Common Tragedies

Thoughts on Environmental Economics

Guilty by voluntary association

Posted by Andrew Stevenson on January 28, 2010

Cross-posted from RFF’s incredibly awesome climate policy blog Weathervane.

The first deliverable in the Copenhagen Accord was a pledge by all nations to submit their planned mitigation actions or targets to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) secretariat by January 31, 2010. Since nations “took note” of the Accord instead of adopting it, in the weeks after Copenhagen there was uncertainty about whether some countries would ignore this quasi-commitment. Even UNFCCC head honcho Yvo de Boer was concerned, calling the deadline “soft” while imploring nations to “associate” themselves with the Accord. “Association” was likely understood to mean acknowledgement of some formal status for the Accord within the UNFCCC, giving the secretariat greater authority to convene official negotiating sessions around the document.

In any case, from the perspective of developed nations the central task for 2010 was to merge any new discussions around the Copenhagen Accord with the Kyoto Protocol (KP) and long-term cooperative action (LCA) negotiating tracks that were created by the Bali Action Plan in 2007 and intended to be the fundamental basis for negotiating an agreement in Copenhagen. While countries made progress on these tracks in Copenhagen—including things like forestry and adaptation—when they “took note” of the Accord on the last night of COP-15 they essentially left all that progress on the table to be taken up in 2010. Many developing countries wanted, and still want, to just pick up where they left off on these texts and pretend the Accord never happened.

If all key countries “associated” themselves with the Accord, one theory was that this would streamline the process of merging the Accord with KP and LCA by giving it at least some level of official status. For many developed countries, it was hoped that this would lead to the dissolution of these tracks and the use of the Accord as the new basis for negotiating a comprehensive global agreement. The fundamental developed-developing distinction of Kyoto would fall by the wayside, and the new starting point could eventually lead to the only kind of agreement the United States might be able to ratify. This is why some international policy wonks in the United States were so excited about Copenhagen.

However, one assumption implicit in this was that submission of targets or actions would necessarily go hand-in-hand with association, and vice versa. If a country wanted to “associate” itself with the Accord, it would entail accepting the Accord’s obligations, including the submission of a target. If a country submitted a target that would also imply acceptance of the Accord’s obligations and indicate that a country wished to be “associated” with the Accord going forward. In turn, it was thought that a country could not “associate” itself with the Accord without acknowledging it had some kind of official status.

As expected, by Monday nearly all developed countries, including the United States, will have both submitted their target and expressed their willingness to be associated with the Accord. Many of these targets are on the lower end of what was conditionally proposed (Europe 20 percent instead of 30 percent below 1990 levels by 2020, Australia 5 percent below 2000 levels by 2020) and come with numerous strings attached (Japan 25 percent below 1990 levels by 2020 with a global agreement), but they are on the table and show a commitment both to the Accord’s obligations and using it as a primary focus of negotiations in 2010.

However, a recent joint statement from the BASIC countries (Brazil, China, India and South Africa) presents a more complicated situation, and reveals that the association-with-action-implies-acceptance-of-some-official-status assumption is highly suspect, if not outright false. It appears that these countries are willing to submit their actions, as pledged in the Accord, but do not view this submission as implying any “association”—at least in the sense likely envisioned by the UN secretariat and most developed countries. Even if China, India, Brazil and South Africa technically “associate”, they do not see this as creating any obligations under the UNFCCC (such as the submission of targets, which they claim to do voluntarily), and certainly not as giving the Accord legitimacy as a negotiating text. It seems that in their view, they made a political pledge in Copenhagen to submit their actions—which just happened to be included in the Accord—and they will do so in order to uphold that pledge, but they will not do so because it is an obligation created by the Accord.

While this does not mean the Accord is “dead”, it does have implications for the negotiating process in 2010. For starters, it would be a heck of a lot easier to negotiate a binding agreement in Cancun, at least one that would be preferable to the United States, if all countries formally “associated” themselves and understood that “association” to create legitimacy and obligations. The reality of the BASIC position makes Mexico’s already delicate task—massaging the two-track UNFCCC process and Copenhagen Accord process together in a way that satisfies 190+ countries—that much more difficult. As a positive sign, they appear to understand the difficulty of this task and be up to taking it on. It will require delicate diplomacy that escaped the Danes, but the fact that Mexico is a “developing” country and OECD member could give it the needed climate cred to make it happen.

Observing this dance will require tracking both any “friends of the Accord” processes that occur outside or on the sidelines of the UNFCCC (and seeing who shows up, what they say and how), and tracking how key elements of the Accord are discreetly worked into the two official tracks. If anything, it will be fascinating to watch.

4 Responses to “Guilty by voluntary association”

  1. reds said

    nice article

  2. Good article, it is indeed clear that there are practical issues in implementing the Copenhagen Accord related to UNFCCC. Though there is joint statement by BASIC countries such as India, Brazil, South Africa and China, practical implementation is an issue.

  3. idol said

    Looks like this site is losing momentum, just like, well, you know….

  4. Democracy Center said

    Here at the Democracy Center we are working hard to draw attention to the impact of climate change already happening in some of the most vulnerable parts of the world. We’ve recently produced:

    A a video on Bolivia’s melting glaciers (

    A new article in Yes! Magazine (

    We are also getting ready to report on the upcoming World People’s Conference on Climate Change and the Rights of Mother Earth (, an alternative response to failures of Copenhagen.

    Keep your eyes out for our coverage!

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