Copenhagen: Yet Another Giant Beginning with an Uncertain End

As feared by many, the UN conference on climate change has produced a lame document which can, most charitably be described as a beginning. As environmental economist Scott Barrett notes, previous meetings on the environment were also called a beginning but have not ended in anything tangible. Despite a long period spent on negotiations, the final outcome is a short text that reflects a lowest-common-denominator compromise between proposals produced by two groups of countries. The Copenhagen agreement is a political statement and not a legally binding treaty as was the Kyoto Protocol. It does not offer any binding target and it even leaves nations free to decide the base year for their promised reductions. Barrett argues that given the enormity and complexity of the issues, there is a better chance of reaching agreements if they were broken up into smaller and more manageable issues, like the successful Montreal protocol (1987) on repairing the ozone layer depletion. – YaleGlobal

Copenhagen: Yet Another Giant Beginning with an Uncertain End

To successfully avert climate change, a series of smaller deals is needed
Scott Barrett
Monday, December 21, 2009

Emit and perish: German coal-fired plant in North Rhine-Westphalia heats up the planet; drought victim of Bangladesh (below) pays the price

NEW YORK: The three pages of text that emerged after years of preparation and two weeks of intense negotiation in Copenhagen signally fail to address what the document correctly calls “one of the greatest challenges of our time” – global climate change. To many, the Copenhagen Accord will seem a setback; but, actually, it’s a continuation of a long history of failure. The essential problem lies with the strategy of addressing this complex issue by means of a single agreement. Breaking this colossal problem up into smaller pieces would allow us to achieve more.

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon called the Copenhagen Accord “a beginning.” A beginning? Wasn’t the Framework Convention on Climate Change, negotiated in 1992, a beginning? Wasn’t the Kyoto Protocol a beginning? Why, after two decades of negotiation are we still “beginning”?

To some, the failure in Copenhagen is due to the United Nations process. It’s true that the process failed. But process is not the real problem. The real problem is the way we have conceptualized our response to this challenge.

In the run-up to Copenhagen, the UN process produced a draft text that ran over 180 pages, most of which identified areas of disagreement. This approach was essentially abandoned in Copenhagen.

A select group of rich countries, including the United States and Britain, prepared their own draft text, as did a group of developing countries, including China and India. Both of these texts noted the need to limit temperature change to 2 ˚C. In other respects, however, they diverged. The proposal by rich countries implicitly stated that the emissions of poor countries must decline. The proposal by fast-growing poor countries supported the Kyoto Protocol, which limits the emissions of rich countries only. The Copenhagen Accord reflects a lowest-common-denominator compromise between these two proposals.

Though accepted by the world’s biggest powers and most other countries, the Accord was rejected by a small number of developing countries (including Sudan, Saudi Arabia, Cuba, and Venezuela), who insisted that the process that gave rise to it lacked legitimacy. However, agreement by these countries is not essential.

Copenhagen is a “political statement,” not a “legally binding treaty.” But the fact that the Kyoto Protocol is a legally binding treaty has made almost no difference. The US did not participate. Some of the countries that did participate will not comply. Others will comply only by some clever accounting. The political nature of Copenhagen is a problem, but it is not the only or even the most important problem. The bigger challenge is negotiating specific obligations, which can be enforced.

The Copenhagen Accord asks rich countries to specify quantitative economy-wide emissions targets for 2020 in January 2010, adding that the rich country parties to the Kyoto Protocol “will thereby further strengthen the emissions reductions initiated by the Kyoto Protocol.” But countries have been declaring emission targets for more than two decades, with little if any effect. What is to be gained by doing this again?

Canada’s emissions today exceed the level allowed by Kyoto by more than 30 percent, and Canada has no plans to comply, implying that Kyoto is already a dead agreement. By not even setting a date by wihich new targets and timetables might be agreed, Copenhagen further undermines Kyoto’s authority.

One interesting change is that the Copenhagen Accord allows countries to specify their own base year. Kyoto established 1990 as the base year. This gave advantage to Europe and the countries of the former USSR. It was easier for these countries to meet a given target relative to this base year than it was for countries like Japan and the United States. United States legislation has used 2005 as the base year, which is surely why Copenhagen allows countries to specify their own base year. However, choice of a different base year does not help to address the fundamental difficulty of knowing whether countries are making “comparable” sacrifices. The announced US target of 17 percent reduction in emission, if calculated on the 1990 baseline, amounts to barely four percent, which is less than the reduction the US agreed in Kyoto in 1997.

Under Copenhagen, the fast-growing poor countries like China will implement “mitigation actions,” including those submitted in early 2010. This aspect of Copenhagen is a departure from Kyoto, which only imposed emission reduction obligations on rich countries. It is an important change. Emissions in these countries have been growing faster than in rich countries. Moreover, the United States Congress will not approve legislation without assurances that these countries are taking actions. However, there is nothing in the agreement to ensure that the pledges are truly meaningful. For example, China has already declared that it would seek to reduce its emissions per unit of economic output. But emissions intensity has been falling in China for years, even without a climate policy. And China’s emissions would still increase if its rate of economic growth outpaced its reduction in emissions intensity.

The agreement is more specific in one area. The rich countries make a collective commitment to finance $10 billion per year from 2010-2012 for mitigation and adaptation in the poorest countries, increasing to $100 billion per year by 2020. However, the agreement does not state explicitly how much of this money should be contributed by individual countries. Nor does it specify rules for spending the money.

Failure by the United States Congress to pass climate legislation hindered progress in Copenhagen. What effect will Copenhagen have on the US ? It seems likely that the case for US action has been harmed. Congress will not want the US to adopt controls that are out of synch with those adopted by many other countries, especially China and India.

Climate change is the greatest collective action problem in human history, and we should not be surprised that it has been difficult to address. But our approach has made reaching agreement harder than necessary. For example, we could negotiate a separate agreement limiting the emissions of one of the gases controlled by the Kyoto Protocol—hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs). This chemical is very similar to the chemicals already controlled by another treaty, the Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer, which was signed in 1987—and ratified by the United States Senate by a 83-0 majority. If we controlled HFCs under a treaty styled after Montreal, we could be confident that a phase-out of this chemical would succeed. This is because Montreal is enforced. In contrast to Kyoto, it has been very effective.

It should also be relatively easy to agree on a program for research, development, and demonstration of carbon capture and storage—a key technology for reducing emissions substantially in the future.

There is no alternative to negotiating treaties to address climate change, but there is an alternative negotiating strategy. A better way to negotiate would be to break this colossal problem up into smaller pieces, addressing each piece using the best means appropriate.

Failure of an overall agreement in Copenhagen might possibly be an opportunity—if only we dare to think differently about how to limit global greenhouse gas emissions.


Scott Barrett is the Lenfest-Earth Institute Professor of Natural Resource Economics at Columbia University.

Copyright © 2009 Yale Center for the Study of Globalization

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