December 22, 2009

After Copenhagen

On the recently concluded Copenhagen climate change agreement -- such as it is -- you can look at it three ways:

1. It's kicking the can down the road. The agreement, with all its placeholders and blank spaces -- most egregiously, the appendix meant to list individual country commitments -- will only have meaning once further negotiations try to breath life into it. It's good that we now have some hard numbers for mitigation/adaptation aid for poor countries ($30 billion by 2012 and $100 billion by 2020), but there's still the niggling questions of who exactly is raising the money, how the money will be distributed, and how to assure that the money is spent properly. Then there's the whole question of verifying emissions goals, especially in China; as John Lee argues, it's an extremely sensitive issue for the Chinese government, which has little interest in reporting accurate statistics for anything, much less carbon emissions.1

2. It's a game changer. The folks at the Center for American Progress have been eternal optimists when it comes to climate negotiations, and they've been quick to point out the upside to the Copenhagen agreement. Andrew Light, for example, points out that with the agreement, President Obama has begun to chart a new path for climate negotiations away from the UN process, which has become something of a farce -- seeing noted human rights champion Sudan, for example, withhold its support for the Copenhagen agreement while comparing it to the Holocaust was especially galling. And indeed, a lot of smart people (e.g., Michael Levi) have been pronouncing the UN process dead; from now on, the action on climate change will be at the G-20 or other small venues. It won't be as conceptually neat at the UN process, but it could get things going much quicker.

3. It's a disaster. This is, essentially, the Bill McKibben response. Not only has Obama signed off on a patently inadequate agreement, but it has jettisoned the UN process to boot (see above). Most of the countries at most risk of climate-induced disaster aren't major emitters, and now they are being excluded from negotiations that could, in some cases, determine their future survival. What China and the US work out may be acceptable for them, in terms of limiting climate change; but it may not be acceptable for, say, the Marshall Islands. Moreover, given that global temperature increases could become irreversible unless we begin to reduce emissions soon, does it really make sense to dick around with half measures?

I've listed these outlooks in the order in which I adhere to them: That is, I see the Copenhagen agreement as a potential way to make real progress in climate change negotiations, but it needs to be elaborated on substantially, and it needs to be done soon. Other people, of course, may order these outlooks differently, or add new ones.

1 Case in point: The last time China did a greenhouse gas inventory -- its only inventory, in fact -- was in 1994.

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