21 December 2009

A climate con: Analysis of the "Copenhagen Accord"

By David Spratt and Damien Lawson
21 December 2009
Climate Action Centre Briefing Note
''In biblical terms it looks like we are being offered 30 pieces of silver to betray our future and our people … our future is not for sale.'' Ian Fry, Tuvalu negotiator

"This is a declaration that small and poor countries don't matter, that international civil society doesn't matter, and that serious limits on carbon don't matter. The president has wrecked the UN and he's wrecked the possibility of a tough plan to control global warming. It may get Obama a reputation as a tough American leader, but it's at the expense of everything progressives have held dear. 189 countries have been left powerless, and the foxes now guard the carbon henhouse without any oversight." Bill McKibben, 350.org

"The city of Copenhagen is a crime scene tonight, with the guilty men and women fleeing to the airport. There are no targets for carbon cuts and no agreement on a legally binding treaty. It is now evident that beating global warming will require a radically different model of politics than the one on display here in Copenhagen." John Sauven, executive director of Greenpeace UK

"So that's it. The world's worst polluters – the people who are drastically altering the climate – gathered here in Copenhagen to announce they were going to carry on cooking, in defiance of all the scientific warnings. They didn't seal the deal; they sealed the coffin for the world's low-lying islands, its glaciers, its North Pole, and millions of lives. Those of us who watched this conference with open eyes aren't surprised. Every day, practical, intelligent solutions that would cut our emissions of warming gases have been offered by scientists, developing countries and protesters – and they have been systematically vetoed by the governments of North America and Europe." Johann Hari, The Independent, 19 December 2009

"I think that our prime minister has played an outstanding role ... He's been working very hard for the last few months... and he's just been fantastic all the way, he just shines at it... he's been really important through these meetings". Tim Flannery, ABC News, 19 December 2009


The Copenhagen Accord could not be further from what civil society, along with most developing countries sought to achieve at this conference. There is no Fair, Ambitious and legally-Binding deal.

Instead it is a non-legally-binding three page document, drafted by United States, China, India, Brazil, Ethiopia and South Africa that says little beyond what had been discussed at previous international meetings.

Yet US President Obama and Prime Minister Kevin Rudd both held press conferences announcing the accord before it had been completed and attempted to spin the document as a historic achievement.

But the Conference of the Parties [COP15] at Copenhagen decided only to "take note" of its existence and some countries including Tuvalu strongly repudiated the document. The COP15 agreed to continue negotiating on an extension to the Kyoto Protocol and a new agreement on "long-term cooperative action." The next full meeting is scheduled for late November in Mexico.

The specifics of the accord include:

Dangerous support for two degrees: "We agree that deep cuts in global emissions are required according to science, and ... with a view to reduce global emissions so as to hold the increase in global temperature below 2 degrees Celsius, and take action to meet this objective consistent with science and on the basis of equity." It entrenches further the dangerous goal of two degrees, with the goal of 1.5 degrees, now supported by over 100 countries, only given lip service in the final paragraph which discusses a review of the accord.

No peak emissions target: just says emissions should "peak as soon as possible".

No 2020 targets: the accord will just list voluntary targets by developed and developing countries, in Annexes to the accord. Countries are asked to provide their target by February 1. So there are no binding targets, just a totting up up of country promises and not even a target or goal for 2050. Based on current assessments of country promises the 2020 targets will head us towards 3.5-4 degrees, which would be a catastrophe.

No 2050 targets: there is no reference to any 2050 targets

Markets: statement supports using a variety of methods for pollution cuts, "including opportunities to use markets"

Adaptation and deforestation: General statements about need for adaptation, development and end to deforestation. There is no concrete deal on Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation, although this may be a good thing as the direction was towards offset loopholes.

Financing for Developing world: "commitment by developed countries is to provide new and additional resources, including forestry and investments through international institutions, approaching US $30 billion for the period 2010 – 2012." "A goal of mobilizing jointly US $100 billion dollars a year by 2020", "Funding will come from a wide variety of sources, public and private, bilateral and multilateral, including alternative sources of finance." Statements by US negotiators including Hillary Clinton implied that you needed to "associate" yourself with the accord to be eligible for funds. The funds could also explain why many countries subsequently and prior to the accord very critical have acquiesced in its creation.

The promises of finances are woefully small, much lower than the demands of developing countries and civil society groups. For example, the African countries had sought sought $400 billion in short term financing, with an immediate amount of $150 billion. In the longer term they say 5% of developed country GNP is needed (approx. $2 trillion)

Governance of finance: Creation of a Copenhagen Green Climate Fund. The accord also suggests funding can be delivered through "international institutions" possibly code for the World Bank and IMF and the promise of a new fund. Civil society had campaigned for funds to be administered by the UN.

Technology: decided to create a Technology Mechanism to accelerate technology development, but with no further details.

1.5 degrees delayed: assessment of accord by 2015 including scientific need for 1.5 degrees.

The only possible concrete achievement of the whole conference was the refusal to include carbon, capture and storage within the Clean Development Mechanism, staving off another loophole for rich countries to keep on polluting.


The United States won. Killing the Kyoto Protocol (KP) as the primary international climate policy instrument has been their intent for years, so the impasse which flared at COP15 has deep roots on the long road to Copenhagen.

In early October, US climate negotiator Jonathan Pershing announced: “We are not going to ratify the Kyoto Protocol. That is out”. The USA set out to destroy it at COP15, actively supported by the Annex 1 bloc, with Australia in the lead behind close doors. Obama’s climate position was described by Bill McKibben of 350.org as a "A lie inside a fib coated with spin".

Developing nations accused Australia of "trying to kill Kyoto". Australia appeared to be saying one thing in public and another privately, with the chief negotiator for China and the small African nations accusing Rudd of lying to the Australian people about his position on climate change.

Months ago the G-77, a loose coalition of 130 developing nations, accused the US and other developed countries of trying to "fundamentally sabotage" the Kyoto Protocol (KP). They were right in their fears. Instead of enforceable targets in an updated KP, the Copenhagen Accord (CA) contains only voluntary, non-binding, self-assessing targets which amount to "pick a figure, any figure, and do what you like with it" because you will face no penalty for blowing it.

COP15 failed because the US and the major economic powers did not want the KP renewed and the climate action movements within those nations did not have the power to stop them behaving this way. China appeared not to care too much what happened one way or the other. With central planning of their booming green/climate sector, they have no need of global agreements or carbon prices to drive their industry policy; they may even have a competitive advantage in seeing the process fail.

Climate multilateralism may already be dead. It is reported that US officials were boasting privately that they are "controlling the lane". Most developing nations are deeply unhappy that the CA is outside the climate convention framework, but they were bribed to sign on by the USA with threats that poor nations who refused would loose their share of the $100 billion that rich countries have (theoretically) pledged to compensate for climate impacts the rich countries themselves have caused. Unless every country agrees to the US terms, Secretary of State Hilary Clinton explained, "there will not be that kind of a [financial] commitment, at least from the United States."

The majority COP participants -- the world's small and poor nations -- were well supported by the activist movement in making heard their views about historic responsibility and the scientific imperative for deep emissions cuts, undertaken first and foremost by the developed world. At COP15, those poor nations embarrassed the rich, who have a powerful interest in a new voluntary international climate agreement without the need of the formal support of the developing nations, who will not accede to a suicide pact.

So the big polluters have reason to move the real decision-making out of the UN forums, and with the CA having exactly that status, the major emitters have an opportunity to keep it there (while leaning on the UNFCCC Secretariat to do the office work).

What happened at Copenhagen is probably the start of a process where the real politics of international climate policy-making becomes the perogative of the G20, and similar forums, where the big developed and emerging polluters can pretend to save the world (by talking 2-degree targets) while acting for 3-to-4-degree targets, and selling that as a success at home without those pesky developing nations causing trouble.

The suicidal assumption of the rich nations is that those with money can adapt to 3 degrees or more. This delusion is strongly built into the current debate at every level, from government and business to many of the NGOs in their advocacy and support for actions that are a long way short of what is required for 2 degrees, let alone a safe climate.

What has happened exposes the smouldering contradiction at heart of the international process: while the science leads to 0-to-1-degree targets, the large emitters refuse to commit to actions that will leads to less than 3-to-4 degrees because it challenges their "business-as-usual", corporate-dominated approach. The best commitments on the table at COP15 would produce a 3.9-degree rise by 2100.

For years, the "2-degree fudge" has been developing: countries could (and continue to) talk 2 degrees so long as they don't have to commit to enforceable actions consistent with a 2-degree target (and they haven't had to do that since 1997!). This contradiction has been obvious for years: from Stern to Garnaut, who were both explicit in saying that 3 degrees was the best that could be achieved politically, because doing more would be too economically disruptive. Even at Bali two years ago, the supposed 2 degree emissions reduction range for Annex 1 nations of 25-40% below 1990 levels by 2020 was relegated to a footnote.

Even as they propose actions which will lead to 4 degrees, they still talk 2 degrees. That is Rudd's strategy.

And we know that 2 degrees is not a safe target, but a catastrophe. The research tells us that a 2-degree warming will initiate large climate feedbacks on land and in the oceans, on sea-ice and mountain glaciers and on the tundra, taking the Earth well past significant tipping points. Likely impacts include large-scale disintegration of the Greenland and West Antarctic ice-sheets; sea-level rises; the extinction of an estimated 15 to 40 per cent of plant and animal species; dangerous ocean acidification and widespread drought, desertification and malnutrition in Africa, Australia, Mediterranean Europe, and the western USA.

As Postdam Institute Director Schellnhuber, who is a scientific advisor to the EU and to German Chancellor Angela Merkel, points out, on sea levels alone, a 2 degree rise in temperature will be catastrophic: "Two degrees ... means sea level rise of 30 to 40 meters over maybe a thousand years. Draw a line around your coast — probably not a lot would be left." Recently-published research on climate history shows that three million years ago — in the last period when carbon dioxide levels were sustained at levels close to where they are today — "there was no icecap on Antarctica and sea levels were 25 to 40 metres higher," features associated with temperatures about 3 to 6 degrees higher than today.

COP15 shows that international processes cannot produce outcomes substantially better than the sum of the national commitments of major players, and in the present case a lot worse. On the latest science and carbon budgets to 2050, none of the Annex 1 countries have committed themselves to actions consistent with even a 2-degree target, so it is unrealistic to think/hope they would do so collectively in the short term, and until the domestic balances of forces change.

It is a challenge to see how they could come back in a year and make serious, legally-binding 2-degree commitments at COP16 in November in Mexico, since on equal per capita emission rights to 2050, the carbon budget for 2 degrees demands Australia and USA go to zero emissions by 2020, Europe before 2030. By dumping the multilateral approach, they have a way of avoiding that embarrassment.

We cannot blame the COP15 process for this disaster. Australia did not go to COP15 with even a 2-degree commitment on the table, for which we share responsibility. Those NGOs who tied Australian action (and the CPRS) to a successful COP15 outcome have shot themselves (and us) in the foot. The struggle now returns to the national stage.

There are disturbing parallels in the approaches some advocacy groups took to both the Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme (CPRS) and Australia's role at COP15: deliberately and systematically avoiding the conclusions from the most recent science and instead advocating a soft, incremental, 'business-as-usual" approach to policy-making. And that's what we got from Obama. By continuing to play the game of the 2-degree fudge, the talks were structured to fail, even with a "good outcome".

Urging world leaders to get together again ASAP is pointless at present with the current framing of the debate and the balance of forces, because we will only get more of the same. The dilemma is as gross as it is simple: the G77 will never accept a 3-degree deal, Annex 1 won't commit to actions consistent with a 2-degree enforceable target, and only a a safe climate target of close to a zero-degree increase will keep the planet liveable for all people and all nations.

Here in Australia, the problem we face is obvious. In 2010, much of debate is likely to be framed between no action (federal opposition/deniers) and incremental action (Labor/some eNGOs), and it is murky because both the CPRS and the Copenhagen Accord which are indefensible will be used by the opposition to whack Labor, while the Climate Institute and its NGO associates will dutifully spend the year mine-sweeping for Rudd.

How do we define and move the debate to occupy the space between incrementalism and the large, urgent, economy-wide transformations that the science demands? We can only start by putting the science first and not negotiating with planet, recognising that politics-as-usual solutions are now dead and that only heroic, emergency action has a chance of succeeding. The time for dinky, incremental policy steps has run out: it's now all or nothing, and we must be saying so loud and clear at every opportunity and organising and gathering popular support around the only strategy that can actually succeed.

It's the 1938 moment in Britain: appeasement or urgent mobilisation, Chamberlain or Churchill.