Something funny happened on the way to failure today at the COP15. Against long odds – and after several hours of overtime, late night backroom dealings simultaneously brokered and hindered by President Barack Obama – the United Nation’s Framework Convention on Climate Change, acting in the name of Mother Earth, snatched a success of sorts from the jaws of defeat and adopted the “Copenhagen Accord” in the wee hours of Saturday morning. Or did they?
The two week and one extra day conference is over – it officially wrapped up with a press conference just past 2 p.m. Copenhagen time on Saturday – but what exactly was accomplished is anything but clear. This we know: a “Copenhagen Agreement” does indeed exist. Though far from the sweeping and legally binding climate change-fighting document that many had hoped for to replace the expiring Kyoto Protocol, the new accord is an undeniable step forward in the global war against carbon emissions. It pledges to keep overall global temperatures from rising more than 2 degrees Celsius, it creates a green super fund that developed nations will pay billions of dollars into (specifically, $10 billion a year through 2012 before ramping up to $100 billion by 2020) in order to help less developed countries implement climate changing measures, it makes every country explicitly explain their path to and pledge for reducing emissions no later than January 31, 2010, and it calls for a review of the whole approach by 2015 to make sure that it is actually working.
Unfortunately, it also does not do several fundamental things that COP15 activists and optimists has hoped for. It is not legally binding, it does not, at least according to science, establish a reduction target that has any hope of keeping temperature increases below the 2 degree limit, and, perhaps most importantly, it wasn’t really approved by the United Nations as a whole- it was simply “noted” in the group’s final meeting during its last meeting early Saturday. It is the latter – a fact being largely overlooked by mainstream media outlets – that looks to sink an already weak agreement in the coming weeks as countries must sign on to the document in order to make it real.
So how exactly does a “Copenhagen Accord” get created in such a way that UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon can announce to the world, “We have sealed the deal … This accord cannot be everything that everyone hoped for, but it is an essential beginning,” but critics say it is a hollow document that may not even survive the next few months and was never actually approved? Well, it goes a little something like this: After nearly two weeks of back and forth and often gridlocked negotiations by official delegates, the leaders of the world started arriving on Wednesday and, instead of just showing up to sign off on something that was already a worked-out deal as they typically do in these UN processes, they actually had to roll up their sleeves and get dirty in the nitty-gritty of climate-minded horse trading. This process was not going so hot and a totally failed COP15 seemed the likeliest of outcomes with less than 48 hours remaining. But then Friday rolled around and President Barack Obama came to town and, for good or bad, the standard brand UN process got hijacked.
After a slow start on Friday due to intense negotiations spilling over from the night before (many delegates wearily admitted to not sleeping at all on Thursday night, only to run headlong into the same problem on Friday night), things got rolling pretty fast as world leaders filed into the plenary. After an introduction from Danish Prime Minister Lars Lokke Rasmussen – who told his remarkably powerful audience, “Climate change is real, it is serious and it is urgent” – and a few more words of encouragement from United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, the action started in earnest with statements from China’s President Wen Jiabao, followed by Brazil’s number one, Luiz da Silva and then, entering the stage via a side door rather than walking up from the plenary floor like everyone else, came President Obama. As all three men spoke, the entire Bella Center was silent, hordes of journalists and government-types massing around closed-circuit flat screens to bear witness. The revolution it seems, will certainly be televised.
For his part, Jiabao defended China’s commitment to carbon cutting measures, explaining that, as a nation, they “take climate change very seriously” and they will “honor [their] word with quick action.” However, in a snub to the many developed nations, including the United States, that need to see a wrinkle in the treaty that allows for outside entities to be able to monitor whether or not countries are actually achieving their reduction pledges, Jiabao stated that China has targets but that they have not linked them anyone nor do they have any plans to do so. Obama, despite offering nothing new to the bargaining table – the United States stood firm with its controversial reduction pledges of 17 percent by 2020 and 80 percent by 2050 and its unwillingness to pay reparations for historical atmospheric polluting – told the world, “I came here today not to talk but to act … We are ready to get this done today.” He also, in a swipe at China’s unwillingness to have transparency in the mitigation process, told the plenary crowd, “Without such accountability, any agreement would be empty words on a page.”
After several more heads of state from around the world offered their two cents – including a blustery, anti-American yet oddly entertaining rant from Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez that suggested Obama might actually be the devil – the high level meeting took a break for a few hours to return to the negotiating process and perhaps grab a bite to eat.
Unfortunately, those few hours turned into many hours as the day wore on and a lunch break turned into a dinner break and a dinner break turned into an even later dinner break and then Friday turned into Saturday and then breakfast became the appropriate meal. Planned press briefings from delegates were cancelled. (One of the only press conferences that was held during the extremely protracted extra negotiating time was hosted by a few Republican members of the United States House of Representatives that was, at times, rather anti-climate change policy in tone.) Media members milled about, cell phones ringing with rumors and speculation. First came word that China and India had walked away from the negotiating table in protest of the United States, then came a leaked draft of the “Copenhagen Accord” that actually called for a legally binding international agreement to be signed off by all parties by the end of 2010, then came word that Executive Secretary Yvo de Boer had asked delegates to stay through the weekend so that differences could be massaged.
Then, just as everyone was waiting for a statement from the European Union on the latest and greatest, President Obama went live on CNN and announced that a deal had be reached and that he was flying home in order to beat the snowstorm that is currently engulfing the East Coast of the United States. The press conference – which had been rumored for hours – was actually something of a secret affair and was held outside of the COP15 process without a vast majority of the press in attendance.
And while the deal that Obama announced, calling it “historical and significant,” was quite close to what we are now calling the “Copenhagen Accord” it didn’t really have global buy-in at that point to go public the way it did. In fact, it was negotiated outside of the plenary with roughly 20 major-player countries including the U.S., China, the African nations, etc., but, when brought back to the entire 190 nation-strong body, it was attacked by dozens of smaller countries for not doing nearly enough to fight climate change. In fact, so strong was this outcry, that many thought earlier today that delegates would be going home from Copenhagen entirely empty-handed. In the end, thanks to massaging by UNFCCC shot callers like Yvo de Boer, it was decided that the “Copenhagen Accord” would be “noted” by the UN, adopted by the roughly two-dozen states that crafted it, and potentially signed by all parties involved in the months ahead. In the conference’s final press briefing, de Boer told a room of remarkably exhausted media, “We need to be clear that this is only a letter of intent and is not precise about what needs to be done in legal terms. So the challenge is now to turn what we have agreed politically in Copenhagen into something real, measurable, and verifiable.”
So there you have it from the front lines of Operation Copenhagen. Did Mother Earth win or did politics sink the hopes and dreams for a greater good once again? I honestly have no idea … At this point, the only thing on the minds of the folks who have been hunkered down at the Bella Center for this bizarre and incredibly drawn-out conclusion of the COP15 is a comfortable bed, some good food, and maybe some sunshine. Certainly some serious face-saving went down here in the past 24 hours, but whether or not planet-saving actually happened remains very much up in the air …