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Did Obama Really Sidestep The U.N. At Copenhagen?

Analysts are still mulling over the Copenhagen accord, trying to figure out what it means for the fate of global climate politics. The humdrum answer is that it all depends—we'll have to see how individual nations tackle their CO2 emissions in the months and years ahead, and then watch how the next round of international talks shake out. But if it's specifics you want, check out Harvard economist Robert Stavin's analysis. First, a recap of the negotiations that led to the deal:

From all reports, the talks were completely deadlocked when U.S. President Barack Obama arrived on the scene at 8:00 am on Friday, December 18th, the scheduled final day of the conference. Through a series of bilateral and eventually multilateral meetings of President Obama with Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao, Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, and South African President Jacob Zuma, a document gradually emerged which was to become the Copenhagen Accord.

It is virtually unprecedented in international negotiations for heads of government (or heads of state) to be directly engaged in, let alone lead, negotiations, but that is what transpired in Copenhagen. Although the outcome is less than many people had hoped for, and is less than some people may have expected when the Copenhagen conference commenced, it is surely better—much better—than what most people anticipated just three days earlier, when the talks were hopelessly deadlocked.

Just to add to this, one of the big criticisms of Obama's last-minute push was that he thumbed his nose at the regular U.N. process and cut some sort of side deal with the big developing-country emitters (India, Brazil, China, and South Africa). This complaint seems quite overblown. These countries, note, were all left out of the Kyoto Protocol and absolutely have to be part of a new climate deal if we want any hope of curbing global emissions. And there was a reason the U.S. delegation decided to appeal to them directly—as Dave Roberts reports, China was hurling a toolbox full of wrenches into the talks up to that point.

Did this backroom dealing cause problems? It doesn't seem so. Europe felt slighted, sure, but they came around. The only objectors, at last, were Sudan, Cuba, Venezuela, Bolivia, and Nicaragua—countries that were tumbling over themselves to denounce the United States. (The delegation from Sudan, not exactly a beacon of moral authority, was particularly obnoxious, comparing the accord to the Holocaust.) This mainly suggests that the U.N. process, in which any climate treaty needs unanimous consent from all 193 countries, may just be too unwieldy to thrash out a workable plan.

But in the end, even the small island nations, who have the most to lose from a warmer planet, agreed that the Copenhagen accord was a step in the right direction, if still inadequate. (Countries like the Maldives were disappointed that the deal was so vague—and that it only aims for a 2°C limit on temperature increases, rather than the 1.5°C likely necessary to avoid steep sea-level rises—but still said they felt they'd been given a fair hearing.) Anyway, here's Stavins take on the substance:

I would prefer to amend that characterization to call the Accord a potentially very important third step. Step One was the U.N. Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro in 1992, which produced the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change. Step Two was the Kyoto Protocol, signed in Japan in 1997. But what many policy wonks (myself included), not to mention the United States Senate, immediately recognized was the absence from the Kyoto Protocol of involvement in truly meaningful ways of the key, rapidly-growing developing countries, a small set of important nations that are now better termed “emerging economies”—China, India, Brazil, South Africa, Mexico, and Korea. This was a primary deficiency of Step Two, as well as the lack of serious attention to the long-term path of emissions (as opposed to the five-year time horizon of Kyoto).

The Copenhagen Accord establishes a framework for addressing both deficiencies… expanding the coalition of the willing and extending the time-frame of action. With this step, all of the seventeen countries of the Major Economies Forum—which together account for some 90% of global emissions—are agreeing to participate. Nevertheless, let’s be honest about the difference between the outcome of the 1997 negotiations in Kyoto (a detailed 20-page legal document, the Kyoto Protocol) and the outcome of the 2009 negotiations in Copenhagen (a general 3-page political statement, the Copenhagen Accord). Still, it remains true that the COP-15 negotiations were “saved from utter collapse” by the creation and acceptance of the Copenhagen Accord.

Still a lot of "if"s in there. One of the biggest questions now is whether this pseudo-accord will make it any easier for the United States to pass its own carbon legislation—that would really be the next step in nudging the world toward a robust climate pact. Dan Weiss has an optimistic take, noting that China and India have now committed to restraining their own greenhouse-gas emissions, as many swing Democrats wanted, and the accord sketches out a path to verifying these actions (this is now called "international consultations and analysis" rather than the old "measuring, reporting, and verification"—a last-minute phrase swap that apparently mollified China). And now that the EPA's ready to start regulating carbon on its own, that ups the pressure, too. Still, as we've seen this week with health care, 60 votes in the Senate is a real slog...

Follow Bradford Plumer on Twitter: @bradplumer