Argument

Post-Copenhagen Scorecard

The deadline has passed for countries to submit CO2-reduction targets under the new climate accord. Here's the verdict.

NICOLAS ASFOURI/AFP/Getty Images
NICOLAS ASFOURI/AFP/Getty Images

The international climate talks in Copenhagen last December were generally regarded as a disappointment, if not an outright failure. The frenzied final hours of negotiation had an air of farce, with heads of state pursuing one another through hallways and conference rooms. In the end, the agreement that emerged from the talks was "noted" rather than ratified under the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). That designation, produced through a complex U.N. procedure known as "winging it," carries no legal force and amounts to little more than an affirmation that participating countries will voluntarily do what they had already said they would do.

That might not sound especially encouraging. But, still, the scorn heaped on the Copenhagen Accord was premature. The brief text of the agreement released after the conference contained a notable gap at the end: the appendices, where participating countries were to list their national policies and goals. The deadline for countries to submit their commitments was Jan. 31, and though the deadline, like the rest of the process, carried no legal force, the most significant emitters met it. According to the U.S. Climate Action Network, as of Feb. 4, “91 countries, including the 27-member EU,  are likely to or have engaged with the accord, representing 80.5% of global emissions."

Most of the cards are now on the table. So what’s the verdict? Is there reason for hope, or was all the discontent justified?

In one sense, the news is clearly grim: Existing commitments don’t add up to a solution. Though the accord recognizes "the scientific view that the increase in global temperature should be below 2 degrees Celsius," the climate consultancy Ecofys estimates that the policies pledged thus far set the world on the path to a disastrous 3 degrees of warming.

This would seem to confirm the fears of green internationalists, who have long portrayed binding emissions targets as the sine qua non of seriousness on climate change. But would putting the UNFCCC stamp on all those signatures have made a difference? The fact that the Kyoto Protocol was legally binding didn’t prevent several countries from failing to meet their targets. There is no international enforcer to punish scofflaws, no blue-helmeted U.N. climate cops to dispense justice. In the end, an international treaty is only as binding as participating countries want it to be.

Are there, then, any signs of progress? Yes. What the Copenhagen Accord pledges begin to do is put countries on the record behind policies and programs that can be "measured, reported, and verified" — MRV, in the lingo. (Of course, the details of MRV are hotly contested, especially by China, whose concerns about sovereignty almost sank the entire deal. But, in the end, all countries agreed to report their progress to international observers.)

It’s this aspect of the pledges — not their cumulative size, but their detail and transparency — that has the potential to shake up energy politics in participating countries. Recall, for example, when the U.S. Congress created the Toxics Release Inventory (TRI) as part of the Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know Act of 1986. The TRI was a consolation prize — all that remained after a vicious political fight over a much larger effort to regulate toxic chemicals. Yet when information was released, allowing the public to directly compare companies’ chemical pollution, it had a galvanic effect. Even in the absence of binding regulations, companies frantically competed to reduce their pollution, if only to escape from the dread "Top 10 Polluters in Your Area" lists. (In a similar spirit, Obama’s 2011 budget includes $21 million for the Environmental Protection Agency to implement the Mandatory Greenhouse Gas Reporting Rule, which would put emissions from U.S. companies on public record.)

The transparency of the Copenhagen Accord commitments could have a similar effect, exposing countries’ efforts to public scrutiny and motivating them to follow through. Admittedly, this effect will be somewhat muted by other geopolitical crosscurrents, but it will be felt. So how do countries’ existing public commitments stack up?

The United States has pledged to reduce its emissions 17 percent below 2005 levels by 2020. That happens to be the short-term target in the climate bill that passed the House last year and is currently being hashed over in the Senate; the White House’s pledge is a clearly a nudge to the Senate to get the job done. Commitments to the international community may not matter much to the likes of Sen. Mary Landrieu, a centrist Democrat recalcitrant on climate-change legislation. But, for any legislator even notionally concerned with America’s reputation on the world stage, the commitment will exert some pull. At the very least it might convince some wavering senators that the administration is serious about using the EPA to regulate carbon pollution if Congress doesn’t act.

China is sending a different signal with its pledge — almost downplaying or obscuring its ambition. When browbeaten into putting forward a verifiable target, China reiterated the conservative goal in its latest five-year economic development plan: The country will reduce its "carbon intensity" — emissions per unit of GDP — 40 to 45 percent from 2005 levels by 2020. 

There’s reason to believe, however, that China is pursuing a kind of underpromise-overdeliver strategy — at once minimizing international obligations and aggressively pursuing clean energy development. Premier Wen Jiabao has charged his new national energy commission with getting 15 percent of the country’s power from renewable sources and increasing energy efficiency by 20 percent by 2020. Many familiar with China say that the sheer scale of investment underway means the country is almost certain to blow past its stated targets. Given that it surpassed the United States as the world’s largest manufacturer of wind turbines last year and is on target to do the same on solar panels soon, China’s leaders may be content to downplay their ambitions internationally while the U.S. Senate dithers.

And finally, the Maldives is using the international attention another way entirely. The low-lying island nation, existentially threatened by climate change, has issued what amounts to a moral clarion call. It has it has pledged 100 percent carbon neutrality by 2020, a target its foreign minister said is "voluntary and unconditional." That should serve as an example to other countries of what ambition (not to say desperation) looks like.

In a sense, what is happening in international climate politics parallels what is happening domestically in the United States. As hopes for a single comprehensive solution fade, attention is turning to bottom-up efforts — from the UNFCCC to a group of leading emitters, and from national governments to regions, states, and localities.

"Everyone is waiting for a U.N. deal, but carbon-cutting actions have been going on all along," says Terry Tamminen, an energy and environment consultant who advises state and provincial governments on developing climate plans. "It’s been right under everyone’s nose." The Copenhagen Accord, having surfaced an existing web of national and subnational policies, may ultimately prompt a needed shift of attention and pressure to what is happening on the ground and what is required to link up and accelerate the many promising efforts already underway.

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