"What Bill McKibben doesn’t like about the Copenhagen Accord is precisely what I like about it."
UK’s Miliband calls out China as the Copenhagen spoiler
I have not been fond of how the United Nations has been running all things climate. Both CAP’s Andrew Light 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.”
That’s why much of what 350.0rg founder (and occasional CP guest blogger) Bill McKibben doesn’t like about the Copenhagen Accord is exactly what I like about it. McKibben complains of Obama’s successful effort to prevent a complete failure at Copenhagen:
- He blew up the United Nations….
- He formed a league of super-polluters, and would-be super-polluters….
Most of the coverage and analysis on the Copenhagen Accord has been dreadful and devoid of important context, as I’ve said, and that includes McKibben’s analysis, which is, I believe, 100% backwards.
Today Nobelist Paul Krugman wrote of the Congressional debate over health care, “the fact that it was such a close thing shows that the Senate “” and, therefore, the U.S. government as a whole “” has become ominously dysfunctional.” And yet this “dangerous dysfunction,” as he puts it, is solely due to the need for a modest 60% supermajority that could only be dreamed of by those hoping for progress in the Alice-in-Wonderland world of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, where any single nation can veto the outcome:
But the need for 60 votes to cut off Senate debate and end a filibuster “” a requirement that appears nowhere in the Constitution, but is simply a self-imposed rule “” turned what should have been a straightforward piece of legislating into a nail-biter. And it gave a handful of wavering senators extraordinary power to shape the bill.
Now imagine how much the United States would accomplish if every single member of Congress had a veto! Well, that’s the UNFCCC process. So that process needed to be changed significantly or ended entirely. Kudos to Clinton and Obama for realizing that and working to bring it about, even if it meant sacrificing the possibility that Copenhagen achieved a unanimous and binding deal.
[It'd also be nice to have a venue to summarize the state of climate science more than every six years and one where every single member nation doesn't have to sign off on every single word, thereby ensuring the conclusions have a least-common-denominator wishy-washiness to them.]
Ironically, for those who want to achieve a 2°C (3.6°F) target or better — as McKibben does — it was, arguably, China who was a bigger obstacle than America in the final days at Copenhagen. Still clinging to the Kyoto approach where developing countries don’t have to commit to anything for most of the two weeks, they also almost single-handedly made it impossible for anyone modeling the commitments report that we could come anywhere near those targets, as I have discussed many times (see here and Is it just too damn late? Part 1, the Science). So this allowed the media and others to assert that Copenhagen wouldn’t achieve the 2°C target if you just added up all of the nation’s commitments, as if that actually meant COP-15 was a failure or worse — an “elaborate sham” as McKibben absurdly described it (rebutted here, again, by CAP’s Light).
China and to a lesser extent India had been hiding behind U.S. (i.e. Bush-Cheney) inaction for 8 years. And as long as we kept the Kyoto Protocol process, they could hide behind the Sudan’s of the world indefinitely. With Obama providing as much leadership as is possible given our dysfunctional Senate, and with Clinton’s $100-billion Copenhagen bombshell, China was left in the role of spoiler. And that’s what they essentially did, as Yale e360 reports:
Britain’s Prime Minister, Gordon Brown told an environmental meeting on Monday that a handful of countries blocked a legally binding deal on climate change, adding, “We will not allow a few countries to hold us back. What happened at Copenhagen was a flawed decision-making process. We’ve just got to find a way of moving this process forward.” Although Brown did not mention any countries by name, Ed Miliband, Climate Change and Energy Secretary, specifically mentioned China….
Here’s what Miliband wrote Sunday:
This was a chaotic process dogged by procedural games. Thirty leaders left their negotiators at 3am on Friday, the last night to haggle over the short Danish text that became the accord. To get a deal we needed urgent progress because time was running out. Five hours later, we had got to the third paragraph.
The procedural wrangling was, in fact, a cover for points of serious, substantive disagreement. The vast majority of countries, developed and developing, believe that we will only construct a lasting accord that protects the planet if all countries’ commitments or actions are legally binding. But some leading developing countries currently refuse to countenance this. That is why we did not secure an agreement that the political accord struck in Copenhagen should lead to a legally binding outcome.
We did not get an agreement on 50% reductions in global emissions by 2050 or on 80% reductions by developed countries. Both were vetoed by China, despite the support of a coalition of developed and the vast majority of developing countries. Indeed, this is one of the straws in the wind for the future: the old order of developed versus developing has been replaced by more interesting alliances.
Would it have been better to refuse to sign and walk away? No. Of course it was right to consider whether we should sign. But to have vetoed the agreement would have meant walking away from the progress made in the last year and the real outcomes that are part of this accord, including finance for poor countries. Some of the strongest voices urging that we agree the accord were countries like the Maldives and Ethiopia.
Countries signing the accord have endorsed the science that says we must prevent warming of more than 2C. For the first time developing countries, including China, as well as developed countries have agreed emissions commitments for the next decade. If countries deliver on the most ambitious targets, we will be within striking distance of what is needed to prevent warming of more than 2C. These commitments will also for the first time be listed and independently scrutinised, with reports to the UN required every two years.
Now it is true that China put out a meaningful carbon intensity goal that takes them significantly off of business as usual (see “China vows to dramatically slow emissions growth”). But in fact they are going to have to do more if we are going to have any chance at 2°C (and yes, America will need to do more, too):
- China will need to beat their goal of cutting carbon intensity 40% to 45% from 2005 to 2020.
- They’ll need to peak in emissions around 2020-2025 and then reduce emissions steadily after that.
And I’m quite certain the Chinese know that and that they will do both. Indeed, I had a discussion with a senior White House official after Copenhagen ended and he confirmed that China’s leadership knows they must do both of those, and also that they know they are easily going to beat their 2020 carbon intensity target.
And no, I don’t entirely blame China here since they moved a great deal in the final 36 hours (albeit not far enough), as NWF’s Jeremy Symons explained:
Most importantly, China is now officially in the game in a way it has resisted since the Earth Summit almost two decades ago. The Copenhagen Accord is a two-part breakthrough with China: They are putting numbers on the table with a measurable pledge to join the global fight to reduce climate pollution, and they agreed to open their books on their rising emissions and allow a transparent review of their progress toward their emissions pledge. This breakthrough is important for the global climate effort, as well as encouraging the Senate to move forward and deliver the climate and clean energy bill to the president. China will act, and the China excuse is off the table.
I have long said that achieving serious global action climate required Congress to pass bipartisan legislation, which in turn required a bilateral deal with China (see here). Well, it seems to me that team Obama’s efforts in this area are paying off (see “Exclusive: Have China and the U.S. been holding secret talks aimed at a climate deal this fall?“) One couldn’t have realistically expected a full deal with the key emitters in the context of the 192-country UNFCCC meeting in Copenhagen.
For me, the Copenhagen “glass” is 2/3 full, since the point wasn’t just the meeting, but the remarkable commitments that countries made leading up to the meeting. As CAP’s Andrew Light explained in Copenhagen:
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.
For more detail on that analysis, based on work by McKinsey, see “Counting the World’s Capacity for Emission Reductions.”
Moreover, what happens after 2020 is probably even more important, and here the U.S. is on the verge of making a true leadership commitment, if the Senate passes the bipartisan climate and clean energy bill, as I expect they will. And if we do, then I expect that should be enough to get China and the other big emitters to formalize a binding deal over the next year.
Finally, I don’t know if the UN climate process is in fact dead — the image at the top is from ClimateDepotted, which put it above the link to a piece by Newsweek‘s Sharon Begley that concluded, “The best chance of reining in emissions of greenhouse gases and avoiding dangerous climate change is to stamp a big green R.I.P. over the sprawling United Nations process that the Copenhagen talks were part of.” But it won’t surprise you to learn that I agree with Reuters that Copenhagen “underscored the vulnerability of a process depending on consensus and may mark a diminishing U.N. role.”
Ultimately, the point is not the friggin’ process, but the outcome, and if the UN could demonstrate its process could lead to a better outcome, I’d be all for it. But I doubt it.
I think Obama showed the process that can work to get the best possible outcome: High-level negotiations by the senior leaders of the big emitters.
Let me therefore end with the conclusion of an analysis by the Harvard economist Robert Stavins:
We may look back upon Copenhagen as an important moment – both because global leaders took the reins of the procedures and brought the negotiations to a fruitful conclusion, and because the foundation was laid for a broad-based coalition of the willing to address effectively the threat of global climate change. Only time will tell.