendix to the document; then, there will be international analysis and reporting similar to what happens under the World Trade Organization. But there will be no legal penalties if countries fail to achieve their targets. “We’ll receive a sense of what each country is doing,” said Obama. That way the signatories will know “we are in this together, and we will know who is emitting and who is not.”
From the press coverage here in the U.S., it also appears as if the agreement was “salvaged” by last minute heroics by the U.S. For example, NY Times reported:
Mr. Obama’s announcement came late in a day that began with his 11-minute address to world leaders shortly after noon, and that was filled with brinksmanship and 11th-hour negotiations. Mr. Obama, whose speech included remarks that appeared pointed at China’s resistance to mechanisms for monitoring emissions reductions, met privately with Prime Minister Wen Jiabao afterward. But Mr. Wen did not attend two smaller, impromptu meetings during the day that Mr. Obama and United States officials conducted with the leaders of other world powers, an apparent snub that infuriated administration officials and their European counterparts.
The deal eventually came together after a dramatic moment in which Mr. Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton burst into a meeting of the Chinese, Indian and Brazilian leaders, according to senior administration officials. Mr. Obama said he did not want them negotiating in secret.
The intrusion led to new talks that cemented central terms of the deal, American officials said.
WSJ (in article linked above) had a different take:
Earlier in the afternoon, President Obama had met with leaders of European and other countries to strategize about “what he was going to go do in making a last run at Premier Wen,” according to a senior administration official. “They decided that, if they went to Wen and they couldn’t get an agreement,” they would still aim for an agreement that would lead countries “to continue to make progress toward something in the future.”
Afterward, President Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton went to what they thought was a meeting with Mr. Wen, only to discover when they were ushered in that the leaders of India, Brazil and South Africa also were there, the official said.
Whatever version you believe, you can count on more sensationalistic and spirited commentary to come out in the following days. Instead of spewing more hot air, I’d like to take a step backward to get some perspective on what happened.
Copenhagen did not happen in a vacuum. It was the culmination of years of concerted global efforts. Many countries (China included) came to Copenhagen to expand the framework of the Kyoto Agreement. Some like the U.S., however, came to Copenhagen to replace Kyoto.
China wanted developed countries to adhere to the Kyoto agreement limiting greenhouse emissions of developed countries to 5.2% below 1990 levels. (The EU did manage to achieve that target, though mostly on the back of the economic collapse of Eastern Europe. The U.S. actually increased its greenhouse production by over 17%. Japan actually increased its greenhouse production by over 14%.) China also wanted developed nations to commit resources to help developing nations adjust to a low carbon economy.
Premier Wen said in a speech at Copenhagen:
The principle of “common but differentiated responsibilities “represents the core and bedrock of international cooperation on climate change and it must never be compromised. Developed countries account for 80 percent of the total global carbon dioxide emissions since the Industrial Revolution over 200 years ago. If we all agree that carbon dioxide emissions are the direct cause for climate change, then it is all too clear who should take the primary responsibility. Developing countries only started industrialization a few decades ago and many of their people still live in abject poverty today. It is totally unjustified to ask them to undertake emission reduction targets beyond their due obligations and capabilities in disregard of historical responsibilities, per capita emissions and different levels of development. Developed countries, which are already leading an affluent life, still maintain a level of per capita emissions that is far higher than that of developing countries, and most of their emissions are attributed to consumption. In comparison, emissions from developing countries are primarily survival emissions and international transfer emissions. Today, 2.4 billion people in the world still rely on coal, charcoal, and stalks as main fuels, and 1.6 billion people have no access to electricity. Action on climate change must be taken within the framework of sustainable development and should by no means compromise the efforts of developing countries to get rid of poverty and backwardness. Developed countries must take the lead in making deep quantified emission cuts and provide financial and technological support to developing countries. This is an unshirkable moral responsibility as well as a legal obligation that they must fulfill. Developing countries should, with the financial and technological support of developed countries, do what they can to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions and adapt to climate change in the light of their national conditions.
But many in the U.S. do not believe countries like China should get any help. Throughout much of the week, U.S. officials promised that whatever the agreement, no money will flow from the U.S. to China to help China go green. Later Hillary announced that the U.S. would contribute to a $100 billion fund to help developing nations to adopt green technologies but that for countries like China to take any money, they must be subjected to strict regulatory oversight for use of that money. China balked at the potential for loss of sovereignty (for such peanut of a price) and that deal never went through.
I personally am satisfied with a political declaration of positions to tackle climate change. Not only is climatic science too uncertain to design a comprehensive, fair, and effective regulatory scheme, we also don’t have a common reference on what equitable share each country should contribute to reduce the green house burden on the atmosphere going forward.
It is impractical to think we can escape the carbon cycle simply by mandating it (just look at the above Kyoto results). Simply mandating (through a regulatory agreement) different countries to fixed levels of energy usage / CO2 footprint will either involve locking them in a backward state of economic development or result in countries flaunting the agreement.
Economic development (as we know it) has been tied with industrialization, and industrialization is tied to fossil energy usage. We’d like to find a different cycle of development, and China – in many headlines throughout this year – has definitely made some noise trying (China has also committed to a 40-45% cut in carbon intensity by 2020). But it’s going to be difficult. How should the world as a whole shoulder this burden? To ask developing nations not to develop is not fair. To ask the developing nations to shoulder this burden, after the developed nations has already used up the carbon reserve in the atmosphere, is also not fair.
There are thus two important prongs we need to tackle going forward.
1. How can the world’s major economies stimulate the development of green technologies to allow us to escape the previous trap of carbon-dependent development?
2. How can we agree on an equitable framework for various nations to share in the burden of creating and pursuing alternative modes of development? Wen mentioned that the vast majority of man-made CO2 have been caused by developed countries and that they are the ones which should take the lead to help developing countries adapt going forward. But how much?
Note: here is a preliminary text of the deal