Climate deal: ‘An essential beginning’ but hard work lies ahead

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It was not the agreement that anyone had wanted. But during the night of 18–19 December — as nearly two weeks of contentious talks tottered on the brink of collapse — a limited deal was finally brokered among a couple dozen leaders, out of the nearly 120 governments that sent delegations to the United Nations climate change conference.

At the end of an often chaotic and messy negotiating process, instead of an outright approval for which a consensus was needed, delegations officially agreed to “take note” of the Copenhagen Accord. The major industrialized powers, as well as China, Africa, the least developed countries and numerous others, supported it, some grudgingly and many with reservations.

“We wanted a complete, legally binding agreement,” said South African President Jacob Zuma, expressing the views of many delegates, “but accept the progress that has been made.” UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon acknowledged that “the Copenhagen Accord may not be everything that everyone hoped for.” However, he emphasized, “it is a beginning — an essential beginning.”

Limiting greenhouse emissions

Months before the Copenhagen meeting, many governments and environmental activists had aimed for a new international agreement to succeed the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, which expires in 2012. That protocol obligates participating industrialized countries to significantly reduce their emissions of the polluting “greenhouse” gases that contribute to global warming. Since the US is not part of the Kyoto Protocol, and China and other “emerging economies” that also produce large amounts of such gases were not required to reduce their emissions, many had hoped to bring them into a new and legally-binding accord, with specific targets for drastic emissions cuts.

But as the meeting approached, it became increasingly clear that there was not enough support for such an agreement. The Copenhagen Accord instead expressed a “strong political will” to combat climate change, through “deep cuts in global emissions” that would hold the increase in the average global temperature below 2 degrees Celsius, compared with its pre-industrial level (it is now at about 1 degree). Industrialized and developing countries were encouraged, individually, to spell out what emissions cuts and other efforts they would make to contribute to that goal.

Besides noting the absence of precise, mandatory targets, a number of critics of the accord also questioned the 2-degree limit. Delegates from small island developing states pressed for a limit of 1.5 degrees, arguing that anything more would permit an alarming rise in sea levels and thereby threaten their very survival. The Copenhagen Accord acknowledges that a 2-degree limit may not be sufficient, and calls for a reassessment of the target by 2015.

Whatever the agreement’s shortcomings, many delegates saw the willingness of the US, China and other countries to be part of the Copenhagen Accord as a step forward.

Financial promises

Africa and other developing countries have long argued that since the major industrialized nations contribute the most to global warming, they should shoulder the costs. Poor countries expect major financial assistance, both to help them adapt to the effects of climate change and to enable them to pursue economic development in ways that do not despoil the environment.

The Copenhagen Accord accepts that principle. The developed countries commit themselves to provide developing countries with “new and additional resources” of up to $30 bn over the three years of 2010–12. The least developed countries, small island developing states and Africa would be given priority in allocations of funds earmarked for “adaptation.”

The accord established a goal of increasing financing to some $100 bn annually by 2020, provided that developing countries take their own actions to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and ensure the transparent use of external funding.

Some delegates from developing countries wanted considerably higher amounts. The African Union had estimated earlier in the year that all developing countries would need $67 bn annually by 2020 to adapt to the effects of climate change, plus an additional $200 bn a year to help them reduce greenhouse emissions, convert to cleaner energy sources and preserve their forests.

Yet at the conference Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles, representing the African Union, cited only the lower figures that were ultimately included in the accord. He recognized that his proposal would disappoint some Africans, but argued that it was better to scale back Africa’s expectations “in return for more reliable funding and a seat at the table in the management of such a fund”.

But for many delegates, the reliability of such funds remains in doubt. President Blaise Compaoré of Burkina Faso wanted some assurance that they would not be diverted from existing aid budgets, while others pointed to the donor countries’ long record of unmet promises.

Mr. Ernest Harsch writes for United Nations Africa Renewal magazine.

Africa Renewal  Africa Renewal magazine, published by the United Nations, examines Africa's development, achievements and challenges. It provides expert analysis and on-the-spot reporting to show how policies affect Africa's people.
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