Copenhagen Reconsidered: An Interview With a Delegate

Tom Hilde is a professor at the School of Public Policy, University of Maryland. He attended the Copenhagen Summit as a delegate with the Heinrich Böll Foundation and covered the conference for the Center for American Progress and Climate Progress. UN Dispatch caught up with him in early January.

The Copenhagen Accord was a disappointment to many who believed that the conference would result in firm commitments to emissions reductions, climate aid, and maximum temperature increases. Nevertheless, Hilde argues, real progress was made during the final days of negotiations. He believes that Copenhagen may have laid the groundwork for a binding agreement next year at COP16 in Mexico City.

UND: The media have painted the summit as a failure because the Copenhagen Accord was not unanimously adopted. You have argued that real progress was made in Copenhagen, nevertheless. Can you elaborate?

TH: The Copenhagen Accord is admittedly vague. It is nonetheless an agreement between all of the major emitters of greenhouse gases (GHGs), nations that are essential to any effective climate treaty. That in itself is crucial – this is a global problem requiring a near-global effort among parties who disagree on many issues. This is also the first time since the Rio Earth Summit in 1992 that generated the UNFCCC that the US has committed to anything concrete in the United Nations climate change regime. The countries have agreed to implement emissions reductions targets for the year 2020, which are to be listed by each party in the appendices to the Accord. The deadline for this is January 31st. Brazil paved the way by recently announcing a significant emissions reductions effort. We’ll have to wait until the end of the month to see what other countries will do.

Disappointment with the Accord stems in part from expectations that Copenhagen would yield a legally binding agreement as outlined at the Bali meeting in 2007. In the run-up to COP15, however, Danish Prime Minister Lars Rasmussen outlined a two-step process. Copenhagen would be a “political agreement.” COP16 in Mexico City in a year’s time would draft a legally binding agreement, which UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon has said he will push. This may seem like a constant deferral of real action, but it’s not that extraordinary if you look at other international environmental treaties.

Nevertheless, we shouldn’t overlook the fact that the serious emissions reductions numbers that existed in the LCA working draft text at the end of the first week of the conference had disappeared from the working draft by the following Monday. This suggests that we might have had a more concrete agreement.

UND: What does the Accord do to clear the way for a binding agreement at COP16?

TH: The Accord comprises some of the largest obstacles to an international climate agreement. There is the outline of a commitment to significant financing for developing nations, greater transparency in measuring reporting, and verifying (MRV) emissions reductions progress, maintaining the Kyoto Protocol track, and REDD, the long sought integration of forest preservation and deforestation prevention into the international climate change regime. President Obama has said that China satisfied most of the MRV transparency demands of the US. 
Further, China admitted that the country was unlikely to be a recipient of developed country funds destined for vulnerable countries for mitigation and adaptation projects. To date, China has insisted on developing nation status, a key point of contention for the U.S. given China’s burgeoning economy.
Developing countries wanted to maintain the Kyoto Protocol track rather than give it up for the single, new agreement favored by many of the high emissions countries. Kyoto has binding commitments and many were not prepared to move away from those commitments. The Accord acknowledges the continuation of the KP track, at least for now.
UND: What have the wealthy nations pledged to do to help poorer countries tackle climate change?

TH: In terms of financing, the wealthy developed nations committed to mitigation and adaptation funds to developing countries “approaching $30 billion” between 2010 and 2012, and financing of $100 billion per year by 2020. These funds will also go towards technology transfer, creating a “Technology Mechanism” for this purpose, and towards capacity building in vulnerable areas. It’s a very solid start.

UND: Many small island states and low-lying countries argued that the proposed maximum temperature increase of 2 degrees Celsius over pre-industrial levels wasn’t tough enough. How were their concerns reflected in the Copenhagen Accord?

TH: The Accord benchmarks the 2° Celsius warming limit above pre-industrial levels while putting on the table the 1.5°C limit called for by the Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS). To be discussed, of course. From the perspective particularly of the AOSIS, 2010 absolutely must result in a legally binding treaty with commitments to a warming limit well under 2 degrees.

UND: In Copenhagen, many of the world’s largest greenhouse gas emitters found common ground amongst themselves. What are the implications of this negotiating process amongst the world’s largest emitters? Do you see this kind of dialogue among the big emitters as an important trend?

TH: The agreement that resulted from the final day’s flurry of negotiations among heads of state was crafted by a reported 25 to 30 countries with President Obama taking a lead role. This group includes the countries that are essential to any mitigation scheme with a chance of resulting in serious GHG emissions reductions. Several of these main countries were either not party to the Kyoto Protocol or had no emissions reductions obligations under Kyoto. Kyoto is an important treaty in many ways, but we also have to keep our eye on the ball – stabilizing climate. Pragmatically speaking what forum would work best? The Copenhagen Accord countries are those most responsible for emissions and most able to assist poorer nations. We now have the main emitters fully involved and negotiating directly with each other. This can be viewed as an advance.
This parallel process shifts political alliances in ways that have yet to play out fully. One thing we’ve seen is a gap opening between the G-77 and the large emerging economies, China and India. As some have noted, this transforms the developed-developing country dichotomy into one between high emissions and low emissions nations. A subtle consequence is that the environment, climate, is placed back at the center of global efforts.

If the result of COP15 is a process parallel to the UNFCCC that streamlines the possibility of deep emissions reductions by the big emitters in the near future, then we could be on the verge of truly “meaningful” agreement on the emissions reductions and adaptation support that we so desperately need. In the end, when the dust settles and the smoke clears, that’s the goal.

UND: Where does the Copenhagen Accord fit in the UN’s overall climate change strategy?

TH: The million dollar question. I think a lot of people are wondering what the eventual legal status is of the Accord and how it might interact with the Framework Convention process. In the UNFCCC process, plenary consensus by the 192 UNFCCC parties is required in order to adopt a text. When four countries voted no on the Accord in the final Plenary in Copenhagen, the document was essentially set outside of the UNFCCC process, which concluded wearily that it “takes note of” the Copenhagen Accord. What this means is a big question. There could be several results, from a complicated dual process that intertwines on issues such as funding but remains separate on others, to a more robust but narrower mitigation approach taking place through the G-20 or World Economic Forum, to a completely new global climate change institution likely under the aegis of the UN. International environmental law remains a work in progress and with such a complex problem as climate change the world is really charting new territory. We have to view the Accord in this light.

UND: Any final thoughts?

TH: 2010 is possibly the most important year in the history of the climate change regime. It’s going to require a lot of hard work from all quarters to achieve either a binding UNFCCC agreement at COP16 or some other approach that commits countries to major emissions reductions and other obligations and does so now. You know, when 40,000-plus people marched in the streets of Copenhagen during the conference, the video screens placed at various points inside the Bella Center (where COP15 was held) showed the protests. People in the conference center stopped and watched. The point is that, whatever the form of expression or discussion, the effort doesn’t take place only inside the UN conference centers. Public pressure can have a real impact on how states view their interests and how they view what’s politically and economically feasible. We’ll need a public up to the task.

Get occasional updates from UN Dispatch

* indicates required

Our free service for global affairs professionals

  • Want to learn more?