Common Tragedies

Thoughts on Environmental Economics

Post-holiday Post-mortem

Posted by Danny Morris on January 6, 2010

If I may, I’d like to start with a holiday-appropriate metaphor. Let’s pretend that you are convinced you’re getting a pony for Christmas. You’re absolutely sure of it; the momentum built up from previous years’ Christmas presents is too strong for this year to be anything but a pony. As the year creeps closer to Christmas morning, you see warning signs that suggest you might not get your pony this year: Mom and Dad are struggling to make ends meet, the pony market is down overall, and you live in a high-rise apartment. Regardless, you keep thinking that pony is coming because it has to. This is the year of the pony.

When Christmas comes, you rush downstairs to find…no pony. All you got was a pair of socks. They’re nice socks. Thick and warm, they’re made of Smartwool, so they’ll keep your feet dry. They will be great socks to wear the day when you eventually get a pony. Your friend, who wasn’t expecting to get anything for Christmas got the same socks and is actually pretty stoked, considering he didn’t expect to get anything. It doesn’t matter to you, though, because you had your heart set on a pony and all you got was a stupid pair of socks. Worst December ever.


When people ask me how Copenhagen turned out, I tell them it depends on what you were expecting going into it. For some, expectations for the conference were huge, a-pony-for-Christmas huge. So, it shouldn’t be a surprise that many of them view the results as a dismal failure. Negotiations on text for what would have become the Copenhagen Agreement or Protocol (or whatever official sounding name for a document you prefer) did not progress well enough over the course of the year to produce a great outcome at COP15.

The U.N. tried to lower expectations in the preceding months, and after meetings in Bangkok and Barcelona, it was pretty clear Copenhagen was not going to deliver on what many were hoping for, namely legally binding emissions. The Copenhagen Accord, the result of two weeks’ worth of brain-numbing negotiations and some impressive ad hoc diplomacy by President Obama, to turned out to be something like (to stick with the metaphor) a comfortable pair of warm socks: underwhelming and perhaps disappointing to a lot of people, but still useful, probably more helpful than we realize, and something on which we can stand on the future.

What actually came out the meeting? The Copenhagen Accord, a three-page document that reiterates the International community’s commitment to reduce emissions enough to prevent a 2 degree Celsius rise in global temperatures. It asks developed and developing countries to commit to mitigation actions under the basic structure of the Kyoto Protocol (and submit them by January 31), and establishes a framework for monitoring, reporting, and verifying nations’ emissions reductions. Along with recognizing the importance of reducing emissions for deforestation and forest degradation (REDD) and market approaches to emissions reductions, it also establishes mechanisms through which developed countries can provide financial support to developing countries for adaptation purposes.

The Accord, while not officially adopted by the Conference, will help move the process forward. Before you start making hotel reservations for Mexico City in December, let’s take a look back on some the important things we saw in Copenhagen and how they might affect the process moving forward.

Do we need to scrap the COP? – If there was one thing that was pretty clear after two weeks in the snow and fog of Copenhagen, it’s that the current structure for international negotiations is very limited in what it can achieve. It would be difficult to get 193 nations to agree on something trivial like who was the best Bond (quite obviously Connery), so getting them to agree on how best stop a global catastrophe is not going to be a walk in the park. The UNFCCC structures and processes, however, make progress painfully difficult at times.

The final result of the COP is a perfect example. After weeks of arguments, stalemates, and walkouts, it took five heads of state trapped in a room together (Obama and the leaders of Brazil, China, South Africa, and India, also called BASIC) to come up with three pages of somewhat vague agreements to be solidified at a later date. Most of the plenary was happy enough to have some kind of outcome and voted to approve the politically binding (not legally) Accord. To adopt an accord, however, requires a unanimous vote of approval from the delegates. Venezuela, Bolivia, Nicaragua, Cuba, and Sudan all felt that the Accord developed by the big kids did not include their particular interests or they were not properly consulted, and at least four of them voted against the Accord. Thus, instead of adopting it, the COP took note of the Accord, meaning that it acknowledges its existence and COP members can voluntarily comply with it, but it currently has no legal authority. None of this means that the Accord is not significant, but it shows how fragile COP proceedings can be. All it takes it one cheesed-off country (or one that is scared of economic spectres) to stand between the world and a binding international climate agreement.

So, are there alternatives? Indeed there are, and they may become more attractive as nations look to move forward from Copenhagen. It’s clear that the complexities of climate change are a bit overwhelming for the UNFCCC process. Parallel conversations need to happen to more effectively address major issues and disagreements. As I said before, the Accord was written between the US and BASIC. Those nations represent over 50% of the world’s CO2 emissions. Throw the EU, Japan, and the rest of the world’s 17 largest economies and you have over 90% of emissions represented in one room that is much smaller and more manageable than the Bella Center. Dialogues between these critical nations can help break some of the loggerheads encountered in the COP discussions. There are two possible avenues through which parallel negotiations can help:

  • Bilateral and multi-lateral talks: What if the US and China went into Copenhagen with a semi-formal agreement for technology sharing and MRV? Or if the EU worked out a deal with Brazil, South Africa, and Indonesia for funding programs for REDD and adaptation that could easily be plugged into UNFCCC institutions? Major emitters working directly with each other to smooth out differences and reach understandings before entering COP negotiations may help cut down on the static and grease the skids for legally binding outcomes that robustly address major issues.
  • Major Economies Forum: About that smaller room I mentioned earlier. The MEF can play a substantial role in advancing COP discussions if it wants to. It can provide a more intimate setting in which the US and EU can talk about monitoring emissions and trade restrictions with China and India without the chaos and pressure of the COP negotiations. The MEF also does not have entrenched categories of Annex I and Non-Annex I countries that were established by the Kyoto Protocol, so the distinctions between developed (US, EU, Japan, etc.) and emerging (BASIC and others) are more flexible and can better reflect the economic realities in each nation.

These suggestions are not advocating a total dismantling or abandonment of the UNFCCC process. Instead, these negotiations can occur outside the process, but the end results can be designed so they can easily plug into on-going COP discussions. There will likely be issues regarding equity for developing countries and many of them will probably resent not being actively involved in the process. But going outside the COP may lead to significant progress on climate change and could also spur action within the COP as well. If you don’t want to take my word for it, you can listen to Rob Stavins and Joe Romm instead.

Et tu, China? – Going into Copenhagen, it looked like the US was once again going to end up looking like the bad guy. Leave it to China to beat us at our own game. Without the US to hid behind anymore, China and India to a lesser extent, stepped forward to block huge progress. For the two weeks of the COP, China stonewalled and refused to budge on its demands for the developed world. Then in the final hours, when things got real with the various heads of state, China gave the proceedings the proverbial middle finger by sending a mid-level official to talk to the leaders of the other nations. Even after Obama managed to track down Chinese Foreign Minister Wen Jiabao and get him talking, China still vetoed the inclusion of language requiring a 50% reduction in total global emissions and 80% reduction from developed countries by 2050. Following the meeting, British Climate Secretary Ed Miliband called out China for trying to hijack the conference and being an obstacle to progress.

China’s actions, while discouraging, are not entirely surprising. It had all the leverage in this situation. Unlike other countries like Brazil and, to some extent the US, there was no domestic political pressure for the Chinese to reach a deal. The Chinese know they are key to any international agreement, and they know how big a role they play in US domestic climate debates. Why should they move when they hold all the cards? It is also pretty clear that the Chinese have no desire to be an international leader on climate change. They have announced what they consider strong reductions (45% reduction in carbon intensity by 2020) and they have been going nuts on the renewable energy front, but they don’t want to commit to anything that’s going to cut into their economic growth over the next few decades. If the US and EU are looking to form some kind of coalition of the willing for climate change, they’d be better off going after Brazil, Indonesia, and other emerging economies first. Everyone else might have to be on board first before the Chinese decide to play.

The more things change, the more they stay the same – The Obama Administration came entered 2009 looking to reclaim American leadership on climate change. The US was engaged and negotiating in good faith for the first time in eight years. But, ever the realist, Obama wouldn’t sign anything that has no chance of passing the Senate. Consequently, US negotiators would not commit to anything that was not laid out in domestic legislation. What domestic legislation am I talking about? Well, uhh…

It’s pretty simple. The world can’t take effective action without the US, and the US can’t act effectively without domestic legislation. Things cannot move forward until the Senate acts. Obama cannot make “transformative and inspiring commitments” that will not pass a filibuster vote, let alone the 67 votes needed to pass an international treaty. Copenhagen may have some effect on the Senate debate in 2010, and that debate will loom very large over future COPs just as it did in Copenhagen.

REDD in the face – If you followed our on-the-ground reporting, then you know the silver lining in all the chaos and tomfoolery was the advances in REDD and protecting tropical forests. The negotiations regarding the REDD text were consistently the most promising. While a final agreement was not reached, there were some promising developments. First, the US, Australia, Japan, Norway, Britain, and France pledged $3.5 billion for REDD programs over the next three years. Second, the Accord acknowledged how important REDD is to achieving robust emissions reductions and discussions are going to continue into the future. There are still some issues to iron out, like national vs. sub-national monitoring systems, but saving the forests was one of the rare things on which almost everyone could agree. Insert tree-hugging hippie joke here.

Copenhagen was a disappointment in a lot of ways, and a disaster in some ways (I’m not going to talk about logistical problems here), but it had real outcomes that matter. It is not the solution many were hoping for, and the world is currently a long way away from keeping temperature rises from 2 degrees Celsius. But things are moving forward. Think of Copenhagen as a baby step, with a really nice wool sock.

3 Responses to “Post-holiday Post-mortem”

  1. Carlos Ferreira said

    Even the REDD and offset mechanism discussions weren’t that successful. Everyone did agree that saving the forests was nice and good, but frameworks keep on lacking.

  2. Danny Morris said


    REDD discussions were consistently the most encouraging front throughout the entire negotiations. The lack of official frameworks doesn’t mean that progress wasn’t made. Since the Accord wasn’t adopted, there wasn’t any progress for legal agreements in the COP, so REDD is far from alone in that respect. The $3.5 billion is a big deal and I’ll bet the REDD frameworks are one of the first things settled as we move toward Mexico City.

  3. Carlos Ferreira said

    I agree, Danny. I suppose I was expecting a REDD pony, to be honest.

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