Copenhagen is NOT on the verge of signing a treaty that would lock in 3C warming!

Let’s thank The Guardian for wasting our time, again.

Our guest blogger is Andrew Light, a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress, on the ground in Copenhagen.  For a related post, see “Is it just too damn late? Part 1, the Science.

If we were all in the Bella Center I’d start this post with something like, “The buzz in the hall today at COP 15 in Copenhagen was a leaked UN document confirming the worst fears of . . .”  But we’re not in the hall.  Most of us were locked outside today.  So I’ll settle for:

The idle chatter in the Copenhagen pubs this evening was the news that a leaked UN document demonstrates that we’re on the verge of an agreement locking in 3 degrees C.  This headline comes to us from The Guardian:

Leaked UN report shows cuts offered at Copenhagen would lead to 3C rise.

Unfortunately, the reactions to this headline in the pubs, on the climate lists, and in the media who have picked up this sucker of a story demonstrates how knee jerk our community has become, and frankly, how hungry we are for bad news.

The document in question unearthed by The Guardian is not an analysis of “cuts offered at Copenhagen.”  It is an analysis of cuts offered prior to Copenhagen by several Annex I and non-Annex I countries in most cases regardless of the outcome in Copenhagen.  It models out what most major economies would achieve in emissions reductions in the future if they did what they say they will do today and only that, stopping and sitting on their haunches in quiet complacency.  What is analyzed here are not treaty commitments in the Kyoto or LCA tracks, or even in some interim political agreement.  They’re what everyone will do anyway which we can build upon with an agreement.

The first line of this catch of a document, which Kevin Grandia says, “may be a key document we all look back on in 30 years and say: ‘I told you so.'” reads: “This note provides an assessment of pledges made by Annex I parties, and voluntary actions and policy goals announced by a number of non-Annex I Parties in the lead-up to the COP to the UNFCCC held in Copenhagen.” In other words it is an assessment of the commitments currently in place and pending by parties prior to Copenhagen, some of which may be contingent on a treaty but most of which are not.  This is not an assessment of targets in provisional treaty language currently being discussed in the Bella Center (which I may never step foot in again) or commitments that were made contingent on the existence of a new treaty.

In the story in The Guardian Joss Garman from Greenpeace claims that in this document, “The UN is admitting in private that the pledges made by world leaders would lead to a 3C rise in temperatures.”  In fact, this document is admission of nothing of the sort.  The vast majority of what is modeled in this document is not a “pledge” in exchange for a treaty, it is a unilateral pledge to decrease emissions for reasons that are common but differentiated for each party.  Show me, for example, in Waxman-Markey where it says, “this bill will only be enacted if the UN creates a post-Kyoto treaty framework.”  You can’t because it doesn’t exist. Show me something in China’s announced auto efficiency standards, forestry proposals, or their 2010 energy intensity target which says “these polices will only be enacted if the UN creates a post-Kyoto treaty framework.”  You can’t because it doesn’t exist.

The reason why such language doesn’t exist is easy enough to figure out:  Parties engaged in this process are decreasing their emissions for reasons other than satisfying the structure of a new treaty.  They are doing it to create new clean energy jobs, achieve energy security, clean up their environments, and retool themselves for a global economy where emissions are going to matter. The key is to write a treaty that takes existing country commitments and strengthens them past 2020 to 2050 to hit the targets that have been agreed to in other meetings such as last July’s Major Economies Forum and the G8. We’ll get one stop along the way in Copenhagen, I think, and finish the job in 2010.

Also, there is nothing exclusive about this Guardian story.  Bill McKibben says:  “In one sense this is no secret – we’ve been saying it for months.”  Unfortunately in every sense it is no secret because the secret analysis in this story has been publicly available for months and duplicated by several firms.

This analysis of current country commitments is the same as the findings of a number of other organizations that were bundled together last week into a joint press release issued by the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change, UNEP, Ecofys, Climate Analytics, Sustainability Institute, the European Climate Foundation, and ClimateWorks.  I’m not surprised though that this analysis was brought out as a new revelation by this crew.  Guardian reporters have proven themselves suckers time and time again on the international climate story by pushing bad analysis as a scoop.

And frankly, I read the assessment of where we are with current commitments as good news not bad.  We’ve done an analysis of publicly available Project Catalyst numbers which conclude the same thing as this “secret” document.  We release it on Tuesday in a not so secret press conference.  But rather than calling foul we’ve argued for the very compelling other side of this.  When you add up everything that the 17 largest economies have on the table, not for a treaty mind you, but awaiting domestic action that could happen regardless of a treaty such as the US legislation, then we are 5 gigatons away from commitments that should get us on a 450ppm stabilization path by 2020, essentially 65% of the way there.  Given that the world has managed to get on a potential track in that direction with the world’s largest historical emitter pretending nothing was happening in the mean time and, only trying to catch up recently, isn’t bad at all.

That’s why we need an ambitious treaty.  To lock in those reductions and build language that can either get us those 5 gigatons by 2020 for things that aren’t counted in analysis like this (such as the forestry set-aside in Waxman-Markey, and the pledge to eliminate subsidies for fossil fuels from the G20 last September) or get them later for more money.  The fact that we’re potentially 65% of the way there without an agreement is reason to push forward, not back away, and improve on the ambition parties have expressed prior to a finalized word in any new climate agreement.

I think that we’re on the verge of an agreement in Copenhagen.  We’ll know a lot more in less than few hours.  Not everyone will like where that agreement is headed.  It won’t set out 350ppm as the presumed goal but will focus on a 450ppm stabilization path to 2 degrees C which many will find fault with.  But with the right scientific markers – limiting temperature rise to 2C or better – it can be improved once it is locked in place.  Why not keep the arguments to the things we have good cause to struggle over – 350 vs. 450, greenhouse development rights, etc. – rather than creating our own version of “Climate Gate” around this document.  To jettison the chance to get a treaty started now by imagining that current commitments exhaust the capacity of a new treaty would be sheer folly.  And if you think that the point of this process is simply to give a global stamp of approval on Waxman-Markey, and China and India’s current energy intensity targets, then you have no appreciation for what is being attempted here.

With so many of my friends pushing this story as a real find maybe locking us out of the Bella Center wasn’t such a bad idea after all.

10 Responses to Copenhagen is NOT on the verge of signing a treaty that would lock in 3C warming!

  1. zeleneye says:

    Yeah, but the point is what we will get in Copenhagen is definitely not an ambitious treaty. With the loopholes on the accounting of emissions from forests and land use (LULUCF) and surplus AAUs (hot air) likely to remain, the pledges on the table from the industrialised countries in particular are meaningless. As various studies have pointed out, these could completely (and I mean completely) undermine all the pledged reductions from industrialised countries.

    The UNFCCC text was crude in its analysis. However, rather than serving to rubbish the Guardian headline, this should have served to strengthen it. An analysis of the UNFCCC text by Greenpeace and WWF pointed out that it completely ignores the loopholes.

    The reality is that Copenhagen is setting us on track to more like a 4 degree reduction (not 3 degree). You are right that this is not the fault of China, it is the fault of the US (in particular) but also other industrialised countries.

  2. Tom Fid says:

    It’s definitely baffling that the analysis is regarded as news, given that the same point was made in March ( ) and June ( ) and was qualitatively evident well before that.

    An agreement to 2C in principle would be a significant step, even if it’s not codified, as long as there’s enough periodic review, course correction would eventually get us on a 2C-compatible track. I hope you’re right and we get that language.

  3. zeleneye says:

    Here is a draft of the political declaration:

    As you can see, the 2C is in there but it is bla, bla meaningless if LULUCF and AAU loopholes remain, while offsets are double counted.

    Emissions will not peak 2015-20 and therefore we will easily break 2 degrees.

    There is language on a review in 2016 i.e. after next IPCC report in 2014. However, we all know the next IPCC report is going to say we are even more screwed and it is going to be even more difficult to prevent dangerous warming. So, by then it will be too late.

    You guys are just way too optimistic – your national debate seems to have clouded your ability to see the bigger picture!

  4. Wit Ackman says:

    I read that Guardian article too.

    Here’s my write up:


  5. Mark Sandeen says:

    I’m not sure how it is possible to spin being 5 Gigatons away from a path that would get us moving towards 450ppm can be viewed as good news. If we are 5 Gigatons away from 450ppm, then we are on a path to something higher than 450ppm.

    What is that number? 500ppm? 550ppm? 600ppm?

    Success means reducing the carbon in the atmosphere, not telling folks it is ok to be heading higher than 450ppm.

  6. the number at the moment, from Climate Interactive, which has the very cool C-Roads software running, is 770 ppm. That’s a…large number.

    Joe’s right that there’s negotiating ahead, this weekend and this year. But the gap is incredibly wide.

  7. Lou Grinzo says:

    I think it’s possible to boil this whole thing down to a few points without a loss of critical information or context.

    1. What path will the agreement put us on? If it’s above 450, it’s clearly too high. If it’s 350, it’s good. Between 350 and 450 is highly uncertain.

    2. If we get a roughly 450-ish agreement, does this improve or worsen the odds of then getting a stronger commitment before we lose too much time?

    I think the major arguments between the left and the right will mostly involve point 1. The major arguments within the left will be about point 2. (There will be some 350/450 clashes from point 1, of course. I’m in the 350 camp, just to put my cards on the table.)

    Assume for the sake of argument that we get an agreement that puts us on a path for 450, but has truck-size loopholes. I would find it very hard to believe that fighting the same battle all over again to further strengthen the agreement would be possible until we have overwhelming evidence that we’re way over our global carbon budget. Given the long time lags in the natural system plus those of politics and economics (as in changing major parts of our infrastructure), I think we would then be in almost unimaginable trouble.

    And getting a new, tougher agreement in one or two presidential cycles here in the US will be very difficult. Does anyone reading this NOT think that the Republican party will use any climate agreement like a baseball bat to beat the Democrats bloody? This is the party that convinced major portions of the US that John Kerry was a coward and Al Gore was some kind of alien that wanted to eat their children. An agreement that gives your opponent that kind of huge lever and also falls short of what the science says is needed is a double failure.

  8. Chris Winter says:


    I think the Republicans will use whatever happens at Copenhagen as a club to beat on the Obama administration. If there’s a strong agreement (unlikely) they’ll trot out the tired old “breaks the economy” myth. It the agreement is weaker than progressives and environmentalists want (likely in my opinion) they’ll repeat that since other countries aren’t really committed, the U.S. need do nothing. And if there’s no agreement, they’ll claim this proves global warming is not of real concern.

    What I expect (and what the local press here today is reporting as rumors) is some sort of an interim agreement — one that sets GHG reduction goals (but lax ones from the perspective) and puts in place a path to “transparency,” meaning the monitoring of GHG emissions within participating nations.

  9. Thanks for posting the draft political declaration at klima/ aftaleudkast-til-klimaaftale

    As far as I can see, the most important part of it is the final paragraph, which says they agree to adopt “one or more legal instruments … as soon as possible and no later than COP 16.”

    This means that they will keep working on it and come to a legally binding agreement in the next year (before the meeting in Mexico in Dec. 2010). This means that the world could be on a path that avoids catastrophe if they come up with something good in the next year.

    To summarize as best as I can, it says:
    – We agree that global warming is a big problem.
    – We agree to keep the pledges that nations have already made to cut their own emissions.
    – We agree to come up with a fund to help the developing world.
    – We agree to keep negotiating and to come up with a legally binding agreement as soon as possible and no later than a year from now.

    After all the sound and fury, I think that is pretty much what could have been expected from Copenhagen.

  10. On the one hand, there is reason for optimism. On the other, 450 ppm in the atmosphere will stabilize nothing but more rapid decline of health and safety. Most scientists know that. We need to move, and know how to move, to 350 ppm. To find out why and how, go to and find the Climate Policy Principles and Policy Insider of over 10,000 conservation professionals worldwide.

    John Fitzgerald
    Policy Director
    Society for Conservation Biology