Tuesday, December 22, 2009

What is the Copenhagen Accord all about?

So COP-15 is over. The two-year process that began in Bali has been extended into 2010, and nations will head to Mexico next year to try again to negotiate what they failed to agree on at Copenhagen.

The two working groups that had been charged with producing agreements on, a second commitment period of the Kyoto Protocol and a global agreement on climate action that includes the United States essentially failed to reach agreement after two years of talks.

It was only the eleventh-hour intervention of a group of leaders of major emitting countries that allowed Copenhagen to avoid ignominious failure. The surprise appearance, late on Friday, of a text agreed between the leaders of the United States, China, India, Brazil, South Africa and up to 20 other nations, distracted the conference long enough to allow COP hosts Denmark to close the meeting with a qualified agreement.

Because the COP operates on consensus, any opposition to a proposal means that passage is impossible. Five countries – Venezuela, Sudan, Bolivia, Nicaragua and Cuba – rejected the Accord outright.

During the early hours of Saturday morning delegates argued over how to proceed given the lack of consensus. Eventually, Slovenia proposed listing all those countries in favour and against the Accord, and it was agreed that the COP should not approve the text but simply “take note” of it. This gives the Accord some legal status without implying approval.

By the time President Barack Obama arrived in Copenhagen on Friday morning, it had become clear to most Parties and observers that the twin-track negotiations under the two Ad-Hoc Working Groups were failing to make any headway. Even bilateral discussions among leaders themselves were not producing any breakthrough.

During the night of Friday President Obama reportedly met with the leaders of the BASIC group of countries (Brazil, India, South Africa and China) and further discussions with a wider group of countries led to the creation of the Accord.

The Accord was then presented to a Plenary meeting of the COP, which after a long and tense debate, punctuated by pauses for legal advice, eventually decided to take note of the Accord.
Parties to the UNFCCC have until January 31 2010 to enter their pledges or commitments into one of two Appendices to the Copenhagen Accord. The pledges will then be held and communicated among Parties as they prepare to negotiate a legally binding treaty next year.
It has to be said that the Copenhagen Accord does not offer much in the way of environmental security. The vague commitment to a 2 degree Celsius limit on temperature rises is not in any way supported by definite actions. Money to assist adaptation and mitigation measures in developing countries has yet to flow.

But it may be that the five heads of state that met late Friday have created something that could eventually succeed more meaningfully that Kyoto has been able to, to date.
Kyoto mandates emissions reductions in countries representing just 30% of global emissions. Copenhagen could, if adopted as a legally binding treaty, cover in excess of 85% of global emissions. We concede that China committing to reduce emissions intensity by 40-45% by 2020 is no guarantee that its emissions will fall, but equally, once it has signed the treaty China may upgrade its commitment as and when it feels ready and able to do so.

What the Copenhagen Accord does is group all major emitters together in one group, unlike Kyoto. It creates a mechanism by which all national actions can be compared, and where all national emissions markets may be linked.

Copenhagen is a bottom-up, federal process. Sovereign nations contribute their national commitments to the process in the interest of all. Kyoto expressed a similar approach in a top-down fashion, which earned it the enduring enmity of the US.

For the markets, Copenhagen holds out the continued promise of interlinked markets in both developed and developing countries. In reality markets have never been a problem with Kyoto, as the US has itself said on many occasions; it’s just been the politics that Washington couldn’t agree with.

By agreeing to extend the AWG mandates for a further year, the Copenhagen COP has set the stage for a proper agreement to a second Kyoto commitment period, as well as an agreement on a mechanism that could, and indeed probably will replace Kyoto.

Marianne de Nazareth
(The writer is a fellow with the UNFCCC)

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