The Ties That Bind: Copenhagen Climate Accord Targets Global Warming

Illustration for article titled The Ties That Bind: Copenhagen Climate Accord Targets Global Warming

Well, he didn't leave Denmark empty-handed. After 14 hours of frenzied followup to two weeks of negotiation geared at creating a substantive plan to confront the threat of global climate change, president Barack Obama announced a comprehensive agreement between some of the world's major polluters, including the United States, China, India, Brazil and South Africa. The grand compromise, confirmed by the United Nations and supported by the European Union and several smaller nations, will create an appendix wherein all countries will lay out their plans for mitigating greenhouse gas emissions, provide $30 billion to help poor countries pursue clean energy development—and is significant for requiring developing nations to commit to pollution reduction targets for the first time.


But the final Copenhagen accord—designed to keep world temperatures from rising more than 2 degrees Celsius in the next decade—falls short of the binding commitments and hard targets that climate activists had hoped for in advance of the global summit. In his remarks to the United Nations forum this morning, Obama stressed the importance of transparency as well as financing the transition of emerging economies to a reduced carbon footprint. "It is in our mutual interest to achieve a global accord in which we agree to certain steps, and to hold each other accountable to certain commitments," he said. The final deal, however, appears entirely voluntary—participating nations will self-regulate in an attempt to reduce pollution.

Despite the concerted efforts of the US delegation, including Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, the stops and starts in negotiations during the two week conference took their toll on today's progress. The president's plans were thrown off almost immediately after he touched down in Copenhagen. Scuttling a scheduled bilateral meeting with the Chinese delegation, the president headed into a multilateral forum with leaders from nations including Australia, France, Britain, Brazil, India, Japan, Russia, Ethiopia and Bangladesh. Though the bloc of developing nations that had challenged rich nations to provide climate aid as part of any deal did agree to make emissions cuts, China in particular remained obstinate about the need to transparently outline its plans to achieve pollution-reduction goals. There was even talk of extending the deliberations through the weekend—but as it became clearer that consensus on the issue of binding targets was out of reach, Obama, Clinton, climate czar Carol Browner and special climate envoy Todd Stern marched grimly from meeting to meeting, hoping to salvage some kind of treaty for announcement today.

The White House called the deal a "meaningful," "unprecedented breakthrough" in the project of tackling one of the thorniest geopolitical issues of the day. And it emphasized the bad hand it had been dealt heading into the final day of talks. But the question looming large over the climate change conversation: Will the loose framework for finance and mitigation be enough to stop global warming?

In a press conference discussing the minimalist final agreement, Obama downplayed the importance of a binding treaty. He pointed out that the Kyoto protocol, which created binding targets for curbing emissions but was not ratified by the United States, still did not produce the results conference attendees expected. He stressed how these partial steps are inadequate to address the dire environmental situation projected by climate scientists, but also expressed the hope that the Copenhagen process will open the door to "a new era of international action."

"The most important thing I think that we can do," he added, "is to build some trust between the developing and the developed countries that break down the logjams." 

Such divisions were obvious, given the lack of participation in the multilateral agreement—and the storm of disagreement put forward by lead negotiator for the G77 bloc of developing nations. Ricken Patel, the head of climate advocacy group Avaaz, likewise called the deal “an historic failure, representing the collapse of international efforts to sign a binding global treaty that can stop catastrophic climate change."


Obama justified the disappointing conclusion by spotlighting the opportunities to improve global efforts in 2010. "The hard stuff requires not paralysis but … going ahead and making the best of the situation that you're in at this point, and then continually trying to improve and make progress from there," he said. This attitude shows at least a certain consistency; Obama has taken the same incremental approach to the passage of his beleaguered health care reform legislation—arguing that the perfect can often be the enemy of the good. What Copenhagen made clear, however, is how far away from perfect the community of nations still remains.

This post will be updated as information and reactions trickle in.


From his perch as the leader of a populous, but poor major emitter, Brazilian president Lula da Silva made perhaps the best case for action before the plenary session this morning:

Covers the White House and Washington for The Root. Follow her on Twitter.