As commitments pour in, many find reason for optimism in Copenhagen climate summit

In Brief: 
  • Initially viewed as a failure, the outcome of the Copenhagen Climate Summit has been undergoing a quiet reassessment
  • Pledges to reduce greenhouse gases by 2020 have now been received from some 75 countries, which together account for 80 percent of global emissions from energy use
  • The real challenge of climate change may be to the UN's multilateral, consensus-based system of decision-making

COPENHAGEN - Although initially derided for its failure to reach a binding agreement to reduce greenhouse gases, December's United Nations Climate Change Conference has in recent months undergone a quiet reassessment, and many are now saying that in fact considerable progress was made in the fight against global warming.

Expectations were high leading into the conference, held here 7-18 December 2009. With emission reduction targets in the Kyoto Protocol set to expire in 2012, non-governmental organizations and governments were pushing hard for more ambitious limits on the emissions of greenhouse gases, along with new funds to adapt to and mitigate global warming.

Instead, the final agreement was limited to a short, 12-paragraph "Copenhagen Accord" that emerged from backroom negotiations involving just a few countries. Although it recognized the need to stabilize warming, there were few specifics, other than a promise to raise US$100 billion by 2020.

"Well meant but half-hearted pledges to protect our planet from dangerous climate change are simply not sufficient to address a crisis that calls for completely new ways of collaboration across rich and poor countries," said the WWF (formerly the World Wide Fund for Nature) a day after the conference.

But some who follow the process closely are these days feeling more optimistic about what happened in Copenhagen, saying that the continuing international negotiations to prevent the worst effects of global warming will find a solid basis in the documents and procedures that emerged there.

"This was first time the majority of the world's leaders gathered to seriously discuss climate change," said Tahirih Naylor, a representative of the Bahá'í International Community to the United Nations. "The fact that 120 leaders attended was in itself an indicator of the importance the issue has attained."

Moreover, since the conference, a number of countries have made substantial commitments to reducing emissions in the context of the Copenhagen accord. As of March, pledges to reduce greenhouse gases by 2020 had been received from some 75 countries, which together account for 80 percent of global emissions from energy use, according to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC).

These commitments come not only from wealthy countries - members of the European Union pledged reductions from 20 to 30 percent - but also from nations defined as "developing" countries under the accord. China and India, for example, pledged to reduce the intensity of the greenhouse gas emissions of their economies by 40-45 percent and 20-25 percent, respectively, by 2020. Similar pledges have been made by Brazil, South Africa, and Indonesia, among others.

"This is a powerful demonstration of the determination of these countries to contribute their fair share to this global effort," said Ms. Naylor.

Ms. Naylor and others also said that many of the underlying documents that were negotiated in the Copenhagen process, even though not formally adopted, nevertheless reflect significant progress in a number of areas.

For example, negotiations to reduce emissions caused by deforestation moved forward significantly. And the underlying texts show an increasing focus on the social and humanitarian effects of climate change.

Cate Owren, program director of the Women's Environment and Development Organization (WEDO), said for example that more than 40 references to gender-specific issues were incorporated in negotiating documents at Copenhagen.

"We felt that we as gender advocates had accomplished something we weren't sure we were going to be able to do - and that is to get beyond the perception that gender issues and human rights issues were a distraction from the 'real' negotiations," said Ms. Owren.

Others similarly noted that the moral and ethical dimensions of climate change - such as its disproportionate impact on developing countries that have not been responsible for most carbon emissions - have also become part of the mainstream discussions.

In an interview with ONE COUNTRY, Halldor Thorgeirsson offered insights from his personal perspective as a senior official in the secretariat of the UNFCCC, the treaty that governs climate negotiations.

Behind the scenes

Among other things, Dr. Thorgeirsson said the way the participation of so many world leaders was managed contributed to the fact that the conference ended in acrimony and fell short of meeting the high expectations.

"The fact that so many world leaders were coming acted as a brake on negotiations at the level of officials," said Dr. Thorgeirsson, whose title at the UNFCCC is director of Bali Roadmap Support. "There was limited willingness to compromise in advance of the end game involving the leaders. As a result, leaders were confronted with too many issues."

One such issue was the dissonance between the needs and viewpoints of developed countries - who are largely responsible so far for carbon emissions - and those of developing countries, who are already starting to feel the impact of global warming.

Dr. Thorgeirsson, who is a Bahá'í , said the assumption that emerged from the 1992 Rio Earth Summit was that "developing countries would not be required to take action to reduce emissions. That would be up to the industrialized countries, because they were responsible for the historical load of greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere."

This changed in Bali, with the negotiation of the Bali Roadmap, Dr. Thorgeirsson said. It created a new arrangement where all parties are expected to contribute to the effort to reduce emissions. "And that raises fundamental geopolitical questions - which were beyond the mandate of officials to address."

The leaders made a major contribution given the difficult circumstances, said Dr. Thorgeirsson, and they managed to come to an agreement forged mainly between the United States on the one hand and China, India, Brazil, and South Africa on the other.

By the time the leaders had reached an agreement there was very limited time available to garner support for it among the broader community of nations represented in Copenhagen and it proved impossible to go further than taking note of it. Many parties and non-governmental organizations decried this as undemocratic and a harbinger for the end of multilateralism in global negotiations on issues like climate change.

"Points of convergence"

But Dr. Thorgeirsson said he believes the Copenhagen accord is more positive than it might seem because it contains important "points of convergence" that can now be integrated into ongoing negotiations leading up to the next major climate summit, scheduled to be held in Mexico in December.

"This coming year will to a large extent determine if a multilateral climate process is capable of delivering the required international response to a global issue like climate change"

— Halldor Thorgeirsson,

The practice in UN negotiations, he said, is based on consensus decision making. "This tends to provide veto power to the more conservative parties," he said. "This makes it difficult to reach agreement on progressive steps in a consensus process. The nature of the climate challenge, however, makes the UN the only legitimate decision-making forum."

But Dr. Thorgeirsson said the Copenhagen accord provided some key ingredients for progress. "There is the objective of limiting warming to less than 2 degrees," he said. "The commitment by developed countries to mobilize 100 billion U.S. dollars by 2020 to meet the needs of developing countries is an important expression of political will."

Such agreements, although non-binding, can "unlock important unresolved issues in the negotiations and lead to a unified outcome in Mexico," said Dr. Thorgeirsson.

To reach a final, binding treaty outcome on how to limit climate change will nevertheless be a significant challenge, said Dr. Thorgeirsson - one that will not necessarily be possible to conclude this year. "The foundation for such an outcome can be laid in Mexico," he said, adding that the cooperative mechanisms and institutional arrangements required to effectively address a challenge like global warming will pose a significant test for the consensus-based UN system.

"This coming year will to a large extent determine if a multilateral climate process is capable of delivering the required international response to a global issue like climate change," he said.

Climate science controversy

Dr. Thorgeirsson, whose doctorate is in plant physiology, also addressed some of the concerns, raised recently, over whether the science that predicts global warming is fundamentally sound.

"The discovery of a couple of errors in the IPCC [Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change] report are unfortunate and need to be looked into," said Dr. Thorgeirsson.

"But none of this has changed any of the basic conclusions of the science," he said. "The problems that have come up are all in the domain of predicting specifically what will happen in certain regions as the climate warms. But the fundamental science that predicts global warming as a whole has not changed."