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Climate Conference Yields Few Tangible Results *updated*

December 18, 2009

Well, this is rather disappointing. While President Obama is heralding the “agreement” as a historic first step it’s important to note it’s not legally binding, there is no mechanism for accountability and it essentially outlines a process by which countries lay out their future commitments for climate change.

I know I am rather biased when it comes to our Secretary of State but I seem to remember how yesterday the international community at the Copenhagen conference was reinvigorated by the arrival of Secretary Clinton and her efforts to move the stalled talks forward. I wrote about it here. And then there was this ringing endorsement of Secretary Clinton’s efforts from Oxfam, here.

Ok, I’ll just come right out and say it- Hillary Clinton did a great job laying the groundwork, re-energizing the conference and making significant headway in demonstrating that the U.S. was serious about climate change. And then Obama seems to have come in and dropped the ball. I’m kind of wishing he had stayed at home.

**see updates below**

The media coverage at this early stage is a bit confusing given people aren’t really sure exactly what was or wasn’t accomplished. That said, I think this excerpt demonstrates the problem with the end result announced today:

…The deal calls on nations to submit their “concrete commitments” into an appendix attached to the agreement to specifically lay out each country’s intentions for climate change, Obama said. Those commitments will be subjected to an international “consultation and analysis” that will help foster accountability among the nations.

It will not be legally binding, but what it will do is allow for each country to show to the world what they’re doing,” Obama said, “and there will be a sense on the part of each country that we’re in this together, and we’ll know who is meeting and who is not meeting, the mutual obligations that have been set forth.”

They “submit their commitments” and “lay out their intentions for climate change” and then those “intentions” will be submitted for international “consultation and analysis?” Sounds like a bunch of lawyers got together to create a document that sounds like something very official and substantive but which ends up being a whole lot of nothing. And I’m saying that as a lawyer.

While it’s tempting to take the attitude that Rome wasn’t built in a day or that something is better than nothing, we are at the point with climate change where we can no longer afford consultations and conferences that lead to nothing but more potential consultations and conferences which lay the groundwork for future possible consultations and conferences in the hopes that one day, something substantive will happen. And don’t forget that some people involved in the negotiations have been working on a potential agreement for at least two years leading up to this climate change conference. At this stage of the game, all the players know that unless there are firm, legally binding requirements which create a real mechanism for holding nations accountable, nothing is going to change.

Environmental groups are starting to weigh in and here is one example of the reaction (quoting the WaPo)


“appear[ing] to fall short of even modest expectations for the summit. As part of the agreement — brokered after a last-minute meeting between Obama and his counterparts from China, India and South Africa — industrialized and developing nations agreed to list their national actions and commitments in their fight against climate change, while vowing to take action to prevent the Earth’s temperature from rising by more than 2 degrees Celsius. In addition, they agreed to provide information on the implementation of their actions, which would be subject to international review and analysis.”

UPDATE: Reactions from environmental groups from around the world are beginning to pour in. Friends Of The Earth, an NGO which had been highly involved in advocating for an fair, ambitious and legally binding deal, released the following statement:

“Climate negotiations in Copenhagen have yielded a sham agreement with no real requirements for any countries. This is not a strong deal or a just one — it isn’t even a real one. It’s just repackaging old positions and pretending they’re new. The actions it suggests for the rich countries that caused the climate crisis are extraordinarily inadequate. This is a disastrous outcome for people around the world who face increasingly dire impacts from a destabilizing climate.

“The failure to produce anything meaningful in Copenhagen must serve as a wake up call to all who care about the future. It is a call to action. Corporate polluters and other special interests have such overwhelming influence that rich country governments are willing to agree only to fig leaf solutions. This is unacceptable, and it must change.

From the AP (via TPM):

A diplomatic frenzy enveloped the final scheduled day of the U.N. climate conference Friday, with President Barack Obama meeting with China’s premier as world leaders pressed to salvage a global warming accord amid deep divisions between rich and poor nations.

But neither Obama nor Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao offered any new commitments to cut the greenhouse gas emissions that cause global warming as they addressed the conference. And Wen skipped a high-level meeting of major nations, sending an envoy instead.

“We are ready to get this done today but there has to be movement on all sides to recognize that is better for us to act rather than talk,” Obama said, insisting on a transparent way to monitor each nation’s pledges to cut emissions.

Wen told delegates that China’s voluntary targets of reducing its carbon intensity by 40 to 45 percent will require “tremendous efforts.” The target refers to China’s rate of emissions per unit of economic growth.

“We will honor our word with real action,” Wen said.

Abandoning any hope of reaching a comprehensive deal, a group of about 25 countries sought agreement on a two-page political statement setting out critical elements, key among them the mobilization of $30 billion in the next three years to help poor countries cope with climate change and a scaling up to $100 billion a year by 2020…

Granted, it’s clearly not easy dealing with countries like China- have you noticed that in many news stories of significance China always seems to be the 800lb gorilla in the middle of the room? Obviously the responsibility for combating climate change can’t simply fall on the U.S. and China, which of course what much of the bickering was about, but I can’t help but notice that despite all of Obama’s concessions to China, all of the tip-toeing around controversial issues so as to not offend China’s delicate sensibilities, they still end up doing whatever the hell they want anyway.

As I said above, Secretary of State did a brilliant job revitalizing the talks yesterday but unfortunately, President Obama couldn’t seal the deal and the reaction of the international community to Obama’s speech was quite negative- even harsh. You can check out there articles here and here for examples of what is being said.

UPDATE: More reaction from international environmental groups are trickling on and the opinions range from very cautious optimism to full-fledged rage. The Huffington Post has a summary of the reaction but here is an excerpt:

Copenhagen (AP) — President Barack Obama declared Friday a “meaningful and unprecedented breakthrough” had been reached among the U.S., China and three other countries on a global effort to curb climate change but said much work was still be needed to reach a legally binding treaty.

“It is going to be very hard, and it’s going to take some time,” he said near the conclusion of a 193-nation global warming summit. “We have come a long way, but we have much further to go.”

The president said there was a “fundamental deadlock in perspectives” between big, industrially developed countries like the United States and poorer, though sometimes large, developing nations. Still he said this week’s efforts “will help us begin to meet our responsibilities to leave our children and grandchildren a cleaner planet.”

The deal (click here to read the document released to the media, or read the AP’s summary) as described by Obama reflects some progress helping poor nations cope with climate change and getting China to disclose its actions to address the warming problem.

But it falls far short of committing any nation to pollution reductions beyond a general acknowledgment that the effort should contain global temperatures along the lines agreed to at a conference of the leading economic nations last July.

The limited agreement by the U.S., China, Brazil, India and South Africa reflected the intense political and economic obstacles that had blocked a binding accord to restrict emissions of “greenhouse gases” believed to be causing a dangerous warming of the Earth.

The accord calls for the participating countries to list specific actions they have taken to control emissions and the commitments they are willing to make to achieve deeper reductions.

Huffington Post bloggers and activists have weighed in on the tentative agreement, expressing everything from condemnation of rich countries to something verging on cautious optimism.

Johann Hari
Huffington Post blogger and columnist for London Independent


So that’s it. The world’s worst polluters – the people who are drastically altering the climate – gathered here in Copenhagen to announce they were going to carry on cooking, in defiance of all the scientific warnings. They didn’t seal the deal; they sealed the coffin for the world’s low-lying islands, its glaciers, its North Pole, and millions of lives.

Those of us who watched this conference with open eyes aren’t suprised. Every day, practical, intelligent solutions that would cut our emissions of warming gases have been offered by scientists, developing countries, and protesters – and they have been systematically vetoed by the governments of North America and Europe… Continue reading

Carl Pope
Huffington Post blogger and Executive Director of the Sierra Club

This deal is still not nearly enough, even for these four countries, but it is a major step forward. And perhaps most importantly, it puts to rest the claim that China and India would never join, nor be held accountable for, an international accord — the core argument that has held back Congressional action on U.S. clean-energy legislation.

President Obama did not do this alone. China, I’m convinced, came to Copenhagen wanting a deal but also wanting a larger role in shaping that deal — a desire that this four-party agreement nicely addresses. France and Ethiopia helped break the bitter deadlock over finance by putting together the first North-South agreement on that topic — one that the Obama administration’s finance proposal tracked in important ways. And, perhaps most significantly, countries such as India, South Korea, South Africa, and Indonesia made historic reversals of their traditional refusal to acknowledge that business-as-usual is no longer good business.

We’re now left with a three-fold challenge: pass energy and climate legislation that will enable the U.S. to keep its part of the four-part agreement; launch a series of concrete confidence-building measures that begin implementing climate solutions globally, particularly in the poorest nations; and get ready for more robust and complete negotiations on a final climate agreement in 2010… Continue reading

John Sauven
Executive Director of Greenpeace UK

“The city of Copenhagen is a crime scene tonight, with the guilty men and women fleeing to the airport. Ed Miliband [UK climate change secretary] is among the very few that come out of this summit with any credit. It is now evident that beating global warming will require a radically different model of politics than the one on display here in Copenhagen.”

Friends Of The Earth

“Climate negotiations in Copenhagen have yielded a sham agreement with no real requirements for any countries. This is not a strong deal or a just one — it isn’t even a real one. It’s just repackaging old positions and pretending they’re new. The actions it suggests for the rich countries that caused the climate crisis are extraordinarily inadequate. This is a disastrous outcome for people around the world who face increasingly dire impacts from a destabilizing climate…

“The failure to produce anything meaningful in Copenhagen must serve as a wake up call to all who care about the future. It is a call to action. Corporate polluters and other special interests have such overwhelming influence that rich country governments are willing to agree only to fig leaf solutions. This is unacceptable, and it must change.

Bill McKibben
Author and founder of 350.org


“This is a declaration that small and poor countries don’t matter, that international civil society doesn’t matter, and that serious limits on carbon don’t matter. The president has wrecked the UN and he’s wrecked the possibility of a tough plan to control global warming. It may get Obama a reputation as a tough American leader, but it’s at the expense of everything progressives have held dear. 189 countries have been left powerless, and the foxes now guard the carbon henhouse without any oversight.”

Kumi Naidoo
Executive Director of Greenpeace


“Not fair, not ambitious and not legally binding. The job of world leaders is not done. Today they failed to avert catastrophic climate change.

The city of Copenhagen is a climate crime scene tonight, with the guilty men and women fleeing to the airport in shame. World leaders had a once in a generation chance to change the world for good, to avert catastrophic climate change. In the end they produced a poor deal full of loopholes big enough to fly Air Force One through.

We have seen a year of crises, but today it is clear that the biggest one facing humanity is a leadership crisis.”

UPDATE II: Ok, this article really sums up what a sham this has all been. The excerpt is from the New Scientist and it’s pretty shocking in its implications:

Update at 10.30 am, 19 December: After a night of wrangling and behind-the-scenes arguments, the United Nations conference agreed to “take note” of the Copenhagen accord but countries were not forced to endorse it. With a number of Latin American nations and Sudan hostile to it, the meeting agreed that countries choosing to endorse the US-brokered deal would be listed in the text.

UN sources told New Scientist that this would entitle listed countries to receive funds to cope with the impacts of climate change and reduce their carbon emissions – to the tune of $30 billion over the next three years. By 2020, rich nations have promised the fund will contain $100 billion a year.

Western leaders began to leave Copenhagen in the early hours of Saturday morning, claiming to have secured a global agreement to keep global warming below two degrees Celsius. But the deal provoked immediate anger for failing to include concrete measures to reach that target, and scientists at the talks said it would set the world on a path to 3.5 ºC of warming by 2100.

The Western leaders responded to the accusations that the text was stripped of any concrete measures by blaming China and other developing nations for the failure of the Copenhagen conference to achieve more.

The deal came in the form of a brief statement, named the Copenhagen accord, agreed by about 25 heads of state who had been meeting most of the day separately from the main conference. At 5.30 am local time, amid procedural chaos, the main meeting of the 193 nations attending the summit had yet to decide what to do with the accord.

Meanwhile, a team of climate scientists who have been calculating how the pledges to cut emissions translate into temperature rises over the coming century, and were waiting for the final text to update their models, were left baffled. The accord fails to commit any countries to new emissions cuts. An annexe simply lists existing commitments as “information”.

“We have nothing to calculate,” said Michiel Schaeffer of Climate Analytics. “It’s as though the last two years have not happened.”

The accord also fails to offer ways of closing loopholes in existing emissions controls under the Kyoto protocol. For instance, it does not address rising emissions from aircraft and shipping, which are not covered by the protocol. Nor does it limit future sales of spare emissions permits held by many eastern European nations – so-called “hot air”. Expectation had been high that both loopholes would be closed by agreements in Copenhagen.

Schaeffer and his colleague Niklas Hoehne of the climate consultancy ECOFYS told New Scientist that the loopholes could allow developed nations to carry on increasing their emissions until 2020. The finding is in line with those of a similar study given to New Scientist by WWF earlier this week.

[snip]

Before returning to the US, Obama admitted that “instead of taking one step forward, we may have taken two steps back”. But he promised to resume work “to build trust” so that countries would in future accept legally binding commitments. [emphasis added]

So, right before Obama came home trumpeting his historic achievement at the conference he admitted that the environmental efforts people spent two years working on prior to the conference, were actually made worse by the time the “accord” was announced Friday afternoon? Incredible. I guess I’m not seeing what the “achievement” part of all this is.

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4 Comments leave one →
  1. December 19, 2009 12:31 am

    “Ok, I’ll just come right out and say it- Hillary Clinton did a great job laying the groundwork, re-energizing the conference and making significant headway in demonstrating that the U.S. was serious about climate change. And then Obama seems to have come in and dropped the ball. I’m kind of wishing he had stayed at home.”

    My response to this would be a minor revision of a line from a 70s (I think) movie with Bob Newhart as POTUS, Madeline Kahn as FLOTUS, and Gilda Radner as First Daughter complaining to her mom, “I HATE Daddy!” Stroking Radner’s hair, Kahn responds, “You and 280 million other people, honey.”

    I might have that number wrong from the 70s, but to Stacy, you and probably BILLIONS of other people.

  2. rachel permalink
    December 19, 2009 5:35 am

    yeap Obama blew it.

  3. pcfs1 permalink
    December 19, 2009 12:29 pm

    Still and Stacy, Rachel to:
    You got that right. Obama should have stayed in Washington.

  4. June 25, 2013 1:15 pm

    intruging

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