Was the Copenhagen Accord an abject failure or a smashing success?

by Kyle Ash

February 3, 2010

There’s currently a bit of a controversy broiling over how to describe the outcome of the Copenhagen climate conference, especially in regards to the so-called “Copenhagen Accord.” Some call it a good first step, some call it a complete failure.

But it is possible to discuss the Copenhagen Accord frankly while avoiding both the disingenuous spin that calls it a fantastic success as well as the unproductive criticism that labels it an abject failure. I see the Copenhagen Accord as a part of the broad global discussion moving us towards addressing global warming, which is exactly how the UNFCCC views it.

Some have hailed the Copenhagen Accord as a positive step forward for international climate negotiations. But there must have been some hard thinking behind those positive declarations that came from the environmental community. I understand and agree with the idea that we should give praise where it’s due to the US administration for their efforts to get commitments to reduce global warming pollution from countries like China, India, Indonesia, and Brazil, which now collectively represent about a third of global warming pollution.

However, praise for Obama and his administration’s work to secure these commitments has no place in a discussion of the Copenhagen Accord, as these commitments were mostly announced before the Accord was even established. So far, only Moldova and the Marshall Islands have used the Copenhagen Accord to announce pledges to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and their share of emissions is about .03% of the global total.

There’s another reason to avoid the Accord in conversations about any positive influence of the US administration: US officials have stated that they don’t even agree with some aspects of the Accord. In particular, the administration has a contradictory position regarding the Accord’s mechanism for helping fund poor countries’ efforts to adapt to climate change. They want this fund to be housed outside of the UNFCCC, but the Accord clearly says this “green fund” will be within the UNFCCC. So I guess the US doesn’t want to “associate” with this part of it.

Many people have said that the Copenhagen Accord actually represents a breakdown of the international negotiation process. In this line of thinking, the Accord epitomizes a failure to have a real binding agreement in Copenhagen. Certainly the Accord represents something less than the US-proposed alternative to a global treaty, “pledge and review,” which was an outcome publicly opposed by most of the environmental community. (Essentially, “pledge and review” would have let countries state whatever arbitrary target they wanted, and then not even be bound to meet that, as they would be given the opportunity to “review” that commitment and adjust it to whatever they determine is feasible at the time of the review.)

One reason critics say the Accord represents failure is its textual incoherence: It was written to be a legal instrument of the UNFCCC, but that’s not how it’s turned out.

It is very important, in fact, to remember that the Copenhagen Accord is not a legal instrument. Most countries were absent when it was negotiated, and many may not ever officially “associate” with it. Today is three days after the January 31st deadline for associating with the Accord that was set by Secretary General of the UNFCCC, Yvo de Boer. But Secretary de Boer still has not heard from well over half of the member countries (USCAN has a great chart that tracks who has associated with the Accord and what commitments they’ve made here). Of those he has heard from, all who have submitted targets for reducing pollution have placed conditions on those targets. All of developed countries, with the notable exceptions of the United States and Canada, have said that a condition of their commitment is connection with a global, legal agreement.

My own position is that the Copenhagen Accord deserves neither praise nor lambasting. The thing I believe most strongly is that it should not become a distraction to continuing the UN-hosted negotiations toward a global treaty that includes the United States.

I “take note” of the Copenhagen Accord, as does the UNFCCC. Now let’s get on with the rest of the conversation.

Kyle Ash

By Kyle Ash

Kyle Ash formerly served as Greenpeace's Legislative Policy Expert, responsible for domestic and international climate change policy analysis and campaign strategy. He has been quoted in Politico, Greenwire, the New York Times, and CNN, and was one of the most frequently quoted sources during the Copenhagen Climate Conference.

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