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Copenhagen was not a (complete) failure

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Living as we do in a time in which arguments about climate change are being turned on their heads - my favourite recent example being the creed of a Tea Party group in Ohio: "The regulation of Carbon Dioxide in our atmosphere should be left to God and not government and I oppose all measures of Cap and Trade as well as the teaching of global warming theory in our schools"- you might think my title constitutes a novel version of climate denial. Surely last year's UN climate conference in Copenhagen was a monumental failure that set back international action to curb carbon emissions for years?

Well yes, in terms of its core ambition Copenhagen was indeed a failure. It failed to achieve a legally binding global treaty to cut emissions enough to limit global warming to 2 degrees celsius above pre-industrial levels. Indeed, it failed to achieve a UN-endorsed agreement at all, ending in a welter of chaos and acrimony that has still not fully subsided.

But looked at in another way Copenhagen did not fail, and it hasn't stopped international action aimed at combating climate change. As a result of Copenhagen every major economy in the world has now made commitments to reduce emissions, and most (the US being the obvious exception) are beginning to implement them. So far from global action being retarded, there are signs that it is now accelerating, and that Copenhagen is part of the cause.

It's worth understanding this, because the next UN climate conference begins in Cancun, Mexico, later this month, and may well conclude without reaching any substantive agreement, even of the limited kind that is the most anyone now hopes for. In that event the cry will inevitably go up that two successive failed conferences demonstrate the impossibility of global action on climate. But it won't be true; on the contrary, it is the simultaneous failure and success of Copenhagen that holds the key to understanding how future progress can be made.

To start with, it isn't true to say that nothing was achieved in Copenhagen. The Copenhagen Accord, the agreement negotiated by a representative group of thirty heads of government on the penultimate day of the conference, was the first international agreement endorsing the 2°C limit, and the first under which developing as well as developed countries committed to a significant slowing in their own emissions. It includes approaching $30 billion in funding for the poorest countries between 2010 and 2012, and a goal of $100 billion per annum in finance by 2020.

In itself the Copenhagen Accord is a thin document, no more than an outline text of a proper international agreement. And of course it wasn't endorsed by the conference as a whole, meaning that it does not have the status of a formal UN decision. That lack of endorsement - and the blank pages at the back where countries' emissions targets were meant to be - understandably left observers last December claiming it was a damp squib.

But the picture is rather different today. In the months since the conference over 130 countries - two-thirds of the United Nations membership - have signed up to the Copenhagen Accord, and over eighty, representing over 80 per cent of global emissions, have entered emissions reduction commitments into its annexes. If implemented in full, these commitments will see global emissions peak before 2020, which is the essential foundation of any move towards the ultimate stabilisation of greenhouse gases. They are not enough to ensure the 2°C goal - together they amount to emissions cuts of 12 to 19 per cent on 1990 levels, compared to the minimum target of 25 per cent proposed by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change - but they are far from insignificant. Not only do the annexes of the Copenhagen Accord represent the first set of properly global emissions reduction commitments ever made; some of them are extremely far-reaching.

Indeed, the extraordinary thing about these commitments is that by far the largest reductions relative to existing trends are being pledged by the developing rather than developed countries. With an annual growth rate of 9 to 10 per cent, China's commitment to improve the carbon intensity of its economy by 40 to 45 per cent by 2020 (or even to exceed this, as Premier Wen Jiabao noted in Copenhagen) will involve huge investments in energy efficiency and low carbon fuels. Brazil's target of a reduction of 36 to 39 per cent in emissions over its currently projected trends will require a quantum reduction in deforestation rates in the Amazon. Indonesia has made similar commitments to protect its forests; India has embarked on a huge expansion of solar power; South Korea has adopted the largest "green stimulus" package of any country in the world. Of developed countries, only Japan, with a commitment to cut emissions by 25 per cent by 2020 on 1990 levels, stands comparison.

It is these commitments that were the real achievement of Copenhagen. Not achievements of the negotiations - they were all announced before the conference even began - but of the fact of the conference itself. For there is no question that few countries would have made these commitments, and they would certainly not have made them as ambitious, if it hadn't been for the pressure of the approaching summit. One of the criticisms made of Copenhagen was that it shouldn't have been hyped up so much by the politicians; it was the heightened expectations, it is said - including the conversion of the event into a leaders' summit, which it was never originally meant to be - that made the subsequent failure so much worse. But this is to ignore the fact that it was precisely those expectations, and the intense media and diplomatic pressure which accompanied them, that forced every major economy into making emissions reduction commitments in the run up to the event. Most of the developing countries had been denying up to that point that they had any obligation to adopt targets at all.

And the really crucial thing about the commitments made is that they were domestic, not international. They were made not as part of a deal with other countries, but as responses to domestic political pressures. In turn, this makes them much more likely to be implemented, because governments will be held accountable not by the nebulous forces of international diplomacy but by the intense scrutiny of their media and political parties at home. Witness, for example, how Brazil's Copenhagen commitments featured in its recent presidential election campaign, in which a charismatic environmentalist was one of the three candidates, and won an unexpectedly large share of the vote. Watch the seriousness with which China's twelfth Five Year Plan, the outline of which was published a couple of weeks ago, will implement its Accord targets.

So this is why Copenhagen cannot be regarded as a (complete) failure. It is because of Copenhagen
that the world is now beginning to embark on the first serious attempt in its history to bend the otherwise inexorable curve of rising emissions.

But it is of course not enough, for two critical reasons. First, because we need stronger commitments. Those made in the run-up to Copenhagen and entered into the annexes of the Accord are good, but they do not ensure a 2°C world. Sometime in mid-decade, if not before, these commitments will need to be ramped up, perhaps with additional targets for 2030 en route to 2050.

Second, we need common rules by which countries measure and monitor emissions reductions. Policy will inevitably be focused at national level; but only common rules can provide international confidence in what other countries are doing.

That means that we do need the kind of international treaty which Copenhagen aimed to achieve - though it won't happen in Cancun, or indeed within the next three years, it must still be the goal by mid-decade. And in turn that means we shall almost certainly need another Copenhagen-style summit then - another hyped-up moment at which leaders are required once again to come together and strengthen their national commitments under the intense glare of NGOs, business and media pressure. Only this will force governments into stronger action.

So if the Cancun conference this month fails, don't despair. It doesn't mean action on climate change has stalled. The real progress on curbing emissions change is occurring not in the international negotiations but in domestic policy, in the major emerging economies and elsewhere. We can still aim for a treaty in a few years' time (when - perhaps - domestic politics in the US and elsewhere will be different). And in the meantime, we can acknowledge that the Copenhagen conference a year ago wasn't as disastrous as has generally been assumed. On the contrary: it might actually prove to have been the turning point.

A longer version of this article is published in Inside Story

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