Science in Society Archive

Climate Road Map Loses Direction

The Copenhagen Accord is a big step backwards on the road map agreed in Bali, and is leading to a collapse in emissions targets that will result in a catastrophic rise in global temperature of more than 3 °C
Martin Khor

The Copenhagen Accord

The Copenhagen Climate Conference ended in disarray. The Copenhagen Accord hastily put together after the conference in an exclusive meeting of 26 political leaders was not adopted by the Conference, but only “taken note of.”

Since then, there has been a campaign by the Danish Prime Minister and the UN Secretary-General to get countries to “associate” themselves with the Accord.

The deadline - 31 Jan 2 010 - mentioned in the Accord for both developed countries and developing countries to submit their mitigation actions had come and gone. Only 56 countries had officially written in, most of them developed nations. Not many developing countries have signed up so far; the majority taking a wait-and-see approach.

The Accord is controversial because it arose from a meeting of only a few countries which was not on the official Conference agenda; the Convention has over 190 member states. Moreover, the Accord threatens to displace the legitimate multilateral process mandated to follow up from the UNFCCC's 2007 Bali Conference.

The reports of its two working groups on the Kyoto Protocol and on Long-term Cooperative Action are supposed to be the basis for negotiations this year towards a final agreement. The reports contain the drafts of texts (including options in areas where there is not yet consensus) for the final agreements, and were adopted by all countries in Copenhagen, unlike the Accord that was not adopted. The battle is not just on which of the texts are to be used. Behind the different texts are competing approaches to tackling the climate change crisis.

The agreed Bali model languishes

The model agreed to in Bali was to set a binding overall target for developed nations to cut their collective emissions. This was initially set at 25 to 40 percent by 2020 compared to the 1990 level. Each developed country would then have to have a binding national target and these targets would all add up to the aggregate target. The United States, which is not a member of the Kyoto Protocol, would also have an agreed national target. It has to be “comparable” to the efforts of other developed countries.

The developing countries, which had only a small role in emissions of the past, would not have binding emission targets. They would have to take mitigation actions that are supported by financial and technology transfers from the developed nations, and both the actions and the support would be measured and verified.

The Copenhagen Accord has taken a big step backwards because the developed countries no longer have to make any binding commitments. Each country is merely required to submit the emission reduction it is willing to undertake. There is also no longer an “aggregate target”. There is no requirement that the individual pledges have to add up to a credible overall goal. In the last two years' climate talks, the developing countries were demanding that the aggregate reduction commitment should be at least 40 percent by 2020 compared to 1990.

When it became clear in October that the developed nations were preparing to dump the Kyoto Protocol and its binding obligations, the developing countries cried “foul”. China even accused them of plotting a Great Escape from their obligations. Alas, the Copenhagen Accord is the Great Escape. Critics of the Accord predicted that the unilateral and now voluntary goals submitted by the developed countries could be far below what is required by science, or the need to limit global temperature rise to 1.5 or 2 °C, above the pre-industrial level.

Collapse of the emission targets led by USA

These fears have now been proven justified. The pledges of some of the developed countries are so low that the overall reduction will only be 12 to 18 percent by 2020 compared to 1990, according to a paper by the World Resources Institute (WRI). This is due to most countries stating that they would take on a more ambitious target only if other nations make a comparable effort.

The United States, the biggest emitter, has given an exceptionally low goal of 2020 emissions at 17 percent below the 2005 level, which is only 5 percent below the 1990 level. As a result, other countries have lowered or are likely to lower their own targets. Canada is a case in point. It has now said it would take on a similar figure as the US, 17 percent below the 2005 level by 2020, which turns out to be 19 percent above its 1990 level, because Canadian emissions have grown by a lot between 1990 and 2005.

The European Union has repeated its previous offer that by 2020, its member states would reduce their emissions collectively by 30 percent if others have a similar goal, but by only 20 percent otherwise. With the low ambition of the US, the EU is likely to take the lower figure.

Thus, the individual targets set by the developed countries are likely to add up to nearer 12 percent than 18 percent. Even if the high end of the pledges is realised, this does not meet the 25-40 percent reduction that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) indicated is necessary to stabilise greenhouse gas concentrations at 450 ppm or below; 450 ppm concentration level being usually associated with a global temperature rise of 2 °C, but other climate scientists are saying we need to reduce down even further; see 350ppm CO2 the Target ( SiS 44).

The need for the temperature rise to stay below 2 °C is recognised by the Accord. Thus, the pledges made by the developed countries do not even meet the Accord's own standard. A report by the scientific Ecofys network assessing the pledges made by both developed and developing countries so far, concluded that they add up to a level of emissions in 2020 that would be in line with a global temperature rise of over 3 °C.

A temperature rise of 2 °C would be damaging enough to the environment and to economic activity. A rise of over 3 °C would spell disaster in terms of sea level rise, glacial melting, flooding, agricultural productivity and human life in general.

Call for speedy resumption of negotiations

Many developing countries, including the BASIC group (Brazil, South Africa, China and India) as well as the association of small island states, are calling for the speedy resumption of the negotiations under the UNFCCC and its two working groups. This is a clear indication that they do not want the climate talks to shift out from the UNFCCC to an exclusive venue such as the G20.

The road map agreed in Bali, which includes binding targets for developed countries based on the needed aggregate goal and national goals that are comparable, should be followed. The Copenhagen Accord should help in this process, and not divert from it.

Otherwise, valuable time will be wasted in all kinds of wrangling, and we cannot afford to lose more time as the climate situation gets worse each day.

Martin Khor is director of South Centre. A version of this article was published in The Star, 8 February 2010

Article first published 15/02/10

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$rory Short Comment left 16th February 2010 03:03:25
I think that those who accept that we want to get CO2 levels back to 350 must act in whatever ways they can to bring that about within their spheres of influence and this no matter what global climate agreements are reached or not reached. To pin all our hopes on reaching these global agreements is bound to be fruitless at the present time as Copenhagen has shown. This does not mean that we should cease striving for global agreements but we should not place our climate actions and hopes solely on them nor should the general public either.