Carbon Price Drops Are True Signal That Copenhagen Was a Cop-Out

by Philip Radford

December 23, 2009

Was Copenhagen historic or a failure (or both)? To discern the value of the Copenhagen deal through the din of spin, look no further than the 9% drop in the European carbon market on Monday, where confidence vanished following President Obama’s "historic accord."

Last week, President Obama made an audacious effort to save what was a floundering process in Copenhagen. Unfortunately, his administration’s claim of "historic accord" is little but spin. What the world was waiting for — the sinking island nations, the 300,000 that the World Health Organization says die each year from global warming, and the carbon markets — were binding agreements to cut carbon pollution, end tropical deforestation by 2015, and provide financing to assist developing countries in leap-frogging dirty development with clean energy.

What they got was business as usual. Earlier this year the House passed a deeply flawed climate bill that falls short of what the science says is needed to roll back climate change. The bill’s contents were what the president promised in Copenhagen, and his words were met with disappointment the world over.

There is spin from all sides about just what happened in Denmark. Let me share my observations from someone with a global, not just U.S., perspective. The European Union, already actively engaged in the Kyoto Protocol, offered to cut its pollution by 20% and said they would go up to 30% if the U.S. put more ambitious goals on the table. The EU also pledged 30 billion euro per year for financing clean technology and other initiatives in the developing world. China, already outpacing the U.S. in the development and deployment of renewable energy technologies, offered to decrease the energy intensity of its emerging economy. India pledged the same.

The U.S. pressed China to allow its efforts to cut global warming pollution to be independently measured. China resisted the U.S. proposal to allow the U.S. to come in and inspect its industry, but felt that the negotiations with the U.S. were making progress on this point when it accepted an EU proposal on reporting and occasional checks. Meanwhile, the U.S. was punching loopholes into the pact.

The deal could possibly be sealed if the U.S. offered financing for developing countries and resolved the issue of transparency with China.

Enter Hillary Clinton, offering to somehow figure out how to give an unstated contribution of money from an unknown source to a $100 billion fund. In the process, she offended the Chinese premier, who was in such a fury that his negotiating staff was in a panic.

Enter President Obama. His speech, clearly written for one audience — the U.S. Senate — said three things to the Heads of State in the room: hey foreign leaders, we don’t want foreign oil; hey China, even though we’ve been building trust and negotiating all year, I’m going to scold you for the benefit of domestic politics; and hey world: even though these are negotiations, I have nothing to offer. It’s my way or the highway.

The President laid out what the U.S. had offered the world for the last eight months, budging on nearly nothing. He put forward a goal of cutting pollution by 4% below 1990 levels — about one tenth of what the EU offered. In fairness, he had little to offer. The combination of the President’s hesitance to lead to overcome special interests to achieve his own stated objectives — whether on a public option in health care or pollution reductions of any respectable size — and the power of the coal and oil lobbies put the his negotiators in the awkward positoin of negotiating without very much to give.

The Chinese premier stormed out of the room and refused to meet with the President. Finally, the President secured a meeting and hammered out a deal that has the value of the carbon markets today: very little.

So few people had a clue about the "deal" that when President Obama later announced it the EU negotiators were still forging a deal and G77 delegates were talking in the halls about the perilous state of the Summit. Ultimately, most signed on, because if they did not, then their countries would not get a cut of a $30 billion package for clean energy and adapting to current global warming. A few brave countries, not wanting to be bought, said "no" to the deal. The historic accord was "noted" by the process, a nod to its existence.

The world still expects great things of President Obama and the US, but we cannot expect him to save the world on his own. We can expect — and must demand — that the president leads in recommitting the U.S. to the democratic UN process, doubles his efforts through the EPA and other methods to cut global warming pollution without the loopholes, clean air act rollbacks, impending nuclear disasters, and green light for coal that we see in current legislation, and approaches the negotiations as what they are — negotiations to save millions of lives, dozens of countries, 70% of the world’s species, and a future that is worth passing on to our children.

This article was cross-posted on the Huffington Post.

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