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The End of Climate Treaties?

A front-row seat at the disarray in Copenhagen
By Rebecca Cole

Walkouts. Dissent. Anger and frustration.

And in the end, not a legally binding treaty, but a simple three- page accord. A small and important step forward, but one that does not outline a clear path toward substantially reducing global greenhouse gas emissions.

Once a much hoped-for event, the United Nation’s climate change conference in Copenhagen last December turned into a chaotic circus and, at times, a deadlocked stalemate.

Former RMI Senior Research Fellow Noah Sachs arrived during the second week of negotiations, during the height of the controversy when members of the G77, a group that represents 130 developing countries, briefly staged a walkout, suspending the talks.

Sachs, a professor of law at the University of Richmond and the director of the school’s Robert R. Merhige, Jr. Center for Environmental Studies, said the situation appeared hopeless.

“I thought, they’re not going to do it. There’s no way they’re going to pull out a treaty or even a semblance of a treaty in 48 hours,.” he said.

As delegates bickered, Sachs said that all expectations were resting on the arrival of heads of state, and particularly President Barack Obama. “The hope was that he would walk in and save the conference,” Sachs said.

Obama, there for only 11 hours, did manage to hammer out a deal with China, India, Brazil, South Africa, and other countries—in closed back-room sessions. The “Copenhagen Accord” is non-binding and asks developed countries to list their emissions reductions commitments and developing countries to pledge to undertake “nationally appropriate mitigation actions.”

In a surprise development on the last day, the Copenhagen Conference did not officially adopt the Accord, but instead agreed just to “take note” of it, leaving its legal status uncertain.

“The Accord represents a breakthrough compared to the deadlock that plagued the conference,” Sachs said. “And for the first time, the major greenhouse gas emitters sat down together and committed to take some action to reduce their emissions.”

Another bright spot is that financing pledges from the developed world helped to bring developing countries to the negotiating table. During the conference, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced that the U.S. would work with other countries toward a goal of jointly mobilizing $100 billion a year by 2020 to address the climate change needs of developing countries, and that commitment was written into the Accord.

This represents a huge increase from prior financing commitments, but it remains unclear how the funds will be raised. “I can’t see Congress writing a $10- billion check each year to help developing countries reduce their emissions,” Sachs said, adding that cap-and-trade legislation in the U.S. might provide much-needed private sector funding.

The Copenhagen Accord was silent on a few other crucial issues, Sachs noted. It left emissions reductions up to each country and did not outline a collective goal for reducing emissions by 2020 or 2050. It also left unsaid whether there would be a treaty to extend the Kyoto Protocol after 2012.

“Copenhagen was supposed to outline the climate change architecture for the next decade or two,” Sachs said, “but there are huge remaining uncertainties.”

The Accord does set a goal of limiting global warming to two degrees Celsius, but the emissions reduction commitments likely to be made by countries this winter are widely expected to lead to three degrees of warming or more. “We have a two-degree target but no path for how to get there,” Sachs said. “This makes RMI’s work all the more important to demonstrate private-sector leadership and to show that leaps in energy efficiency can be made profitably.”

The next few months will be critical, as the U.S. considers cap-and-trade legislation and countries begin to list their commitments following the Copenhagen Accord. The U.S. commitment is to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions 17 percent by 2020.

As Sachs wrote in a recent article for Grist, U.S. negotiators believed that “the 17 percent pledge is the best the U.S. can do, given the difficulty of getting 67 U.S. senators to ratify a treaty. This message sends developing countries into a tizzy, though, because it seems to make the whole 190-country negotiation (and the fate of the planet) dependent on about ten swing senators from the United States.”

Sachs said that the conference was a massive event with everything under discussion, not just climate change. “What was really being debated in Copenhagen was the future of the entire global economy—energy, agriculture, forestry, development. We fell short, but it went from total deadlock to actually doing something,” Sachs said. “It’s amazing that anything was agreed to in Copenhagen, and the Copenhagen Accord is better than nothing.”

In international law, non-binding declarations can be incredibly important while many legal treaties are ignored. The key test, Sachs said, is to look at what’s really happening on the ground.

Next year, the delegates will meet in Mexico City to try to finalize a more comprehensive treaty. “I am not sure the heads of state will have the stomach to go through this all again,” Sachs said. “With so much prestige riding on the outcome of Copenhagen, if they couldn’t agree then, I am not sure what’s going to be different a year from now.”

There is room for optimism, however.

“If there’s no top-down process for a treaty, progress will have to come from the bottom-up: from NGOs, civil society, and smart business leaders who know that reducing emissions means saving money,” Sachs said.

Rebecca Cole is RMI’s Online Editor.

--Published February 2010