Copenhagen climate summit yields ‘real deal’ to limit greenhouse gases

Nonbinding accord still needs beefing up, negotiators agree

COPENHAGEN — Last month, after two weeks of heated — at times, intensely inflammatory — talks, representatives of 193 nations agreed to a bare-bones framework for an international treaty to curtail global warming. But even its proponents admit it falls short of what’s needed.

The Copenhagen Accord, named for the Danish city in which it was forged on December 18, would cut releases of climate-altering pollutants by most of the world’s leading greenhouse gas emitters. It also would establish a multibillion-dollar-per-year trust fund whereby industrial nations would finance efforts by the poorest countries to cope with a warming world.

“When we launched negotiations two years ago, in Bali, I was firmly convinced that we would be arriving in Copenhagen to adopt a legally binding instrument,” says Yvo de Boer, the United Nations’ lead climate official. De Boer is executive secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, which administered the existing climate treaty, the Kyoto Protocol, and would also manage this successor. But the consensus statement just agreed to is “not an accord that is legally binding,” he notes. “Not an accord that, at this moment, pins down industrialized countries to individual [emissions-reduction] targets. Not an accord that, at this stage, specifies what major developing countries will do.”

Still, United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon says, “We sealed the deal. And it is a real deal. And we will try to have legally binding [language] as soon as possible — in 2010.”

Draft language released early in the summit proposed strong, mandatory reductions in greenhouse gas emissions by industrialized nations. Within 40 years, they were to cut emissions by at least 75 — and up to 95 — percent relative to 1990 levels. The final accord makes no mention of those targets. Industrial nations must commit only to implementing voluntarily set emissions targets for 2020 (values that each nation is supposed to decide on by January 31).

Early drafts of the accord also would have required outside auditing of emissions reductions (including those by developing countries) and of developing nations’ disbursements from a new, United Nations–managed Green Climate Fund. (That fund will provide up to $10 billion a year from 2010 through 2012 and up to $100 billion a year by 2020.) China called outside verification a deal-breaker. The accord now states that countries can audit themselves.

The challenge in developing a climate treaty with teeth is that the UNFCCC requires all participating nations to agree on the treaty’s language. So any nation can veto a deal. And as of December 17 — the day before the climate summit was due to end — closing the meeting with no deal appeared to be a real, if embarrassing, possibility.

That day, Prime Minister Apisai Ielemia of Tuvalu vowed that his nine-island nation would block any accord that did not require “legally binding” emissions cuts and that did not state the goal of keeping the peak rise in average global temperatures “well below” 1.5 degrees Celsius. Not only did the final language nix legally binding requirements, but it also set the target for peak temperature rise at “below 2 degrees Celsius.”

Also threatening to walk out on negotiations if the accord didn’t mention a 1.5-degrees-Celsius limit on temperature rise (and establish a much bigger trust fund for developing nations) was President Hugo Chavez of Venezuela, along with representatives of other socialist and socialist-leaning Latin American nations and a Sudanese diplomat who chairs the G77, a large group of developing nations that frequently vote together owing to similar economic interests.

Yet all ultimately came around — sort of — by being persuaded that they just had to “take note” of the new accord. This phrase has “equal validity” to saying that negotiating nations “accept” the document, explains U.N. Assistant Secretary-General Robert Orr.

In U.N. parlance, taking note means nations can formally recognize a document without immediately deciding whether to accept any or all of its provisions, according to de Boer. Here, it allows the new “accord” to move forward without requiring participating nations to commit to adopting it.

The agreement’s skeletal outline for global action, while far from ideal, creates “the ingredients of an architecture that can respond to the long-term challenges of climate change,” de Boer says. “But not in precise legal terms. And that means that we have a lot of work to do on the road to Mexico” — where the next climate change summit will take place, at the end of 2010.

Jonathan Lash, president of the Washington, D.C.–based World Resources Institute, is more reserved about the new accord’s prospects. Its significance is “likely to emerge in the next two months,” he says, as nations exhibit their willingness to sign on to the new agreement and pledge emissions cuts. Only then, he says, will it become clear “whether this is the platform for worldwide actions to address climate or a failed political exercise.”

Janet Raloff

Janet Raloff is the Editor, Digital of Science News Explores, a daily online magazine for middle school students. She started at Science News in 1977 as the environment and policy writer, specializing in toxicology. To her never-ending surprise, her daughter became a toxicologist.

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