30 January, 2010

The Copenhagen Accord lives

Sergio Abranches

While the U.S. and the European Union embraced the Copenhagen Accord with no reserves, the BASIC countries said the Accord is not legal. The only legal instrument they accept is the Kyoto Protocol. Does it really matter if they adhere and record their quantitative voluntary actions? Is this an important divide between developed and emerging powers?

I feel increasingly inclined to answer no to both questions.

Let’s be practical. The Kyoto Protocol is legal, but its targets were set so low that they became utterly ineffective. The U.S. didn’t ratify the Protocol. The BASIC countries (Brazil, South Africa, India and China) are “non-Annex I” parties, meaning they have no binding obligations.

As a result, the Protocol has a very partial coverage of total GHG emissions. Being legally binding made almost no difference to the trajectory of emissions or to the behavior of the Parties to the Protocol. To the BASIC countries, the legal character of the Kyoto Protocol serves only to make it sure they have no legal obligations, because they do not belong to the Annex I. The U.S. will never ratify it. There has been little progress in the negotiations regarding its Phase 2. The Post 2012 Kyoto Protocol will not have China, Brazil and India among Annex I countries, and without the U.S. as well, it will remain a poor instrument to tackle the global climate change threat.

Now, let’s look at the Copenhagen Accord. With the adhesion of the U.S., the European Union, Canada, Australia, China, India, Brazil, and South Africa it covers most of the global GHG emissions. Add Japan and Russia, and it reaches the level of emissions that, if appropriately regulated, can do the job of preventing a climactic cataclysm. This select group of countries represent most of global political, economic, and scientific power as well.

The Accord is not legal indeed. It is political. With all these countries saying they’re politically committed to its terms, and publicly recording their voluntary actions to reduce emissions, it, nevertheless, gets substance and relevance. All of them are recording quantitative goals. To call them binding targets or voluntary actions seems so far a matter of lesser importance. Just look at what happened to Kyoto’s binding targets. To me it is more important that, for the first time, the U.S., China, Brazil, and India are making political commitments for emissions reductions. And they come with a number attached.

These targets still fall short of responding to scientific requirements. But the Accord also provides for performance reviews to conform actions to the requirement of maintaing global warming near 2oC. This is already more than the Kyoto Protocol has accomplished. It has also resolved some decade long deadlocks on finance and technology transfer.

What the Copenhagen Accord lacks, the Kyoto Protocol also doesn’t have: a working enforcement mechanism. We are far from having an adequate framework for global climate governance. And we will have to eventually arrive at one.

The Copenhagen Accord can move forward along two different tracks. The first one, would be to enter the diplomatic track of the Climate Convention. Its terms and targets/actions would have to be transcribed into an official document tabled by the Working Group on the Climate Convention (AWG-LCA) to be unanimously approved by the plenary of 192 countries, hopefully during COP16, in Cancun, Mexico.

The alternative route would be to keep going on its own. The countries that have adhered to the Accord would continue to negotiate an appropriate and acceptable legal statute. Negotiations should also address the governance regime that would make this statute enforceable and policy-relevant.

The first road seems to be the harder one. The history of the Climate Convention has showed how difficult it is to reach consensus within such a large and heterogeneous group of countries.

The Copenhagen Accord has gained some new substance with the adhesion of the “carbon powers” of the world. A smaller group of countries, even if a polarized one, is more likely to reach a meaningful agreement than a large group of more than 100 nations with disparate interests.

The convention plenary is so divided that it is even hard to form polarized coalitions within it. What we’ve seen in Copenhagen was the fractionalization of previous clusters of countries, as the likelihood of an agreement increased. That’s how the G77 and China broke down, the BASIC, the AOSIS, and the African block replacing it. These three blocks have proved to be far more politically productive than the G77.

That the Accord is still alive, in spite of the frustrations it has raised at the dismal closing of COP15, seems a good omen. A global climate change deal is still possible.

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