Obama Hits the Reset Button on the Foundations of International Climate Agreements

A move away from developed vs. developing countries to major emitters and everyone else. But there is still a lot of work to be done and a question remains whether this is the right forum for a climate agreement.

Our guest blogger is Andrew Light, Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress, on the ground in Copenhagen

Shortly before leaving Copenhagen yesterday, President Obama announced that the terms of an interim, “political” agreement, the Copenhagen Accord, had been reached with the leaders of Brazil, South Africa, India, and China which very well may lay the groundwork for a new international agreement on climate change. Commentators are already lining up to decry this step as a toothless outcome proving the US’s impotence in this forum. The Administration is defending it as a “meaningful” step forward. The truth right now is that this agreement is not only meaningful but potentially groundbreaking. Still, the jury will be out until the next UN climate summit in Mexico City in 2010.

As I’ve written about extensively, the proposal that got Obama to come to Copenhagen at the right time was the Danish “two step” proposal put forward by Prime Minister Lars Rasmussen at the APEC summit last month in Singapore and embraced by Obama in Beijing the week following. The original idea was that at Copenhagen we would finalize an interim political agreement to be followed by the commitment to completion of a final binding agreement in 2010. Acceptance of this proposal was critically important for allowing the administration to finally put targets on the table for emissions reductions for the first time, put money on the table for fast start financing, and effectively reassert our full participation in this process.

The Copenhagen Accord achieves much of the promise of the Danish proposal but not all of it. It is comprehensive, allows for parties to propose a full range of emission reductions rather than only economy-wide targets, which is a good thing, develops a pathway to more ambitious medium term financing, and binds emission pathways to halt warming over 2 degrees Celsius. In fact, it is the first international agreement to promise consideration of limiting warming to 1.5C.

Unfortunately though the agreement does not have a hard deadline to take the second step and turn it into a final legally binding agreement by 2010 in Mexico City. Such a provision would have provided the basis for a good answer to those who find the numbers and reduction targets in the accord lacking. As they will expire in one or two years they would, of necessity, need to be adjusted to continue reducing emissions at an appropriate pace. Nonetheless, UN General Secretary Moon and other parties have committed themselves to taking the next step and turning this document into a binding legal agreement by the next UN climate summit in Mexico City in 2010.

There is however a different aspect of this deal that could be the beginning of a game changer in how the world looks at ending carbon pollution. The Copenhagen Accord was not forged among our closest allies in the developed world; it was the product of cooperation between the US and a group of the largest carbon emitters in the developing world. In fact, this same group had met prior to the Copenhagen meeting in China to declare that they would never move beyond one of the core guiding assumptions of the Kyoto Protocol: that the world is divided between developed and developing countries and that only the former are required to take steps to curb their carbon emissions and be held accountable for those reductions.

This union of the US with these four countries is premised on what could become a new guiding assumption: that the world is divided between the major emitters of carbon pollution and everyone else. In that respect the fact that the accord includes a robust compromise on measurement, reporting, and verification acceptable to both the US and China is significant. A framework has finally been advanced for cooperation between developed and developing countries on reductions rather than continuing a process mired in the old divisions which have hampered us for so long. Though there will be differences among the expectations of emissions reductions among this group the major emitting countries all will be expected to carry their fair share of emissions reductions thus avoiding the creation of a world where decreasing carbon pollution is only advanced at the expense of economic competitiveness.

That Copenhagen has resulted in good news and disappointing news should not come as a surprise to us. All of these meetings end with a mixed outcome. In addition to the weaknesses in the accord there were also problems in failing to come to closure on an international forestry deal and technology transfer. At the same time though, finally, real money was put on the table for both programs including $1 billion in US financing for avoided deforestation, matched by other countries to create a $3.5 billion deal.

Finally, what does this outcome tell us about the UN process itself. Is it really the right forum to get the job done on carbon mitigation? Over the summer and into the fall interim monthly negotiations in the run up to Copenhagen have been hampered by a lack of cooperation by parties refusing to give up on the architecture of the Kyoto Protocol, and its hard division between developed and developing countries, as the only acceptable framework for an agreement. As a consensus process among 192 nations it is also extremely difficult to navigate and, as one would expect, seems to be capable of only creating weak agreements.

Additionally, while some parties will join us in moving forward some in this forum most likely never will. As the conference closed today many parties pledged their commitment to the Copenhagen Accord, and promised further emissions reductions, but it was impossible to get a full ratification of it by the full body. The accord will move forward this year but not as a finalized political agreement authorized by the UN framework convention. Instead it will be taken up for full endorsement when initial negotiations start for the Mexico City meeting in 2010. What is most important about this outcome though is that the biggest objections for getting agreement on the Copenhagen Accord came from Bolivia, Venezuela, Cuba, and Sudan. It’s highly doubtful they would ever go along with a US led process.

As leaders continue to push forward into 2010 to turn the accord into a legally binding document we should also move forward on a parallel path: Exploring the possibility that multilateral emissions reductions can be achieved in smaller arenas like the G20 or the Major Economies Forum, MEF (which includes the 17 largest emitters in the world). This past September the G20 produced an agreement ending fossil fuel subsidies by 2050; throughout the year the MEF has produced an array of technology cooperation schemes fulfilling the promise made in 2007 in Bali to provide technology assistance to developing countries in exchange for emissions reductions.

As Joe Romm and I have argued before, we don’t need 192 nations to come to an agreement on mitigating carbon emissions in order to get the job done. We only need those countries responsible for 85% of emissions to move forward on the pathways identified by the IPCC with a promise to the world to do so in a responsible manner. Other agreements should be left to the UN, such as instruments for dealing with adaptation and technology transfer. But it might be better to find a forum for carbon abatement that is less hampered by the procedural constraints that have hindered this process.

20 Responses to Obama Hits the Reset Button on the Foundations of International Climate Agreements

  1. Moukmouk says:

    We only need that USA do something right now as most of the other counties do.

  2. Jeff Huggins says:

    Thanks for the very helpful summary, Andrew.

    Without going into detail here, just as you ask “what does this outcome tell us about the UN process itself[?]”, with respect to the climate change matter anyhow, we should also ask, What do the last 12 months tell us about our situation, and our processes, and ourselves, here in the U.S.?

    It is time for some serious and deep self-examination, I think, and for A GREAT DEAL OF productive action based on that examination. We can’t — of course — just sit around and wait, or do “a little here and a little there”, in the mere hope that Mexico City will solve the matter. It seems to me that far too much has seemed to be “on hold”, waiting to see what would happen in Copenhagen.

    Although we should work hard to try to help the Mexico City gathering (and deal, hopefully) be a success, we shouldn’t put other efforts “on hold” and count on that. It is time, NOW, to do more.

    I think that we should be calling boycotts — and BIG SERIOUS ONES — against companies that still try to mislead us or that still “deny” basic climate science. I also think that we should pose the “Question” more strongly to our major universities. I’ve graduated from Berkeley and from Harvard, and I live very near Stanford, and I wonder: What do we even have major universities for if, at times like this, their faculties (most members) sit silently in the face of such immense problems? How is it that we can have such a mess on our hands (e.g., climate change) and yet NOT have the faculties and students at Harvard, Berkeley, Stanford, MIT, Yale, Princeton, UCLA, and etc. etc. etc. literally “taking to the media”, “taking to the streets”, and shutting themselves down in (civil and peaceful) protest?

    Does Harvard doubt the science? No. Do Berkeley students not care about their own futures and the futures of hundreds of millions of people around the world, and of many other species? I’ll bet they do. Then why the deafening silence and passivity, relatively speaking?? Do we/they all have our heads buried into our computer screens, “hoping” that the next UN summit will solve all problems? We should be smarter than that, by now!

    OK, enough said.

    Thanks for the update, Andrew. Now, the question is, WHAT NEXT?



  3. danrod says:

    In your text the sentence “This past September the G20 produced an agreement ending fossil fuel subsidies by 2050” comes as an argument that maybe this is the right kind of forum to deal with climate change.

    I’ll repeat slowly here : ending – fossil – fuel – subsidies – by – 2050 !!

    So we need to wait FOURTY YEARS to stop putting taxpayer money in to help a sector that is both among the richest in the world, AND already at least severely co-responsible of killing people through pollution and climate change (not even going into the misinformation campaigns led by these company, hepled in their efforts by these subsidies…)

    Fossil fuel subsidies should be ended yesterday, worldwide. If you want to be “realist” and not put workers in the streets, give them 3, or even 5 years with a planned decrease starting next year.


    This is only showing how deep the misunderstanding , or deliberate ignorance, of the current situation is among our leaders… and by taking it as a positive argument, I am sorry to say that you seem to show the same attitude.

  4. Bob Jacobson says:

    Essentially, nothing has changed. We are where we started, President Obama and his cohorts having, as one leading journal put it, “reset the game.” There is nothing to compel adherence to the agreement and with the US midterm elections fast approaching and the Democratic Party majority in Congress now unlikely to continue, less chance that the US will be able to ratify anything that smacks of internationalism.

    As for leaving it to what were once (rightly) called “The Big Powers” to make global climate policy, please. That is so elitist it boggles the mind. What if the Maldives and other small nations hadn’t been there to argue against inaction and for mandatory reductions (to which none of the Big Powers have yet agreed, I point out). Besides being elitist, this proposal is undemocratic and would result in yet another global cleavage between the Haves and Have Nots, an outcome perhaps not discernable from within the DC bastion of the Beltway Haves, for whom the rest of America, let alone the world, consists of Have Nots.

    How much better it would be to encourage a multitude of bilateral and multilateral agreements, like those being enacted as we write, among cities and regions, even movements, and have those collected in a portfolio to which the Big Powers and other national governments regularly accede? There are good models for international cooperation among them. Once such a corpus is made part of the global record, we have a foundation for Big Power cooperation. It’s a far more realistic way to go.

    I do agree that the UNFCCC is an awkward shepherd for these topics. It’s probably time to reform the UN’s mechanisms which are as rigidly bureaucratic and unadaptive to circumstances as any in history. The stakes are too high to molly-coddle bureaucracies.

    Lastly, why do great universities and their great students not get more vocal? Could it be corporate contributions? Career aspirations? Simply being “out there” without any matrix of support organizations as existed, for example, to defend opponents of the Vietnam War? Let’s be real about this: the largest economic players of all are arrayed against mitigating climate change — petroleum and chemical companies, the transportation industry, and their providers of professional services: banks, insurance companies, real estate companies, law firms, and many elements of the US Government.

    Scarier are the devils you know than those you don’t know. Getting splattered now would mean never knowing if climate change really mattered in the future. I can see the logic in that. It’s a wonder that people like you, Andrew, find a way. Then again, the Center is itself an organ of power, albeit more progressive than most.

    What about the rest of the concerned people who would like to be more “out” in their opposition to the status quo? Who will pay their ticket to Mexico City? Who will protect their careers? Who will put food on their table? The anti-climate change movement needs to do some serious thinking and reorganizing. Issuing political proclamations may be psychically rewarding, but relying on volunteers to somehow implement them is escapist fantasy.

  5. Bob Jacobson says:

    PS I am still trying to figure out how one boycotts the energy companies in America. If I were back in Malmö, Sweden (considered one of Europe’s most sustainable cities), I could simply buy a bus pass or walk where I needed. The city is small and the buses run like clockwork (as do electrified trains for longer trips).

    Here in Tucson, Arizona, the only thing I can walk to is the local Trader Joe’s. My power is supplied by a public utility that burns coal. (There are only limited incentives for solar, mostly for heating water — imagine, here in the middle of the sunniest terrain! — and as a renter, I can’t avail myself of them in any case.) If I wanted to get out of Tucson, I would have to drive or fly.

    I like the boycott idea — maybe it would work with corporate customers of the bad guys, but that would mean virtually every company there is — but when a boycott fails, it diminishes support for subsequent boycotts.

    It’s not rhetorical to raise objections. We need means of protest that work, that’s all. And soon.

  6. Dan says:

    One point I find quite interesting: if the UNFCCC follows through on this development, we’ll no longer see a division between “developed and developing,” but “major emitters and minor emitters.” A true change to the power dynamics, but entirely necessary for the required emissions cuts. Let’s hope this doesn’t hamper development on technology transfer, international development, and deforestation as a result.

  7. Tom Street says:

    Regardless of the structure the top emitters will decide the fate of the planet. The world is not a democracy, and it does not matter what the majority rules if they don’t have the power to enforce it.

    The process, however, had some benefits because it provided a forum for those who pointed out how inadequate the major emitters’ reduction goals were. It did result in a promise to work toward funding for the poor countries.

    For those paying attention, there was enough transparency to permit people to realize that the big emitters are willing to enable genocide. If this had all been done in the cozy confines of a G8 or G20 meeting, it may not have been clearly revealed that the science requires a drastic change in goals.

    The disturbing revelation is that politics as usual is being applied to the literal fate of the planet’s occupants

  8. Sean says:

    Yah, I like the boycott idea. Everyone stop buying gasoline and heating oil. Don’t fly. Don’t drive your car. Don’t buy any food that came in on a truck or a plane. Don’t buy anything that got shipped on a truck or a plane. Cut your power line, if your utility uses any coal to generate power. Then go enjoy your life!

  9. Sean says:

    Also: Consider boycotting Jeff Huggin’s book. It is printed on paper. (You know what an environmental nightmare paper manufacturing is? Even with recycled fiber? Trees being cut down and fiber being bleached, massive discharges into defenseless rivers, just so this guy can have a career.)

    This book also gets shipped to stores and consumers on trucks. (Nasty diesel fuel getting burned, just so this guy can make some money.)

    Oh the horror…..

    When are we going to take action against people like this???

  10. Jeff Huggins says:


    Really, gentlemen and ladies, we need to think clearly. We do so, or claim to do so, regarding climate science, but we don’t always apply that to change management.

    For example, positive action does not require “all or nothing”, and sequencing does matter, and sending signals to leaders would matter (via my own background, I know), and so forth.

    To be more concrete, take the example of boycotting ExxonMobil.

    Rather than conveying and explaining the logic of this action now, I’ll simply raise some common objections that are not sufficient in and of themselves, in order that each person can examine them and explain (to himself or herself) why these are not sufficient:

    “It wouldn’t be ‘fair’ to boycott ExxonMobil and to not boycott Shell, Chevron, etc. all at once.”

    “We all use gasoline to a degree, presently anyhow. So, we can’t boycott ExxonMobil.”

    “Sequencing doesn’t count: That is, even as we hopefully plan to buy electric vehicles, higher fuel-efficiency cars, etc., in the future, and even as we try to reduce our own use of gasoline as circumstances allow, nevertheless, it just doesn’t make sense to boycott ExxonMobil now. One must do ALL or NOTHING, and do it NOW or NEVER. The sequencing of steps, in light of real circumstances, does not count and cannot be considered.”

    “Boycotts — even BIG ones — don’t do any good.”

    “It’s all useless.”

    Now, can you see the (immense) logical and real-world fallacies in these statements?

    If not, let me know (please), and I’ll point them out. On the other hand, if you can see them, then (my suggestion is that we) boycott ExxonMobil, on a large scale.

    (I would also add that we should boycott Georgia-Pacific products, as Georgia-Pacific is owned by Koch and sells you many everyday brands that are probably in your cupboard right now.)

    We have learned by now that money speaks. So, make sure that YOUR money speaks! Or, I say, we might as well forever hold our peace.



  11. zed ink says:

    Some very constructive observations and material in this blog and it commenters.. congratulations!

    For myself, the generic term “polluters” whilst perhaps emotive and/or reactionary among those those who clearly do so, is a significant standpoint and one from which no responsible human being have cause to shrink from.. regardless the source of opposition.

    National governments it appears to me hold future utility in security terms and collective-nations’ security ought be writ large upon their manifests.

    Otherwise – management of climate change for instance – the DIY movement ought operate as one very large, vital and essential ‘market’ element. A democratic challenge for all concerned I’m sure, but worthy since without it the business-as-usual order* in our world will effect its ‘wrecker’ control.


  12. Andrew Light says:

    A lot of interesting comments here. A few quick replies as I haven’t really slept this past week and have terrible cold to show for it.

    4. danrod. The G20 pledge to end fossil fuel subsidies is not to turn off the tap at 2050 but begin a process now that culminates in all subsidies eliminated by then. I’m not endorsing it as sufficient to get the job done but only offer it as example where this body did something related to carbon abatement. Other policies pursued by the G20 on other issues have been on issues in the short run. Of course if we tried to do a mitigation agreement through them now it would need to work on appropriate time tables or not be worth it.

    5. Bob Jacobson. Just checked with my wife who covered the House for 10 years, and wrote a book about it, and she confirms my intuition that there is a less than average chance Republicans will take back the house this year. I would bet today that she’s right.

    I don’t think my proposal to move discussion of emissions reductions to small forums is “elitist.” In fact I think it is a misuse of the term. I’ll spend some time in the next few months trying to expand this idea but essentially I don’t think it would be acceptable unless there was a body, such as the IPCC, which set markers that had to be followed by such a convening group. There are already indications that the forums I mention would abide by such a constraint. Both the G8 and the MEF embraced the 2C limit in declarations last July, independently of the UN. And on the other side it isn’t the case that the COP is really democratic, implying majority rule. The UNFCCC is not majority rule; everybody gets a veto.

    This isn’t a question though of whether these institutions are democratic or not it’s a question of whether they are functional. The MEF can still be run democratically even though it doesn’t represent all countries of the world. And look at what would have happened if this was a MEF decision. All the parties in the MEF would have signed onto the process because all of them, developed and developing countries, have announced their pledge to embrace the Copenhagen Accord. But because of the Sudan we don’t have an accord which has any binding authority. For every small island state justifiably objecting to abuses of larger countries at the table in this process you also have countries there who will never agree to anything, especially if the US is in it and if it moves us away from the structure of the Kyoto Protocol. This is not just a problem with international institutions. Think about the problems we’re having with our own democratic institutions here. We’re having fits with the 60 votes needed in the Senate to do anything how would you like it if every Senator got a veto.

    The problem here is not democracy but one of representation of interests. I’d rather take a stab at better representing global interests in a smaller forum than continuing with a process that’s proven unworkable. I would of course consider any positive proposals for internal reform of the UN process which allows for better creation of instruments and decisions.

    Finally on here I don’t understand your positive suggestion: “encourage a multitude of bilateral and multilateral agreements, like those being enacted as we write, among cities and regions, even movements, and have those collected in a portfolio to which the Big Powers and other national governments regularly accede.” What would compel a country to accede to an agreement they were not a party to? That would be undemocratic and illegal under international law. If the idea is that we create other parallel tracks to get the job done then that’s exactly what I’m suggesting.

    I’ll stop there to let everyone get on with their boycotts!

  13. Leif says:

    Boycott: Even though a complete boycott is difficult for some products, a partial boycott is feasible in many circumstances. I buy gas at other stations than Exxon and have since the Alaska oil spill in ’89. Like wise I drive a fuel efficient car and try to minimize my travel miles. I pay a green power premium for wind energy and manage to keep my usage down averaging about 250 kWh a month. I do not feel that I live in a cave and save a ton of money that can be used as discretionary spending supporting others beside big oil etc. If EXXON were to change its ways and actively support sustainable energy, I would be happy to reconsider my boycott of them and shift it to one of the other, equally deserving oil companies. Yes, it is presently impossible to live a zero carbon foot print life style but trying has numerous benefits.
    Live simply so that others can simply live.

  14. Billy T says:

    I think that the end game will be when the US, China, India, Brazil, plus Europe takes the bull by the horns and puts together a CO2 minimisation plan between themselves. Then they use their market power to insist that other countries follow or match their reductions (with the threat of compensatory tarriffs at the borders if they don’t). Not pretty, but the nice thing politically is that it means the US (and others) are taking a positive initiative to move towards a post-carbon economy, rather than having it foisted on them by the “UN”.

    Hopefully the reductions will enough to satisfy the demands of the science – obviously nothing is going to make the coal and oil industries happy but if the national interest factor is neutralised (in the US) then they’re going to have to buckle under or risk huge lawsuits when the extend of their obstructionism becomes obvious to all.

  15. This was a great article.

  16. hapa says:

    kinda waiting for the major rich hydrocarbon users to show near-term plans moving away from oil. obviously 1.5C & 2C are different curves, as 350 & 450 are different, but the question of rising fuel costs sapping the strength of industrial powers, preventing us from building our way out of this — maybe that’s actually now the curve-shaper. maybe that’s the ‘war’ the global chain of factories should be fighting.

  17. hapa says:

    ps. electric cars by the hundreds millions: not near-term.

  18. Eric says:

    @ Huggins

    In response to your university comments:

    As someone who studies and does research on the climate system, I think most academics are caught in a tight place. First and foremost, politicians don’t generally care about science. This is truly a political issue, as there is much less debate in academic circles as to the benefits of caring for the environment or the seriousness of the global climate change problem. Even if you do good, sound science, the chances are 50/50 that you find a politician that will listen and has no other motives. Also, as we’ve seen in recent weeks with the e-mail “scandal”, putting yourself out there makes your work a target for smearing and slander. No one wants to deal with the crazies. Additionally, affiliating with protest and other groups starts to eat away at your credibility as a objective interpreter of your results. Once “deniers” see you out picketing on the streets, it is nearly impossible to convince them that you do unbiased work.

    Secondly, the media has a way of taking research and reporting it in a way that is sometimes (but not always) not representative of your results. People outside of the field don’t understand the subtleties and necessary caveats that accompany research and rarely report them along with other more “sensational” results. As a result, people get the wrong ideas about your conclusions and smear you all the more.

    I’ll repeat, no one wants to deal with the crazies.

  19. @Huggins:
    Jeff, the problem with boycotts on any member of the oil industry is the “incestuous” nature of the industry itself. If you pass up an Exxon station in favor of an independent station operator (or one of the other major retailers) you create a local imbalance in the supply/demand for refined product, which is normal in refined product retailing. The imbalances are dealt with by trading product among the players. They buy and sell to one another, so the molecule of gasoline that you buy from retailer X may have (just an hour earlier) been delivered to them from a refinery owned by oil company Y. Company Y makes it’s wholesaler’s profit from that transaction and company X makes a few pennies per gallon for the retail markup. The effect of any boycott is therefore diffused and nullified.