Copenhagen Accord: Act II

The fuller significance of the Copenhagen Accord became a little clearer this week – and a little murkier too.

The nonbinding deal struck six weeks ago by a couple dozen world leaders left open two immediate questions: exactly which countries would be signing on to it, and just what targets or actions they would be promising.  The parties gave themselves until January 31 to fill in those blanks.

When the deadline passed, 55 countries accounting for nearly 80 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions had filed papers with the U.N. climate secretariat outlining the efforts they’re prepared to deliver between now and 2020.  That means that for the first time ever, all of the world’s major economies – including China, India and other large developing countries – are on record with explicit international climate pledges. On this score, the Copenhagen Accord indeed represents a significant step forward.

In only a few cases, however, are the pledges unconditional. China and India said they “will endeavor” to reduce their carbon intensity by 40-45 percent and 20-25 percent, respectively (while once again emphasizing the voluntary nature of their pledges).  Australia, Norway and the European Union offered unconditional reduction targets (5 percent below 2000, and 30 percent and 20 percent below 1990, respectively), and pledged to go further if there is a stronger deal.

Most other countries’ pledges are conditional on one thing or another.  The United States’ target “in the range of” 17 percent below 2005 is contingent (as is Canada’s virtually identical pledge) on the enactment of domestic U.S. legislation.  Japan and New Zealand say their targets are contingent on reaching a more ambitious international agreement.  Most of the developing country pledges are contingent on support from developed countries.

A number of key countries, meanwhile, were less than clear about whether they were in fact “associating” themselves with the Accord.  While the United States expressed a “desire” to associate, and others a “willingness,” some were silent on the question.  China and India, using strikingly similar language, made no mention at all of the Accord, tying their actions instead to the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change. 

All of which suggests even greater ambiguity about the nature and role of the Copenhagen Accord, and the path forward.

There is a fundamental ambiguity tracing back to the final chaotic hours in Copenhagen, when, in the face of rabid opposition by a handful of countries, the Conference of Parties managed only to “take note” of the 11th-hour agreement, rather than adopt it outright. 

That left the newborn Accord something of an orphan.  Key provisions, including those on the verification of countries’ efforts, require further elaboration.  But with no formal standing within the U.N. process, the Accord can’t serve explicitly as a basis for negotiation as the process continues on toward COP 16 this December in Mexico.

On the other hand, while many parties left Copenhagen declaring the U.N. process dysfunctional at best, few if any seem prepared to look to an alternative forum as the primary means for carrying the Accord forward.  Certainly China and India, having given the agreement the silent treatment in their recent submissions, appear very unlikely to participate in any such exercise.

So what is the Copenhagen Accord?  Coming out of Copenhagen, it was a pathbreaking political statement negotiated directly by leaders on the broad outlines of a global climate effort.  On January 31, it became the first-ever vehicle for recording an initial round of explicit pledges from all of the major economies.

An emerging view is that, from here, the Accord might serve primarily as a political touchstone – a reference point (for some parties, at least) to help shape and drive decision-making as the formal negotiations move forward.  Indeed, all of the guidelines and mechanisms needed to operationalize the Accord could be constructed in fact, if not in name, within the U.N. process. The Accord might prove transitory, helping to deliver the next stage and then fading away. 

It will be some time before the immediate path forward – let alone the Accord’s ultimate fate – become clear.  For the moment, though, it’s worth acknowledging that progress has been made.  Countries accounting for the vast majority of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions have declared to one another exactly what they are prepared to do.  Let’s build on that.

Elliot Diringer is Vice President, International Strategies