Friday 24 Sep 2021 | 21:42 | SYDNEY
Friday 24 Sep 2021 | 21:42 | SYDNEY

The 'climate conversation' after Copenhagen

10 February 2010 13:25

Fergus Green is a climate change lawyer and co-author of the Lowy Institute's Guide to the Copenhagen Conference.

During the final days of the Copenhagen conference, as negotiators were huddled around tables thrashing out what became the Copenhagen Accord, I penned a post suggesting that we should consider the conference less by the specific content of any documents resulting from it and more by the quality of the signals it sends to the actors that wield power, and by how they respond — 'one line in an ongoing conversation between governments, markets and ordinary citizens'.

It is now nearly two months since the conference ended, and we have some initial evidence to gauge its success against this measure. It's still early days, but so far the 'conversation' is looking pretty flat – it hasn't deteriorated, but it hasn't really improved, either. In this post, I consider the political response at the inter-governmental level. In subsequent posts I will look at the domestic political response in a number of countries, and the responses from markets and the general public.

Governments have responded cautiously after Copenhagen. At the end of the conference, many world leaders hailed the Copenhagen Accord as an important, albeit insufficient breakthrough, and pledged to implement it in the new year. But nobody – including, one suspects, the leaders and officials who negotiated it – really knew how serious a commitment had been made.

Commitment to the non-binding Accord was tested for the first time at the end of January, by which time countries were invited to indicate whether they were associating themselves with the Accord. Developed countries were also invited to indicate their 2020 emissions reduction targets and developing countries their 'mitigation actions'. 

As of 8 February, some 94 countries (including the 27 member states of the EU) have associated themselves with the Accord and 64 countries have submitted targets or actions, including all major emitters. In one sense, this reflects a degree of progress: all domestic commitments have been compiled in one place for the first time.

But in another sense, the exercise turned out to be a hollow formality, as everyone just promised to do what they had already promised to do at or before Copenhagen. Major developed countries have simply restated their existing conditional targets (or target ranges) and the major emitting developing countries have submitted the 'actions' to which they were already committed (official submissions are available here; see this list for a useful summary). 

The so-called BASIC countries (Brazil, South Africa, India and China) have also stressed that their mitigation actions are 'voluntary', not internationally binding. 

There's clearly widespread political commitment to the Accord, but so far all it has done is shine a brighter light onto the status quo – and, in so doing, illuminated the many disputes and inadequacies that bedevil mitigation ambitions.

Disappointingly, there has been little indication of where the international process might go from here. Countries will inevitably continue negotiations towards a comprehensive set of international agreements in the lumbering UNFCCC process, but with no end in sight. There's some half-hearted chatter about the potential for a treaty at the next Conference of the Parties in Mexico later this year, but that seems optimistic in the light of Copenhagen. Countries have yet to even agree a work program of pre-Mexico meetings for the rest of this year.

The possibility of advancing international climate policy in other fora (eg. the G20, the Major Economies Forum, and entirely new institutions focused on smaller pieces of the mitigation puzzle) is a much more exciting one, as Greg Picker and I argued after Copenhagen. Officials from the main countries have reportedly been holding discussions behind the scenes in which such alternative processes have been discussed, but it seems countries are a long way from figuring out exactly what these might entail and how (if at all) they would relate to the Accord and to the UN process.

Maybe there will be some forthcoming announcements charting a bold new direction for international climate change negotiations. As it stands, however, the 'conversation' at the inter-governmental level appears subdued and directionless.

Photo by Flickr user fernando zarur, used under a Creative Commons license.