Negotiation Without Mitigation
Why the Copenhagen Climate Conference Won’t Mean Much
Though held only two months ago, the 2009 Copenhagen Climate Conference already seems like an insufficient way to tackle global climate change. Much to the dismay of many environmentalists, the 15th annual Conference of Parties (COP15) talks were little more than a weak precursor to aid future negotiations: dialogue and promises without concrete action or enforcement. To put substantive analysis of its provisions in an appropriate context, the accord’s first and perhaps most egregious deficiency is the absence of legal backing. Neither the United States nor the 24 other countries involved in the negotiations legally adopted the accord; instead, they “took note” of it. Yet in this “all talk, no action” conference, even some of the talk was fundamentally flawed.
The accord provides, by 2020, $100 billion annually from wealthy nations to enable developing countries to “prepare for climate disasters.” This defeatist attitude indicates that the goals of the conference were not very ambitious. The majority of the 192 countries in attendance have conceded that climate change is inevitable and that it is more beneficial to aid those who would be impacted most severely than to address the problem of climate change itself. Part of the funding will also help disadvantaged countries “develop low fossil-fuel economies,” even though the volume of developing countries’ emissions pales in comparison to that of wealthier countries. (It is noteworthy that China, the world’s largest net emitter, has graciously agreed to refuse these funds.)
Moreover, the funding pledges from the three largest world economies amount to only $25.2 billion, and it is unclear where the remaining 75% of the promised funding will come from. The European Union ($18,387,785 million USD, or 30.18% of the world’s nominal GDP), the U.S. ($14,441,425 million, or 23.31%), and Japan ($4,910,692 million, or 8.06%), followed by China (who also will not contribute), boast the world’s largest nominal GDPs. The 2010-2012 funding pledges include $10.6 billion from the European Union, $11 billion from Japan, and $3.6 billion from the U.S., which emits 20.2% of world greenhouse gas emissions. Considering its large economy and volume of emissions, the U.S. pledged to fund disproportionately less than it should have.
The accord also has a goal of preventing the Earth from becoming more than two degrees Celsius warmer than pre-industrial temperatures. Although scientists had previously reached a consensus that a temperature increase greater than two degrees Celsius would be the threshold for catastrophic natural events, recent studies have shown that a rise in global temperature of two degrees Celsius may be more detrimental than previously thought. Having recently discovered that polar temperatures appear to rise more quickly than the global temperature, scientists now believe that a two degree increase in temperature could raise the sea level between six and nine meters. In addition, the summit failed to address specifically how to prevent the temperature increase. As a result, this vague and arbitrary goal does little to address the problem of global climate change concretely.
Additionally, the countries agreed to measure, report, and verify greenhouse gas reductions, as well as financial allocations from wealthy to developing countries, “in accordance with existing and any further guidelines adopted by the Conference of the Parties.” Wealthy countries’ transparency would improve compliance, making emissions reduction and funding data vulnerable to international pressure. This provision is similar to and follows from another concept: voluntary reporting by multinational corporations through the Global Reporting Initiative, which external parties usually audit to ensure compliance. Theoretically, since consumers can use these data to support only the most environmentally and socially sustainable companies, such measures incentivize transparency and responsibility. Nevertheless, the Copenhagen Accord’s lack of accountability severely weakens this provision. The GRI is successful because both auditors’ fact-checking and consumer pressure lend some accountability to companies’ self-reporting. Since there are no provisions analogous to consumers or auditors in regard to the Copenhagen Accord, it is quite possible that some nations may not follow through with previous commitments or agree to them in more binding future negotiations.
Finally, the accord encourages developed countries to submit “quantified economy-wide emissions targets for 2020” and poorer countries to “implement mitigation actions,” which include protecting and enhancing vegetation. Though the commitments or actions were due in late January, the accord allows countries to set their own greenhouse emission reduction goals for 2020. In the absence of binding emissions reduction targets, success seems unattainable. If emissions reduction targets are set independently by each country, it is unclear how the less than two degree Celsius temperature increase could be achieved – especially considering the difficulty of perfectly predicting future impacts of current emissions.
As Yvo de Boer, head of the United Nations Climate Change Secretariat stated, the Copenhagen Accord should be viewed as a “letter of intent.” In this light, the accord does provide some hope for future conferences, like the COP16, set to take place in Mexico during winter 2010. Yet COP15’s failure to directly provide for any substantive or immediate change means that another year will go by allowing greenhouse gas emissions to increase with no global consensus on how to improve our situation.