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Copenhagen Deadline Comes And Goes. Now What?

It didn't get a lot of fanfare, but January 31 was the deadline under the Copenhagen accord for the world's countries to formally submit their plans for reducing greenhouse-gas emissions and helping to address climate change. So what happened? Well, the deadline came and went, and the vast majority of nations (roughly 130) didn't submit anything at all. On the upside, though, the handful of countries that actually pump out most of the world's carbon-dioxide did submit plans. Here were the major pledges for cutting emissions:

-- United States: 17 percent below 2005 levels by 2020 (i.e., 4 percent below 1990 levels—and this is pending legislation)
-- European Union: at least 20 percent below 1990 levels by 2020 (they were promising to go to 30 if other countries did more, but that's looking unlikely)
-- Canada: 17 percent below 2005 levels by 2020 (i.e. a 2.5 percent rise from 1990 levels)
-- Japan: 25 percent below 1990 levels by 2020
-- Brazil: 39 percent below 1990 levels by 2020 (mostly by preventing deforestation)
-- China: reduce carbon intensity by at least 40 percent below 2005 levels by 2020
-- India: reduce carbon intensity by at least 20 percent below 2005 levels by 2020
-- New Zealand: at least 10 percent below 1990 levels by 2020
-- Australia: at least 3 percent below 1990 levels and as much as 23 percent below them (depending on what other countries do)
-- Maldives: carbon-neutral by 2020

These are all tangible steps, but still minor ones. Add up the promises, and it's not enough to avert serious warming: Ecofys, a consulting firm, estimates that if all those countries actually met to their targets, global temperatures would be on course to rise 3.5°C (6.3°F) above pre-industrial levels. The agreed-upon goal, recall, was 2°C. What's more, even these goals aren't guaranteed: The U.S. pledge, for instance, would depend on Congress passing legislation that looks like the House climate/energy bill, and the prospects in the Senate are growing dim.

So where does that leave things? Dave Roberts has a fantastic post at Grist on the state of play. The most notable part is that the Copenhagen framework moves away from the old notion of a global treaty with legally binding targets. Instead, under the current Copenhagen accord, countries are voluntarily setting their own national targets (usually based on domestic legislation). In some ways, this is a more realistic approach—plenty of countries had obligations to cut emissions under the Kyoto Protocol, but they never actually followed through (the EU was a big exception).

On the other hand, without a legally binding treaty, it's unclear whether there will be any outside pressure on countries if they're not doing enough to tackle the problem. Experts have argued, for instance, that China's carbon-intensity goals are barely an improvement on business-as-usual. Same goes for India. And in the United States, Congress could end up passing even weaker targets than Obama's promised—or no targets at all. What, if anything, could push these countries to go further? Roberts sees two possible incentives for countries: "a) clean energy becomes an economic prize, and b) the impacts of climate change threaten to become crippling." I'd add a third—countries could find that cutting carbon pollution turns out to be easier and cheaper than expected (that's a big reason why environmental legislation has historically started off weak and then been strengthened over time). But that about sums it up.

(Flickr photo credit: metz79)