Copenhagen – One small step for mankind

Our first true view of the planet in its entirety came during the Apollo missions, with one picture taken during the Apollo 17 mission becoming the opening slide of Al Gore’s Inconvenient Truth presentation. It was forty years ago that mankind took that giant leap and set foot on the moon.


Copenhagen presented a very different view of the world. Dogged for nearly 10 of its 11 days by political infighting, the eventual arrival of some 100 Prime Ministers and Heads of State finally forced an outcome of sorts, with many brave faces appearing in front of the media in the late hours of Friday and during the day on Saturday to attempt to explain that progress had indeed be made.

But has it? The weekend was certainly full of talking heads condemning the Accord for its lack of ambition and failure to set targets and it is true that it dodged that issue almost entirely, but I would argue that it sets the scene for sustained action in the years to come on the basis of a single principle that has delivered a great deal in the past – “Trust, but verify”. Ronald Reagan used this on many occasion, usually in relation to talks with the then Soviet Union and typically in the context of strategic arms limitation and reduction talks. The principle has not completely solved the issue of the nuclear arms build up, but it has allowed sustainable progress over more than twenty years, resulting in a significant reduction in nuclear weapon stockpiles. Importantly, the trust gap between the USA and the Soviet Union was bridged and ultimately sealed through verification.


Today, the gap to bridge on climate change exists between the United States and China and the “I won’t move until he does” syndrome is strangely reminiscent of the last years of the Cold War. The Copenhagen Accord hopefully goes some way to bridging that with the text of Paragraph 4 on targets for Annex I Parties and in Paragraph 5 on implementation of mitigation actions and verification for non-Annex I parties. The main deliverable from this text may well be a US cap-and-trade system in 2010 leading to a steady decline in US emissions over the coming decades. China of course must also clearly show that it is delivering on the carbon efficiency of its economy, as promised.

But the Accord does more than deliver a single outcome, whilst at the same time it fails to deliver on numerous important issues – presumably this is what the negotiations throughout 2010 will focus on. In terms of success I list three major achievements (there are others, but these are mine);

  • The need for developing countries to take verifiable mitigation actions, agreed up front.
  • The creation of a specific action focussed fund – the Copenhagen Green Climate Fund.
  • The identification of the need for a forestry mechanism to incentivise REDD+.

On the still to be resolved side I have another three (apart from the obvious lack of an actual global emissions pathway);

  • The Accord does not deal with the Kyoto Protocol in any way other than allowing it to persist. Whilst I have argued in previous postings that Kyoto has many strengths, the reality is that it is not a sustainable approach.
  • There is scant mention of the need for a global carbon market – not one set by the Accord itself, but one that the Accord would enable through underlying structure. This is the main strength of Kyoto, but of course the USA is not a participant.
  • There is no mention of aviation and shipping or how international bunkers should be treated. In fact by perpetuating the Kyoto Protocol, international marine and aviation emission reductions could remain limited to Annex 1 country actions.

Much remains to be done in 2010 – starting on January 31st when the Accord requires that nations submit their commitments through to 2020. The Accord as it stands today does represent a small step forward and perhaps even a giant leap for President Obama and Prime Minister Wen Jiabao, but at this early stage it still lacks the true substance necessary to deliver significant and sustainable reductions through to 2020 and beyond.