Copenhagen a new framework for climate chaos?

The original intention of Conference of Parties (COP) 15 in Copenhagen was to complete negotiations on a new international agreement on climate change to come into force before 2012. What emerged was a slim three page Copenhagen Accord with a couple of blank appendices.

To the dismay of many EU countries, not even this rather watery three page Accord managed to secure the unanimous approval of the COP. A handful of countries, including Sudan and Saudi Arabia, refused to sign, and the COP thus only succeeded in “taking note” of its contents.

Legally it remains unclear how a non-binding Accord will function. “Takes note of” according to Yvo de Boer, head of the UNFCCC, “is a way of recognizing what is there without going so far as to directly associate yourself with it”.

Leaving this aside, in point 1 of the Accord itself, the parties “recognise” the scientific view that the increase in global temperatures should be below 2 degrees Celsius. In point 2, however, the seemingly stronger acknowledgment is given that:

“…deep cuts in global emissions are required according to science, and as documented by the IPCC Fourth Assessment Report with a view to reduce global emissions so as to hold the increase in global temperature below 2 Degrees Celcius, and to take action to meet this objective consistent with the science and on the basis of equality”.

This is not the easiest sentence to decipher. Is it a commitment to the 2 degree target? This is certainly how Ban Ki Moon was spinning it, stating that: “All countries have agreed to work toward a common long-term goal to limit temperature rise to 2 degrees Celsius”. Within this context the Accord commits countries to come forward with targets (or lists of “actions” in the case of non-Annex 1 Parties) by 31 January.

The rest of the Accord treats other central issues in non-concrete terms. In the area of financing, the EU had its way with €100 million annually committed for adaptation and mitigation by 2020. A little progress was made on deforestation and adaptation.

What was more interesting than the outcome of the negotiations was the abject failure of EU diplomacy throughout. The final Accord was hammered out by the US, China India, Brazil and South Africa, and presented as “take it or leave it” to the rest of the Parties, including the EU.

When we say the US, China, India, Brazil and South Africa, what we are really talking about here is the US and China. This is perhaps the first time that international negotiations of this nature have been so resoundingly dominated by two main players. Is this the first example of the reemergence of a bipolar world?

Or is this an indication that the EU’s opening negotiating position was somehow out of touch, or unrealistic? The EU saw the COP payday loans as an opportunity to share out carbon budgets to 2020, and perhaps beyond to 2050; and to establish the international structure to ensure compliance.

For other countries, perhaps the negotiations were a step further back – exploring the very architecture itself. What seems now to be emerging is a different approach which reflects a proposal by Robert Stavins of the Harvard Project on International Climate Agreements. In a recent paper Stavins calls for what he describes as a more politically palatable approach based on a “portfolio of domestic commitments.”

Under such an arrangement, nations would make commitments to emissions reductions in domestic law, with a portfolio or list of such agreements emerging or being compiled at the UNFCCC. Alternatively a number of major players could compile an initial portfolio, inviting other countries to join thereafter. This would be a shift from what can be perceived as internationally imposed targets with timetables for delivery.

Stavins rather perspicaciously states that “Under a portfolio approach, these domestic commitments could be represented in a table of national schedules attached to an agreement”. For anyone who has looked at the layout of the Copenhagen Accord with its appendix, this approach will be familiar.

This is realpolitik. Both China and the US remain skeptical about the prospect of establishing a strict set of international rules, or indeed devolving any power to international organizations. This is especially the case with China, and is particularly evident in its spat with the US over the monitoring of mitigation measures. China refused throughout the conference to consider any independent monitoring of its emissions reduction efforts, and the final Accord states that “mitigation actions taken by non-Annex 1 Parties will be subject to their domestic measurement, reporting and verification” and guidelines “will ensure that national sovereignty is respected”.

For this reason, a domestic portfolio approach seems more viable. If this is the road that is chosen, a big question according to Stavins is “whether a domestic portfolio of commitments would prompt national actions ambitious enough to yield emissions reductions of the magnitude that science suggests may be required”.

The answer would seem to be a resounding “no”. According to Climate Action Tracker, an independent science-based assessment of pledges: “the emission commitments and pledges put forward by industrialized and developing countries shows that the world is headed for a global warming of 3.5°C by 2100…there is at least a one in four chance of exceeding a warming of 4°C”.

So that’s it in a nutshell. Countries won’t devolve sovereignty to an independent body which can require emissions reductions, and won’t make pledges that would contain global warming anywhere close to a safe threshold.

The only silver lining is having a reference to the 2 degree target in the Accord. Perhaps stronger commitments will eventually emerge from what are sure to be long and protracted negotiations.

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2 Responses to Copenhagen a new framework for climate chaos?

  1. paul says:

    he other aspect of November has been the unseasonably high air temperatures. Warmer air carries more moisture, which accounts for the intense nature of recent rainfall. Climate expert Dr Kieran Hickey is based in Galway. The rainfall he witnessed this week he described as “semi-tropical”. Hickey confided his suspicion that “climatically, things are changing much faster than people think”.

    has the expert put his snout outdoors in galway recently?

  2. John Gibbons says:


    You’re mixing up “weather”, and “climate”. Weather varies from hour to hour, day to day, climate gives us longer-term trends. At its simplest level, while the weather forecasters can’t tell you what temperature Dublin will experience on, say, February 2nd next, they can tell you, with a high degree of confidence, that it should be cooler than on July 2nd next. That pretty obvious deduction is based on long-term climate observation.

    A good analogy is to visualise a dice. Let’s say two sides are red (indicating an unusually warm period), two are blue (cold) and two are white (normal for the given time of year). Climate change is changing the balance, so that now we have three, maybe even four sides of the dice red, one or two blue and one white.

    When you throw the dice, you may well still land the blue side (as we’ve done this winter) but keep throwing it and the new, warmer, average becomes clearer over time. That’s climate. JG

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