Looking for a Silver Lining in the Post-Summit Landscape

Much was left undone in Copenhagen, and the many loopholes in the climate accord could lead to rising emissions. But the conference averted disaster by keeping the UN climate negotiations alive, and some expressed hope that the growth of renewable energy technology may ultimately save the day.

Did British climate secretary Ed Miliband save the planet early on the final Saturday of the Copenhagen conference? It sounds like a risible claim, especially coming from a British journalist like myself. But hear me out.

At 7 a.m. on Saturday, with the conference 14 hours into overtime, the visibly exhausted and procedurally confused chairman of the summit, Danish Prime Minister Lars Lokke Rasmussen, cast a weary eye over the surviving delegates from an all-night session. After listening to more than 40 speeches from the floor and with dozens more delegates waiting to be heard, Rasmussen said there was no consensus on adopting the draft agreement produced by U.S. President Obama and 25 other heads of state the previous day. “Therefore I propose that we…” Almost certainly his next words would have been a recommendation to drop or delete the text.

The rejection of what was already known as the Copenhagen Accord would have been a catastrophic failure for both climate diplomacy and the climate. The United Nations process to fight climate change, set in train at the Earth Summit in Rio 17 years before, would have lain in tatters. The climate equivalent of the collapse of the world trade talks — the “Doha-isation of climate,” as one journalist quipped — would have reverberated for years, unleashing accelerating emissions of greenhouse gases and who knows what climatic tipping points in future years.

Then up spoke Ed Miliband, younger brother of the more famous British Foreign Secretary, David Miliband. “Point of order,” he called from the floor, and asked for an adjournment of the meeting. Rasmussen looked like a drowning man saved.

The accord was a flawed diplomatic triumph. But a triumph for the planet? Not so fast.

When the meeting resumed three hours later, with Rasmussen safely tucked in bed and diagnosed as “exhausted” by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, a procedural formula had been devised. A new chairman moved that the meeting “take note of the Copenhagen Accord,” with those agreeing to it able to add their names to its title and make pledges to stem their rising carbon dioxide emissions. The many critics of the leaders’ draft agreement, mostly in Latin America and Africa, were assuaged. The gavel fell. The accord was saved. Wild applause broke out.

The deadline for signing up to the Copenhagen Accord is February 1. Developing nations among the signatories will then also be able to dip into a “climate fund” created by the U.S. and other rich nations as part of the accord. The fund will begin with $10 billion a year and, if all goes according to their promises, will contain $100 billion a year by 2020.

It may seem a bizarre way to conduct business. But had Miliband not prevented Rasmussen from finishing his sentence, the accord would have had no UN status, countries would not have been asked to commit to emissions cuts, and the climate fund would have been stillborn. Other ways may have been found to achieve some of the same ends. Money usually talks. But the legitimacy of the UN process — the only basis on which most nations agree to participate in action on climate change — would have been lost.

The “noting” of the accord was a victory for climate diplomacy. And a relief to the galaxy of world leaders — Barack Obama, Britain’s Gordon Brown, Germany’s Angela Merkel, Russia’s Dmitry Medvedev, and Brazil’s President Luis Inacio Lula da Silva, among them — who, hours before, had prematurely claimed their work was done when they had agreed to the draft among themselves.

Heading for the airport, they failed to realize the anger that leaders not involved would feel about their exclusion from the dealmaking. And, since the accord was merely “noted” by the conference and not adopted, they had been wrong to claim before departure that, in the words of Gordon Brown, “for the first time, 192 nations of the UN have reached agreement on preventing warming beyond two degrees.” They did not. Only a later, legally binding UN treaty — if that can be achieved in 2010 — will accomplish that.

So the accord was a flawed diplomatic triumph. The show is still on the road. But a triumph for the planet? Not so fast. Across the Bella conference center, scientists who had evaded the tight attendance restrictions on observers were crunching numbers. And the scientists were gloomy.

The accord may set a goal to limit global warming to 2 degrees C (3.6 F), but it provides no emissions targets on how that should be achieved. On the basis of the commitments so far informally made by nations — which will be appended to the accord as countries sign it — the best estimates are that it will set the world on track to warming of between 3 and 3.5 degrees C, according to Michiel Schaeffer of the consulting group, ECOFYS, and Niklas Hoehne of Climate Analytics, who provided climate analysis for many nations at the conference.

Why this gap between rhetoric and reality? The first problem is the targets themselves. High hopes that many nations would up their promises in Copenhagen came to nothing. The U.S. would not go beyond its pre-conference promise to cut emissions by 14 to 17 percent from 2005 to 2020 — which more or less wipes out its increases since 1990 — the baseline used by the European Union for its pledge to cut by 20 percent. A European offer to go to 30 percent if others were generous was not activated.

China stuck with its pre-conference pledge to cut carbon intensity — that is, emissions per dollar of gross domestic product — by 40 to 45 percent between 2005 and 2020. That sounds good, but will not be enough to halt rising Chinese emissions. And as Premier Wen Jiabao helpfully told the conference, it is actually slightly less than the 46 percent reduction achieved between 1990 and 2005. So, it is arguably no more than business as usual.

High hopes that nations would up their promises in Copenhagen came to nothing.

India, Brazil, Mexico, South Africa, and others made similar pledges. It is the first time that developing nations have offered to make cuts in their emissions. But all insisted that the targets, while genuine, were voluntary and would not form part of any legally binding treaty. This was the central standoff throughout a conference characterized by repeated clashes on the issue between the U.S. and China. Hillary Clinton called the international verification and “transparency” of emissions promises, especially from China, a “deal breaker.” And so it proved.

But beyond the targets lies a legal morass over the precise definitions of what the target numbers mean. The text of the Copenhagen Accord contains even more loopholes than the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, say analysts.

The environment group WWF — reaching roughly the same conclusions as Climate Analytics and ECOFYS — calculates that rich-world promises to make cuts of 15 to 19 percent in their collective emissions between 1990 and 2020 could, once the loopholes are taken into account, result in an actual increase in emissions by 4 to 10 percent. Another unpublished assessment by Simon Terry of the Sustainability Council of New Zealand puts the increase at 2 to 8 percent.

The main loopholes are:

Hot air. The Kyoto Protocol gave Russia and other Eastern European countries rights to emit far more CO2 than they needed because of the collapse of their industries post-1990. They have accumulated large numbers of excess permits — 10.7 billion tons by the time the Kyoto Protocol expires in 2012, according to a European Union study. Potentially these credits, often called “hot air,” can be sold to other countries. The Copenhagen Accord appears to allow the spare credits to be carried forward for sale after 2012. If the EU bought them all to offset emissions between 2013 and 2020, it could achieve even a 30 percent “cut” in emissions without making any actual domestic cuts at all.

Carbon offsets. This is another way in which countries faced with difficult emissions reduction targets can offset them by investing in projects to cut someone else’s emissions. Done well, they allow carbon to be kept out of the atmosphere more cheaply. Done badly, they amount to carbon fraud, writing off emissions via green energy projects that were going to happen anyway. According to WWF, the European Union has already announced plans to make half a billion tons in emissions “cuts” through offsets in developing countries between 2012 and 2020. Other nations could triple that figure, it says.

Airline and shipping fuel. A notable failure of the Copenhagen Accord is the absence of proposals to limit growing emissions from international shipping and aircraft, which do not fall under the umbrella of anyone’s national emissions. Currently that is another loophole of one to two billion tons a year.

Forests. Copenhagen also failed to reach agreement on a plan to allow countries to claim either cash or carbon emissions credits for changes in managing forests to retain carbon. Insiders say the talks faltered because the U.S. and others refused to close a loophole that would allow countries to claim credits for improving things in one part of the country — by planting trees, for instance — while not being held to account for cutting down trees elsewhere within their borders. Unless fixed, another billion tons could slip through this loophole, says WWF.

Countries could close these loopholes before the final hoped-for legally binding agreement is signed. Then again, they might not.

So how could leaders fly out of Copenhagen, often in private jets, claiming success? More particularly why would some seasoned negotiators shrug their shoulders at the failures and insist that some progress was made?

Having followed climate talks since 1992, I am in many ways amazed at the progress made.

There were two kinds of optimism on display in the final hours of the conference. The first was techno-optimism. Thus U.S. Congressman Edward Markey, co-author of the Waxman-Markey cap-and-trade bill, spoke of a coming “technical revolution” in low-carbon energy systems. “It will be not unlike the telecom revolution,” he said, transforming energy technology worldwide far faster than predicted. “We will do far better than our two-degree goal,” he predicted. With several renewable technologies growing annually by 30 percent, even before the grand plans for “green jobs” in the U.S. and elsewhere, this may not be wishful thinking.

Diplomatic optimists, meanwhile, spoke of the progress they have seen in understanding of climate issues among world leaders. Standing in for his boss, Ban Ki-moon, UN assistant secretary general Robert Orr cited, with evident surprise, the leaders’ “meaningful discussion” of the respective scientific merits of adopting 2 degrees C or 1.5 degrees C as a warming limit.

“These were the most genuine negotiations I’ve ever seen leaders engaged in,” Orr said. Such deals are “usually pre-arranged, pre-cooked,” he added, but not this time.

Such optimism is not necessarily well-placed. After concluding the accord, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown said: “This is the first step we are taking towards a green and low-carbon future for the world. But like all first steps, the steps are difficult.” He would not have known that almost the same words were used by one of his predecessors, John Major, after the Kyoto Protocol in 1997.

Even so, having followed climate talks since the Earth Summit in 1992, I am in many ways amazed at the progress made. It would have been hard to predict back in Rio that within two decades governments would be discussing cutting emissions by 50 or even 80 percent by mid-century. After all, they are talking about dismantling carbon-based energy systems that have underpinned economies since the industrial revolution. The trouble is that the science of climate change has become scarier, too, since 1992, and the threat seems much closer.

For all the travails and disappointment of the last two weeks, it is still possible to be optimistic that the world is approaching a genuine tipping point in how we get our energy. Will it come in time to prevent tipping points in the climate system? Frankly, nobody knows the answer to that.