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18 Dec 2009: Limited Agreement is Reached
as Copenhagen Summit Comes to an End

In a last-minute flurry of diplomatic activity, U.S. President Obama managed to piece together a limited agreement on climate change that falls short of even the modest expectations for the 12-day summit meeting in the Danish capital. Rather than emerging with a legally binding treaty to reduce global greenhouse gas emissions — the original goal of the conference — the deal brokered by Obama stipulates that countries should list their greenhouse gas reduction targets, that negotiators establish a fund to help poor nations deal with global warming, and that the world community aim to limit global temperature increases to 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 F) above pre-industrial levels.

After forging the political accord with China, India, and South Africa, Obama said, “We have come a long way, but we have much farther to go in the fight against climate change.” To eventually get a legally binding agreement, said
President Obama
Barack Obama
Obama, “is going to be very hard, and it’s going to take some time.” He added, however, “Today we’ve made a meaningful and unprecedented breakthrough here in Copenhagen.” An Obama administration official conceded, “It’s not sufficient to combat the threat of climate change, but it’s an important first step.” And a statement from the administration said that while “no country is satisfied with each element,” the political accord is “a foundation from which to make further progress.”

The political agreement is notable for what it doesn’t do. It doesn’t set a target of slashing greenhouse gas emissions 50 percent below 1990 levels by 2050. It doesn’t — as had been expected — recommend that a climate treaty with binding emissions targets be negotiated in 2010. And it doesn’t set forth a clear method for verifying that countries are actually meeting their voluntary emissions reductions targets, although Obama administration officials said negotiators will eventually work out some framework form verification.

The deal worked out among Obama and three major developing nations led to some confusion about which of the 192 nations at the conference had signed on to the political accord. A European Union official said that some sort of agreement was also being negotiated by nations that had not been party to the accord forged by the U.S., China, India, and South Africa.

The agreement contains much that environmentalists and leaders of poor nations — expected to bear the brunt of climate change — do not like. Above all, it does not establish binding targets for reductions of CO2 emissions. It also sets a date for review of the accord far in the future — 2016; many environmental activists and leaders from developing countries had called for immediate steps to confront the growing threat of global warming.

Typical of the negative reaction to the agreement was the criticism from John Sauven, the UK executive director of Greenpeace, who said, “It seems there are far too few politicians in this world capable of looking beyond the horizon of their own narrow self-interest, let alone caring much for the millions of people who are facing down the threat of climate change. It is now evident that beating global warming will require a radically different model of politics than the one on display here in Copenhagen.”

John Ashe, who chaired the Kyoto climate negotiations, said, “Given where we started and the expectations for this conference, anything less than a legally binding and agreed outcome falls far short of the mark.”

This modest accord was achieved only after Obama engaged in some flamboyant diplomacy, including bursting into a meeting of Chinese, Indian, and Brazilian leaders. The Chinese, especially, were taken aback, but administration officials said that Obama’s intrusion then led to new talks that ultimately cemented the deal.

The accord does seem to pave the way for the establishment of a fund that, by 2020, could provide roughly $100 billion a year in funds from industrialized nations to help developing countries adapt to climate change and adopt renewable energy technology. Developing countries also fought successfully for a provision that requires negotiators to review progress in 2016 and possibly set a new target for holding global temperature increases to 1.5 degrees C (2.7 F.) above pre-industrial levels. That seems an unrealistic goal, however; a confidential UN analysis leaked to the press on Thursday said that even under a more ambitious accord than the one announced in Copenhagen, global temperatures would likely rise 3 degrees C (5.4 F) above pre-industrial levels in a century or so. Such an increase, many climate scientists say, could cause major changes in the climate under which human civilization has flourished for the past 12,000 years.

The status of a program that would enable wealthy nations to pay poor nations to preserve their forests was unclear Friday night. The creation of a funding mechanism to preserve tropical forests had been considered one of the more important goals of the Copenhagen conference.

The intense work on a political accord came after President Obama, Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao, and other world leaders worked into the night Friday to try to salvage some form of agreement from 12 days of disorganized and contentious talks.

Earlier in the day, President Obama, saying that “the time for talk is over,” called on the 193 nations at the Copenhagen climate summit to put aside divisions and agree on a treaty to tackle the threat of global warming. “We are running short of time, and at this point the question is whether we will move forward together or split apart. Whether we prefer posturing to action. We can choose delay, falling back into the same divisions that have stood in the way of action for years. And we will be back having the same stale arguments month after month, year after year — all while the danger of climate change grows until it is irreversible... We are ready to get this done today, but there has to be movement on all sides.”

Clearly frustrated by the lack of action as the 12-day conference drew to a close, Obama said a successful accord must contain three elements: a commitment from all major economies to make significant emissions reductions, the creation of a mechanism to verify that nations adhere to those commitments, and the establishment of a fund to help countries most vulnerable to climate change. Read the text of Obama’s speech and watch the video.

Shortly before he delivered his eight-minute address, Obama met with leaders from 17 countries to see if they could advance the slow pace of the talks and outline an agreement that could be signed by the end of Friday. China, which has opposed independent verification of its emissions, was notably absent from the meeting. The meeting took place after an all-night session in which negotiators hammered out a draft text, which included a monitoring system to verify that those cuts are made. But the verification system was not as stringent as U.S. officials had wanted.

After his speech, Obama met privately for 55 minutes with Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao. After the meeting, Wen did not commit to a system to monitor China’s emissions, but vowed to create transparent methods of verification. He also said that even if no accord was signed in Copenhagen, China would stand by its pledge to to reduce the carbon intensity of its economy — as measured by emissions of CO2 per unit of gross domestic product — by up to 50 percent. Saying that such a reduction would require “tremendous efforts,” Wen added, “We have not attached any condition to the target or linked it to the target of any other country. We are fully committed to meeting or even exceeding the target.”

Earlier, French President Nicolas Sarkozy said China’s refusal to allow outside monitoring of its emissions was a major stumbling block in overnight talks. “The discussions lasted all night without interruption,” Sarkozy told reporters. “The good news is that they’re continuing. The bad news is they haven’t reached a conclusion. There’s a lot of tension, but things are moving a bit… What’s blocking things? A country like China which has trouble accepting the idea of a monitoring body.”

As the talks wound down, negotiators were hopeful that they could at least reach agreement on a fund to help poor nations deal with global warming and could establish a tropical forest protection mechanism. Most expected that an agreement on the crucial issue of emissions reductions — including a pledge of steeper emissions cuts from the U.S., as well commitment from major developing nations such as China to make greater cuts — would be put off until late next year.

In his speech, Obama did not commit the U.S. to more aggressive emissions reductions. The U.S. has been sharply criticized for its proposed cuts, which reduce emissions 17 percent below 2005 levels by 2020. But that reduction amounts to only a 4 percent reduction below 1990 levels, while the European Union has offered a 20 percent reduction below 1990 levels by 2020.

Although acknowledging that the draft text — which would allow the U.S. to measure its emissions reductions by the more lenient 2005 standard — was imperfect, Obama told delegates, “It adds up to a significant accord — one that takes us farther than we have ever gone before as an international community... Here is the bottom line: We can embrace this accord, take a substantial step forward, and continue to refine it and build upon its foundation. We can do that, and everyone who is in this room will be a part of an historic endeavor — one that makes life better for our children and grandchildren.”



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