Copenhagen discord

Eight weeks on from the climate summit, the agreement it produced – and the United Nations process itself – are under fire. Anna da Costa reports.

A key deadline for countries to submit emission-reduction goals to the United Nations as part of the recently negotiated Copenhagen Accord passed on Sunday, January 31. The United Nations received commitments from 55 nations, but 139 countries remain unsupportive of the political statement, leading the international body to push back the commitment deadline indefinitely.

Since the high level climate-change summit in Copenhagen concluded in December, global climate talks have been in a state of confusion. Two parallel tracks are already under way – one that includes the United States and one that omits this significant world emitter. The Copenhagen Accord, some say, threatens to introduce a third procedural track, complicating the already tense deliberations.

The accord, a non-binding political statement introduced in the 11th hour of the Copenhagen summit, has been praised by some for garnering stronger commitments from major developing nations, which could in turn deliver a binding global climate treaty. Yet its formulation has also threatened to destabilise the nearly 20-year-old process developed under the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), the leading international body for climate-change negotiations.

The United States, Brazil, South Africa, India and China formulated the accord with the understanding that the text would later be adopted by all 194 nations. But many participants considered this outcome to be undemocratic and a departure from a UN process meant to offer equal voice to every nation. Many had hoped that the Copenhagen conference would deliver a legally binding international treaty on climate change or at least provide direction on many of the core components under negotiation. But the accord itself contains little such detail and provides instead for countries to set their own emission-reduction targets unilaterally.

Among other elements, it states that two degrees Celsius is the target above which global temperatures must not rise; it proposes the mobilisation of US$30 billion (205 billion yuan) by 2012 and US$100 billion (683 billion yuan) by 2020 for developing countries to address climate change; and it calls on developed and developing countries to submit their national actions on climate change to the United Nations by January 31, a deadline that has now been postponed “indefinitely”.

According to Sanjay Vashist, director of Climate Action Network South Asia, without larger consensus the accord reflects “an outcome of a flawed negotiating process…negotiated by a small group of countries” rather than the 194-nation body. There are further reservations about the accord’s content itself. While the text addresses several key negotiation issues, many crucial details remain undetermined. “It is far from clear where the funding [for climate change mitigation and adaptation] will come from, if it is genuinely new and additional and how it will be allocated and channelled,” says Saleemul Huq, a senior fellow with the International Institute for Environment and Development’s climate-change group, who co-authored a recent report on climate finance.

Some observers say the accord does not contain the level of ambition with respect to temperature rise that is needed to protect the rights to survival or livelihood of many nations and people. According to recent analysis from sustainable energy consultant Ecofys, the emission-reduction targets agreed so far will commit the world to a 3.5-degree Celsius rise in global temperature, not the agreed two degrees.

Other advocacy groups have taken a different perspective, highlighting the accord’s value in establishing an important basis for a shift in US domestic politics. Firmer commitments from large emerging economies such as China and India may facilitate domestic climate-change legislation in the US Senate – an action seen as crucial to obtaining strong commitments from Australia, Canada, and Japan, they say.

“It’s a powerful signal to see president Obama, premier Wen, prime minister Singh, and president Zuma agree on a meeting of the minds,” said senator John Kerry, chair of the US Senate’s foreign relations committee, in a prepared statement. “These are the four horsemen of a climate-change solution. With this in hand, we can work to pass domestic legislation early next year to bring us across the finish line.”

The United States has submitted a pledge to reduce national emissions by 17% below 2005 levels by 2020, and 54 other nations, including Australia, Brazil, Canada, China, India and South Africa, have also provided commitments to the United Nations.

What next? In the wake of contention over the accord, major developing countries have restated their commitment to concluding a successful global treaty at meetings to be held in Mexico in December 2010. In a joint statement in Delhi, India, in late January, environment ministers from the so-called BASIC countries – Brazil, South Africa, India, and China – reiterated their support for the Copenhagen Accord and their “commitment to working together with all other countries to ensure an agreed outcome…later this year”. The ministers called on Danish prime minister Lars Løkke Rasmussen, who hosted the Copenhagen summit, to convene meetings of the two negotiating groups by March 2010 and ensure that they meet “at least five times” prior to the Mexico gathering, the 16th Conference of the Parties (COP-16) under the UNFCCC.

Rajendra Pachauri, chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, remains optimistic that nations will announce deeper commitments in the months ahead. “I think [the accord’s] adequacy…will depend greatly on what actions the world is willing to take now, and I hope they will take urgent and adequate action in the future,” he said last month in an interview with Science magazine.

The four BASIC countries coordinated their positions closely in Copenhagen, exerting pressure on industrialised nations to commit to ambitious goals for emission reductions as well as to provide technical and financial support to developing nations. But some observers argue that these large developing countries betrayed the interests of their smaller allies in the Group of 77 (G77), a broader grouping of developing nations. There was concern that, by breaking off into a separate bloc, the BASIC nations put at risk many of the fundamental negotiating tenets that the G77 had embraced.

Jairam Ramesh, India’s minister for environment and forests, sought to address this concern at a press conference following a meeting of BASIC leaders on January 24 in New Delhi. “BASIC is embedded in the G77, so there is no fissure,” he said. “Since these four are the big countries, they need to have some coordinated actions towards helping the poor and vulnerable countries within the G77, as well as taking [their] own actions.” Ramesh further emphasised that after each BASIC meeting – gatherings that are now scheduled to take place quarterly – the group’s decisions will be communicated to the G77 for consideration prior to any wider UN meetings.

Some critics have raised questions about the ability of the United Nations to manage the global negotiations fairly and effectively. “This is a declaration that small and poor countries don’t matter, that international civil society doesn’t matter and that serious limits on carbon don’t matter,” Bill McKibben, a US environmentalist and founder of the climate action group, said in December. “The president has wrecked the United Nations and he’s wrecked the possibility of a tough plan to control global warming.”

Others suggest that the UN-sponsored climate talks have become unwieldy and should be addressed within a smaller forum of the major emitters, such as the G8+5 – a group including the G8 nations plus the BASIC countries and Mexico – or the G20. Notably, the 55 nations that are reported to have submitted targets or actions under the accord to date represent 78% of global greenhouse-gas emissions. “We…need to have major reform of the UN body overseeing the negotiations and of the way the negotiations are conducted,” wrote UK climate secretary Ed Miliband in a late-December commentary in UK newspaper, the Guardian. In a more recent interview in the same publication, US climate negotiator Jonathan Pershing observed, “It is…impossible to imagine a negotiation of enormous complexity where you have a table of 192 countries involved in all the detail.”

In their joint declaration, the BASIC environment ministers were quick to stress their wish for the accord’s content to feed into the current framework of climate negotiations and not to adopt a new framework based on the agreement. India’s Ramesh said: “All of us are unanimously of the view that the value of the accord lies not as a stand-alone document but as part of the two-track negotiating process.”

Anna da Costa is a Worldwatch Institute fellow based in New Delhi.

An earlier version of this article was published by the Worldwatch Institute as “As Climate Talks Stumble, UN Process in Question”.

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