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Dan Lashof’s Blog

Copenhagen Accord: Breakdown or Breakthrough?

Dan Lashof

Posted December 19, 2009

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The Conference of Parties formally took note of the Copenhagen Accord this morning after an emotional all night debate, during which many countries expressed deep disappointment with the outcome, but a determination to use it as a stepping stone to more rigorous action. This procedure allowed the Accord to be formally acknowledged by consensus, despite the objections of Venezuela, Sudan, Cuba, Nicaragua and Bolivia. All other countries will be listed as supporters under the title of the Accord.

Before leaving Copenhagen after 13 hours of direct diplomacy to secure the deal, President Obama called it “a meaningful and unprecedented breakthrough.” This is the first time that heads of state have ever grappled face-to-face with climate change. Perhaps the relationships they developed during the hours of negotiations are as important as the accord itself in creating a foundation for real inter-governmental cooperation in confronting the climate change crisis. After all, President Obama was the first to acknowledge that the agreement reached here is only a start, and not strong enough to prevent dangerous global warming—a sentiment that was certainly echoed and amplified by many other delegates and observers.

The Accord is a breakthrough because, for the first time, all major economies, including China, India, and Brazil, as well as the United States, Russia, Japan and the EU, have made commitments to curb global warming pollution and report on their actions and emissions in a transparent fashion, subject to “international consultations and analysis.” The importance of this should not be underestimated. Until yesterday, international climate agreements had maintained a stark contrast between “developed” and “developing” countries. Developed countries are required to report annually on their emissions and have those reports reviewed by international teams of experts, while developing countries were to report on their emissions and actions at their discretion. Appropriate differentiation will remain, but the Copenhagen Accord requires developing country reports every two years and international review. This provides critical credibility to the commitments to curb emissions made by China, India, Brazil, South Africa, Korea, Mexico and others.

At the same time, the Copenhagen Accord is clearly a work in progress. As President Obama said yesterday, what matters is action, not talk. And by far the most important way to drive action is to enact a law in the United States that establishes comprehensive regulations of global warming pollution. As I said yesterday, not having a law in hand is the biggest reason that this conference was so difficult. Activists who poured their heart and soul into organizing for a fair, ambitious, and binding agreement in Copenhagen are deeply disappointed and many are angry at President Obama. The disappointment is understandable, but I think the anger is fundamentally misplaced and hope that energy will be turned toward rounding up the votes we need in the U.S. Senate.

The atmosphere at the end of the Copenhagen meeting is very different than it was when the Kyoto Protocol was adopted twelve years ago. I was in the room then and the excitement was palpable, despite the exhaustion of the delegates and observers. I have not had access to the Bella Conference Center for the last few days (although my colleagues, David Doniger and Jake Schmidt were able to get in and stayed there all night) so I have had much more sleep and yet feel much less excited. But the reality is that there was no political support for the Kyoto Protocol in Congress and the Clinton Administration started backing away from it as soon as they got home. I am convinced that this time is different. The House has passed a comprehensive clean energy and climate protection bill that will curb carbon pollution, create jobs, and make America stronger and more secure. President Obama showed his personal commitment to addressing global warming by coming here and closing the deal. His commitment and persuasive skill will be tested in the Senate, but I am convinced that if the energy of concerned citizens demonstrated in Copenhagen turns now toward moving wavering Senators we will succeed at turning words into actions.

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Alan SalyDec 19 2009 11:18 AM

Mr. Lashof, it seems that you are rushing to declare COP15 a success, even though the evidence is to the contrary. On balance, it is a sellout. By throwing everything back to the U.S. Senate, you fall prey to the unfortunate trend among activists of finding victory in defeat and vowing to fight another day. The 2-degree target is now history -- it will be surpassed. The NRDC should declare Copenhagen a failure, come out strongly against "clean coal," and prepare a better political posture than begging Senators for their votes. More compromise awaits while the earth gets warmer.

Alan Saly
NRDC Member
Brooklyn, New York

Jan Lars MuellerDec 19 2009 12:49 PM

Mr. Saly, point taken, we all need to be very careful about pronouncing "victory" when the results actually fall short, as Copenhagen accord does, lest we take the pressure off those who need to dig deeper.

But declaring "failure" and "sellout" is not honest, accurate, or constructive either. What else is there to do but be upfront about what was and was not achieved and, indeed, press on to fight another day. This issue will require sustained, long-term effort no matter how strong a U.S. law or international treaty we achieve.

Ole QuistgaardDec 19 2009 05:30 PM

We are of course all, sad of the litle outcome in the Copenhagen accord. But maybe we did gain something anyway:

Today there is a universal understanding that we have a problem and something must be done. I feel that that understanding is much clearer now than just 14 days ago. Now after all the leaders of the world sat together recognizing the problem, and all showing that they wanted to do something about it. (Did they ever do that before?)

COP15 did not reach agreement of what to be done. OK, but were all options really on the table?

If we took the trillions that were discussed to be given to developing countries, and invested in new energy forms, such as third generation bio power, inexpensive solar cells and fusion power, maybe we could get a long lasting solution to the problem.

I live in Copenhagen, but I did not see one billboard mentioning fusion power at all.

Fusion power is "clean" nuclear energy. Very litle waste, basically unlimted fuel supplies, and very low nuclear risk hazard. The technology is not there but it is very close. Fusion power breakeven is achieved in this decade.

By the way there was a common understanding that more money has to be transferred to the third world.

Let's imagine that we could put up a multi GW fusion power plant somwere on the noth african coastline pumping a river of desalinated water into Sahara sometimes in the 2020-ies. OK we first have to develop the technology, but....(it took only 7 years from the decision to put a man on the moon).

And it would certainly help the genoside threatned people in Dafur a lot more than putting more money into the pocket of the Karthom government.

Dan LashofDec 20 2009 08:41 AM

Thanks for your comments and for supporting NRDC. I hope you will continue to do so despite any disagreement you may have with our strategy for solving global warming.

Please note that I did not declare Copenhagen a success, but I don't think it was a failure either. I called it a work in progress, which I think is accurate.

Most important, we all need to stay focused on the things that actually reduce global warming pollution: decisions by businesses and individuals about how we produce and use energy, how we produce and consume food, and whether to protect or clear forests.

The Copenhagen Accord does set a goal of limiting global warming to no more than 2 degrees C, but it is certainly not adequate to achieve that goal. No piece of paper ever could be. Actions are needed for that.

National legislation to cap and reduce global warming pollution is not the only was to drive action in the United States and won't be sufficient by itself. But I remain convinced that our chances of success will be much greater with comprehensive legislation than without it, which is why I will focus my efforts on getting a good bill through the U.S. Senate when I get back from Copenhagen.

Conrad JonesDec 22 2009 10:37 AM

I understand your desire to convince the world that forward motion is still happening, but NRDC loses credibility in trying to spin the disaster that was Copenhagen as a victory. It was much less than expected and will likely empowere Republican who will feel that they suceeded in stopping a meaninful accord.

Worse though, is your call to move on to passing the Senate climate bill. That bill is one of the prime factors undermining Copenhagen. It (and the House counter part) were so weak that few countries in Cop were willing to go along. What is the point of telling your members yor turn the Cop-killing senate bill into law?

Please NRDC, read some of your own history, show some leadership and guts. You used to be activists who pushed social change, now you use the word "activist" patronizingly in your blogs to mean the well-meaning but unsophisticated masses. Here is what is really unsophisticated: inability to acknowledge failure and thinking you can win by endorsing totally inadequate legislation.

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