Copenhagen – a missed opportunity or a turning point?

Now the dust has settled after the "chaotic" COP-15 meeting in Copenhagen last week, the blame game is in full swing with British and Americans accusing China of vetoing an agreement on emissions, and Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez deriding the West stating if climate was a bank "they would have saved it."

But given that all commentators agreed beforehand that a legally binding deal would be unlikely, and indeed did not emerge, the question remains: was the whole process a complete failure?

So what did come out of summit? The main deal to emerge was a non-binding Copenhagen Climate Accord, which is basically a "statement of intent" forged by 4 major developing countries, Brazil, China, India and South Africa, and the US, backed by the EU. This Accord states that the signatory nations will build clean energy economies and help vulnerable countries adapt to the worst effects of climate change via a Green Climate Fund of approximately $30 billion annually between 2010 and 2012. By 2020, the Accord envisages $100 billion a year for mitigation and adaptation activities, which is essentially half of what some UN bodies consider necessary (and is just one-sixth of the annual US defence budget). Apparently 188 nations are willing to sign, many of them somewhat frustrated developing countries who recognised that, at this time, this is the best deal they are going to get. The five that are unwilling to sign currently include Bolivia, Cuba, Nicaragua, Sudan and Venezuela.

Crucially any agreement for targets for emissions reductions was abandoned – early drafts contained a 50% cut by 2050. It seems likely that agreed targets may emerge from subsequent meetings but these are likely to be considerably lower. What was agreed at Copenhagen was a target for limiting warming to 2ºC above pre-industrial temperatures but it is unclear how this will be achieved.

Regarding deforestation, negotiators were thwarted by lack of agreement on legally binding texts for REDD (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation). N. H. Ravindranath of the Indian Institute of Science, who is involved in REDD negotiations, said that "crucial decisions on the financing of REDD, and institutional arrangements, are still not approved and indeed unresolved".

But Leandro Carlos Fernandez, Argentina's REDD national focal point, praised the text of the accord for including "clear safeguards of indigenous people's rights and against forest conversion into plantations. It also makes explicit mention of natural forests, this is very important". However, unresolved issues of land ownership and rights may still pose a challenge for the implementation of REDD.

It is not suprising that aid agencies and climate campaigning groups have called the outcome of the Copenhagen summit a "toothless failure." But what remains significant is that the deal that was finally hammered out is between the existing big polluters who, between them, will produce 90% of new global emissions by 2050. And this deal will list the actions of the major players for all to see, which will hopefully encourage further movement to a legally binding deal which might emerge at meetings in Bonn in six months time and later in 2010 in Mexico at COP-15. Although it may seem that when the chips were down, courage failed and a precious opportunity to strike a legally binding deal was lost, especially since it was the first time 115 heads of state were present at a single conference, it is worth recognising that there were tangible benefits to emerge from the talks. The concept of green growth is now widely regarded as the prevailing economic model – the idea that climate change is bad for business is now outmoded. Also, the huge publicity surrounding the conference has raised the climate change issue to a far higher profile than it enjoyed previously although the damage wreaked by the University of East Anglia email debacle didn't help matters.

However, I was interested to read BBC environmental analyst Roger Harrabin's column piece After Copenhagen which reported a statement made by a climate talks veteran (which incidentally echoed sentiments voiced at the recent climate conference in Oxford): "All these leaders have signed up to climate policies and targets, but they don't realise the scale of the clean industrial revolution that we need to undertake if we're going to protect the climate. They think they can do some version of modified business as usual. They haven't got a clue."

For the latest research, news focus articles, reviews and e-books on climate change visit Environmental Impact, CABI's newest internet resource.

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