What Happened (and Why): An Assessment of the Cancun Agreements

The international climate negotiations in Cancun, Mexico, have concluded, and despite the gloom-and-doom predictions that dominated the weeks and months leading up to Cancun, the Sixteenth Conference of the Parties (COP-16) of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) must be judged a success.  It represents a set of modest steps forward.  Nothing more should be expected from this process.

As I said in my November 19th essay – Defining Success for Climate Negotiations in Cancun – the key challenge was to continue the process of constructing a sound foundation for meaningful, long-term global action (not necessarily some notion of immediate, highly-visible triumph).  This was accomplished in Cancun.

The Cancun Agreements – as the two key documents (“Outcome of the AWG-LCA” and “Outcome of the AWG-KP”) are called – do just what was needed, namely build on the structure of the Copenhagen Accord with a balanced package that takes meaningful steps toward implementing the key elements of the Accord.  The delegates in Cancun succeeded in writing and adopting an agreement that assembles pledges of greenhouse gas (GHG) cuts by all of the world’s major economies, launches a fund to help the most vulnerable countries, and avoids some political landmines that could have blown up the talks, namely decisions on the (highly uncertain) future of the Kyoto Protocol.

I begin by assessing the key elements of the Cancun Agreements.  Then I examine whether the incremental steps forward represented by the Agreements should really be characterized as a success.  And finally I ask why the negotiations in Cancun led to the outcome they did.

Assessing the Key Elements of the Cancun Agreements

First, the Cancun Agreements provide emission mitigation targets and actions (submitted under the Copenhagen Accord) for approximately 80 countries – including, importantly, all of the major economies. In this way, the Agreements codify pledges by the world’s largest emitters – including China, the United States, the European Union, India, and Brazil – to various targets and actions to reduce emissions by 2020.  The distinction between Annex I and non-Annex I countries is blurred even more in the Cancun Agreements than it was in the Copenhagen Accord – another step in the right direction!

Also, for the first time, countries agreed – under an official UN agreement – to keep temperature increases below a global average of 2 degrees Celsius.  It brings these aspirations, as well as the emission pledges of individual countries, into the formal UN process for the first time, essentially by adopting the Copenhagen Accord one year after it was “noted” at COP-15.  (There’s also an abundance of politically-correct and in some cases downright silly window dressing in the Cancun Agreements, including repetitive references to various interpretations of the UNFCCC’s principle of “common but differentiated responsibilities,” as well as some discussion of examining a 1.5 C target.)

However, despite even the 2 degree (450 ppm concentration) aspirational target, the Agreements are no more stringent that the collection of submissions made under last year’s Copenhagen Accord.  But, as Michael Levi (Council on Foreign Relations) has pointed out, the Cancun Agreement “should be applauded not because it solves everything, but because it chooses not to.” As my colleagues and I have repeatedly emphasized in our work within the Harvard Project on Climate Agreements, many of the most important initiatives for addressing climate change will occur outside of the United Nations process (despite the centrality of that process).

Second, the Agreements elaborate on the mechanisms for monitoring and verification that were laid out in last year’s Accord.  Importantly, these now include “international consultation and analysis” of developing country mitigation actions.  Countries will report their GHG inventories to an independent panel of experts, which will monitor and verify reports of emissions cuts and actions.

Third, the Agreements establish a so-called Green Climate Fund to deliver financing for mitigation and adaptation. Importantly, the Agreements name the World Bank as the interim trustee of the Fund, despite objections from many developing countries, and create an oversight board, half of which consists of donor nation representatives.  In addition, the Agreements establish a goal by developed countries to mobilize $100 billion annually by 2020 to support mitigation and adaptation in developing countries, a funding target which would include public and private resources (that is, carbon markets and private finance), bilateral and multilateral flows, as well as the Green Climate Fund.

Whether the resources ever grow to the size laid out in Copenhagen and Cancun will depend upon the individual actions of the wealthy nations of the world.  However, it’s interesting that the section in the Cancun Agreements on adaptation comes before the section on mitigation.  Things have come a long way since the days when economists were virtually alone in calling for attention to adaptation (along with mitigation).  I recall when economists were therefore accused of throwing in the towel, and not caring about the environment!

Fourth, the Agreements advance initiatives on tropical forest protection (or, in UN parlance, Reduced Deforestation and Forest Degradation, or REDD+), by taking the next steps toward establishing a program in which the wealthy countries can help prevent deforestation in poor countries, possibly working through market mechanisms (despite exhortations from Bolivia and other leftist and left-leaning countries to keep the reach of “global capitalism” out of the policy mix).

Fifth, the Cancun Agreements establish a structure to assess the needs and policies for the transfer to developing countries of technologies for clean energy and adaptation to climate change, and a – as yet undefined – Climate Technology Center and Network to construct a global network to match technology suppliers with technology needs.

In addition, the Agreements endorse an ongoing role for the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) and other “market-based mechanisms;” indicate that carbon capture and storage (CCS) projects should be eligible for carbon credits in the CDM; and offer some special recognition of the situations of the Central and Eastern European countries (previously known in UN parlance as “parties undergoing transition to a market economy”) and Turkey, all of which are Annex I countries under the Kyoto Protocol, but decidedly poorer than the other members of that group of industrialized nations.

That’s the 32-page Cancun Agreements in a nutshell.  As a member of one of the leading national delegations said to me in Cancun a few hours after the talks had concluded, “It’s incremental progress, but progress nonetheless.”

Are Such Incremental Steps Really a Success?

Recall from my November 19th essay that the best goal for the Cancun climate talks was to make real progress on a sound foundation for meaningful, long-term global action.  I said that because of some fundamental scientific and economic realities, which I will not repeat here.  In that previous essay, I also described “What Would Constitute Real Progress in Cancun” A quick comparison of my criteria from November 19th and the Cancun Agreements of December 11th tells me that the outcome of Cancun should be judged a success.

My first criterion of success was that the UNFCCC should embrace the parallel processes that are carrying out multilateral discussions on climate change policy:  the Major Economies Forum or MEF (a multilateral venue for discussions – but not negotiations – among the most important emitting countries); the G20 (periodic meetings of the finance ministers – and sometimes heads of government – of the twenty largest economies in the world); and various other multilateral and bilateral organizations and discussions.  Although the previous leadership of the UNFCCC seemed to view the MEF, the G20, and most other non-UNFCCC forums as competition – indeed, as a threat, the UNFCCC’s new leadership under Executive Secretary Christiana Figueres displays a positive and pragmatic attitude toward these parallel processes.

My second criterion was that the three major negotiating tracks be consolidated.  These tracks were:  first, the UNFCCC’s KP track (negotiating national targets for a possible second commitment period – post-2012 – for the Kyoto Protocol); second, the LCA track (the UNFCCC’s negotiation track for Long-term Cooperative Action, that is, a future international agreement of undefined nature); and third, the Copenhagen Accord, negotiated and noted at COP-15 in Copenhagen, Denmark, in December, 2009.

Permit me, please, to quote from my November 19th essay:

Consolidating these three tracks into two tracks (or better yet, one track) would be another significant step forward.  One way this could happen would be for the LCA negotiations to take as their point of departure the existing Copenhagen Accord, which itself marked an important step forward by blurring for the first time (although not eliminating) the unproductive and utterly obsolete distinction in the Kyoto Protocol between Annex I and non-Annex I countries.  (Note that more than 50 non-Annex I countries now have greater per capita income than the poorest of the Annex I countries.)

This is precisely what has happened.  The Cancun Agreements – the product of the LCA-track negotiations – build directly, explicitly, and comprehensively on the Copenhagen Accord.  The two tracks have become one.

Alas, the KP track remains, and a decision on a potential second commitment period (post-2012) for the Kyoto Protocol has been punted to COP-17 in Durban, South Africa, in December, 2011.  It is difficult to picture a meaningful – or any – second commitment period for the Kyoto Protocol, with the United States out of that picture, and with Japan and Russia having stated unequivocally that they will not take up another set of targets, and with Australia and Canada also unlikely to participate.  But note that this issue will have to be confronted in Durban a year from now.  With the first commitment period of the Kyoto Protocol ending in 2012, COP-17 will provide the last opportunity for punting that contentious issue.

If you agree with my view – which I have written about in many previous blog posts – that the Kyoto Protocol is fundamentally flawed and that the Protocol’s dichotomous distinction between Annex I and non-Annex I countries is the heavy anchor that slows meaningful progress on international climate policy, then you will not consider it bad news that a second commitment period for the Protocol is looking less and less likely.  On the other hand, you will, in that case, share my disappointment that the issue has been punted (recognizing, however, that had it not been punted, the Cancun meetings could have collapsed amidst acrimony and recriminations).

I also wrote in my November 19th post:

The UNFCCC principle of “common but differentiated responsibilities” could be made meaningful through the dual principles that:  all countries recognize their historic emissions (read, the industrialized world); and all countries are responsible for their future emissions (think of those rapidly-growing emerging economies).

The Cancun Agreements do this by recognizing directly and explicitly these dual principles.  This can represent the next step in a movement beyond what has become the “QWERTY keyboard” (that is, unproductive path dependence) of international climate policy:  the distinction in the Kyoto Protocol between the small set of Annex I countries with quantitative targets, and the majority of countries in the world with no responsibilities.

A variety of policy architectures can build on these dual principles and make them operational, bridging the political divide which exists between the industrialized and the developing world.  (At the Harvard Project on Climate Agreements, we have developed a variety of architectural proposals that could make these dual principles operational.  See, for example:  “Global Climate Policy Architecture and Political Feasibility: Specific Formulas and Emission Targets to Attain 460 PPM CO2 Concentrations” by Valentina Bosetti and Jeffrey Frankel; and “Three Key Elements of Post-2012 International Climate Policy Architecture” by Sheila M. Olmstead and Robert N. Stavins.)

My third criterion for success was movement forward with specific, narrow agreements, such as on:  REDD+ (Reduced Deforestation and Forest Degradation, plus enhancement of forest carbon stocks); finance; and technology.  Such movement forward has, in fact, occurred in all three domains in the Cancun Agreements, as I described above.

My fourth criterion for success was keyed to whether the parties to the Cancun meetings could maintain sensible expectations and thereby develop effective plans.  This they have done.  The key question was not what Cancun accomplishes in the short-term, but whether it helps put the world in a better position five, ten, and twenty years from now in regard to an effective long-term path of action to address the threat of global climate change.

Despite the fact that some advocacy groups – and for that matter, some nations – are no doubt disappointed with the outcome of Cancun, I think it is fair to say that this final criterion for success was satisfied:  the Cancun Agreements can help put the world on a path toward an effective long-term plan of meaningful action.

Why Did Cancun Succeed?

If you agree with my assessment of success in Cancun, then a reasonable question to ask is why did the Cancun talks produce this successful outcome, particularly in contrast with what many people consider a less successful outcome of the Copenhagen talks last year.  To address this question, let me expand on some points made in an insightful essay by Elliot Diringer, Vice President for International Strategies at the Pew Center on Global Climate Change.

First, the Mexican government through careful and methodical planning over the past year prepared itself well, and displayed tremendous skill in presiding over the talks. Reflect, if you will, on the brilliant way in which Mexican Minister of Foreign Affairs, Patricia Espinosa, who served as President of COP-16, took note of the objections of Bolivia (and, at times, several other leftist and left-leaning Latin American countries, known collectively as the ALBA states), and then simply ruled that the support of 193 other countries meant that “consensus” had been achieved and the Cancun Agreements had been adopted by the Conference.  At a critical moment, Ms. Espinosa noted that “consensus does not mean unanimity,” and that was that!

Compare this with the unfortunate chairing of COP-15 in Copenhagen by Danish Prime Minister Lars Løkke Rasmussen, who allowed the objections by a similar same small set of five relatively unimportant countries (Bolivia, Cuba, Nicaragua, Sudan, and Venezuela) to derail those talks, which hence “noted,” but did not adopt the Copenhagen Accord in December, 2009.

The Mexicans were also adept at facilitating small groups of countries to meet to advance productive negotiations, but made sure that any countries could join those meetings if they wanted.  Hence, negotiations moved forward, but without the sense of exclusivity that alienated so many small (and some large) countries in Copenhagen.

The key role played by the Mexican leadership is consistent with the notion of Mexico as one of a small number of “bridging states,” which can play particularly important roles in this process because of their credibility in the two worlds that engage in divisive debates in the United Nations:  the developed world and the developing world.  We have examined this in our recent Harvard Project on Climate Agreements Issue Brief, Institutions for International Climate GovernanceMexico, along with Korea, are members of the OECD, but are also non-Annex I countries under the Kyoto Protocol.  This gives Mexico — and gave Minister Espinosa — a degree of credibility across the diverse constituencies in the UNFCCC that was simply not enjoyed by Danish Prime Minister Rasmussen at COP-15 last year.

Second, China and the United States set the tone for many other countries by dealing with each other with civility, if not always with understanding.  This contrasts with the tone that dominated in and after Copenhagen, when finger-pointing at Copenhagen between these two giants of the international stage led to a blame-game in the months after the Copenhagen talks.

As Elliot Diringer wrote, they may have recognized that “the best way to avoid blame was to avoid failure.”  Beyond this, although the credit must go to both countries, the change from last year in the conduct of the Chinese delegation was striking.  It appeared, as Coral Davenport wrote in The National Journal, that the Chinese were on a “charm offensive.”  Working in Cancun on behalf of the Harvard Project on Climate Agreements, I can personally vouch for the tremendous increase from previous years in the openness of members of the official Chinese delegation, as well as the many Chinese members of civil society who attended the Cancun meetings.

Third, a worry hovered over the Cancun meetings that an outcome perceived to be failure would lead to the demise of the UN process itself.  Since many nations (in particular, developing countries, which made up the vast majority of the 194 countries present in Cancun) very much want the United Nations and the UNFCCC to remain the core of international negotiations on climate change, that implicit threat provided a strong incentive for many countries to make sure that the Cancun talks did not “fail.”

Fourth, under the pragmatic leadership of UNFCCC Executive Secretary Christiana Figueres, realism may have finally eclipsed idealism in these international negotiations. Many observers have noted that many delegations – and probably most civil society NGO participants – at the previous COPs have misled themselves into thinking that ambitious cuts in greenhouse gases (GHGs) were forthcoming that could guarantee achievement of the 450 ppm/2 degrees C cap.

The acceptance of the Cancun Agreements suggests that the international diplomatic community may now recognize that incremental steps in the right direction are better than acrimonious debates over unachievable targets.  This harkens back to what I characterized prior to COP-16 as the key challenge facing the negotiators:  to continue the process of constructing a sound foundation for meaningful, long-term global action.  In my view, this was accomplished in Cancun.


Further Reading

In a new blog post, Trevor Houser (Peterson Institute for International Economics) argues that the surest way to kill the progress made in the Cancun Agreements is to try to turn them into a legally-binding treaty at COP-17 next year in Durban, South Africa.

For a nice table showing the correspondence of respective elements of the Cancun Agreements and the Copenhagen Accord, see the commentary on the Cancun climate negotiations by Sarah Ladislaw of the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

And for a detailed description of the major elements of the Cancun Agreements, I recommend the summary prepared by the Pew Center on Global Climate Change.

Some previous essays I have written and posted at this blog may be of interest to those who are interested in the Cancun Agreements.  Here are links, in reverse chronological order:

Defining Success for Climate Negotiations in Cancun

Opportunities and Ironies: Climate Policy in Tokyo, Seoul, Brussels, and Washington

Another Copenhagen Outcome: Serious Questions About the Best Institutional Path Forward

What Hath Copenhagen Wrought? A Preliminary Assessment of the Copenhagen Accord

Chaos and Uncertainty in Copenhagen?

Only Private Sector Can Meet Finance Demands of Developing Countries

Defining Success for Climate Negotiations in Copenhagen

Approaching Copenhagen with a Portfolio of Domestic Commitments

Can Countries Cut Carbon Emissions Without Hurting Economic Growth?

Three Pillars of a New Climate Pact


Unintended Consequences of Government Policies: The Depletion of America’s Wetlands

Private land-use decisions can be affected dramatically by public investments in highways, waterways, flood control, or other infrastructure.  The large movement of jobs from central cities to suburbs in the postwar United States and the ongoing destruction of Amazon rain forests have occurred with major public investment in supporting infrastructure.  As these examples suggest, private land-use decisions can generate major environmental and social externalities – or, in common language, unintended consequences.

In an analysis that appeared in 1990 in the American Economic Review, Adam Jaffe of Brandeis University and I demonstrated that the depletion of forested wetlands in the Mississippi Valley – an important environmental problem and a North American precursor to the loss of South American rain forests – was exacerbated by Federal water-project investments, despite explicit Federal policy to protect wetlands.

Wetland Losses

Forested wetlands are among the world’s most productive ecosystems, providing improved water quality, erosion control, floodwater storage, timber, wildlife habitat, and recreational opportunities.  Their depletion globally is a serious problem; and preservation and protection of wetlands have been major Federal environmental policy goals for forty years.

From the 1950s through the mid-1970s, over one-half million acres of U.S. wetlands were lost each year.  This rate slowed greatly in subsequent years, averaging approximately 60 thousand acres lost per year in the lower 48 states from 1986 through 1997.  And by 2006, the Bush administration’s Secretary of the Interior, Gale Norton, was able to announce a net gain in wetland acreage in the United Sates, due to restoration and creation activities surpassing wetland losses.

What Caused the Observed Losses?

What were the causes of the huge annual losses of wetlands in the earlier years?  That question and our analysis are as germane today as in 1990, because of lessons that have emerged about the unintended consequences of public investments.

The largest remaining wetland habitat in the continental United States is the bottomland hardwood forest of the Lower Mississippi Alluvial Plain.  Originally covering 26 million acres in seven states, this resource was reduced to about 12 million acres by 1937.  By 1990, another 7 million acres had been cleared, primarily for conversion to cropland.

The owner of a wetland parcel faces an economic decision involving revenues from the parcel in its natural state (primarily from timber), costs of conversion (the cost of clearing the land minus the resulting forestry windfall), and expected revenues from agriculture.  Agricultural revenues depend on prices, yields, and, significantly, the drainage and flooding frequency of the land.  Needless to say, landowners typically do not consider the positive environmental externalities generated by wetlands; thus conversion may occur more often than is socially optimal.

Such externalities are the motivation for Federal policy aimed at protecting wetlands, as embodied in the Clean Water Act.  Nevertheless, the Federal government engaged in major public investment activities, in the form of U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and U.S. Soil Conservation Service flood-control and drainage projects, which appeared to make agriculture more attractive and thereby encourage wetland depletion.  The significance of this effect had long been disputed by the agencies which construct and maintain these projects; they attributed the extensive conversion exclusively to rising agricultural prices.

In an econometric (statistical) analysis of data from Arkansas, Mississippi, and Louisiana, from 1935 to 1984, Jaffe and I sought to sort out the effects of Federal projects and other economic forces.  We discovered that these public investments were a very substantial factor causing conversion of wetlands to agriculture, with between 30 and 50 percent of the total wetland depletion over those five decades due to the Federal projects.

More broadly, four conclusions emerged from our analysis.  First, landowners had responded to economic incentives in their land-use decisions.  Second, construction of Federal flood-control and drainage projects caused a higher rate of conversion of forested wetlands to croplands than would have occurred in the absence of projects, leading to the depletion of an additional 1.25 million acres of wetlands.  Third, Federal projects had this impact because they made agriculture feasible on land where it had previously been infeasible, and because, on average, they improved the quality of feasible land.  Fourth, adjustment of land use to economic conditions was gradual.

Government Working at Cross-Purposes

The analysis highlighted a striking inconsistency in the Federal government’s approach to wetlands.  In articulated policies, laws, and regulations, the government recognized the positive externalities associated with some wetlands, with the George H.W. Bush administration first enunciating a “no net loss of wetlands” policy.  But public investments in wetlands – in the form of flood-control and drainage projects – had created major incentives to convert these areas to alternative uses.  The government had been working at cross-purposes.

The conclusion that major public infrastructure investments affect private land-use decisions (thereby often generating negative externalities) may not be a surprise to some readers, but it was the 1990 analysis described here that first provided rigorous evidence which contrasted sharply with the accepted wisdom among policy makers.

The Ongoing Importance of Induced Land-Use Changes

As wetlands, tropical rain forests, barrier islands, and other sensitive environmental areas become more scarce, their marginal social value rises.  In general, if induced land-use changes are not considered, the country will engage in more public investment programs whose net social benefits are negative.


What Hath Copenhagen Wrought? A Preliminary Assessment of the Copenhagen Accord

After years of preparation, the Fifteenth Conference of the Parties (COP-15) of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) commenced on December 7th, 2009, and adjourned some two weeks later on December 19th after a raucous all-night session.  The original purpose of the conference had been to complete negotiations on a new international agreement on climate change to come into force when the Kyoto Protocol’s first commitment period comes to an end in 2012.  But for at least the past six months, it had become clear to virtually all participants that such a goal was out of reach — and the COP-15 objective was publically downgraded in mid-November to a non-binding agreement by heads of state at a meeting in Singapore of the Asia-Pacific Economic Conference.

I begin by describing what were reasonable expectations going into the Copenhagen negotiations and appropriate definitions of success for COP-15, and then turn to the unprecedented process which unfolded over the final 36 hours of the conference.  Next, I describe the fundamental architecture of the sole product that emerged – the Copenhagen Accord – and describe its key provisions, with an assessment of each component.  I close with an examination of the major pending issues and the available procedural routes ahead.

Sensible Expectations and Definitions of Success for Copenhagen

There was much hand-wringing in the months leading up to COP-15 about how difficult the negotiations had become.  I saw this as something of “A Silver Lining in the Climate Talks Cloud,” because the difficulty was largely a consequence of key countries of the world taking very seriously the task of expanding the coalition of the willing.

Going into Copenhagen, the challenge was very great, largely because of fundamental economic (and hence political) realities, as I explained in a previous post, “Chaos and Uncertainty in Copenhagen?” Given legitimate concerns about issues of efficiency, on the one hand, and distributional equity, on the other hand, it was not surprising that the industrialized countries (particularly the United States) insisted that China and other key emerging economies participate in a future agreement in meaningful and transparent ways, nor that the developing countries insisted that the industrialized countries foot much of the bill.

The key question was whether the negotiators in Copenhagen could identify a policy architecture that is both reasonably cost-effective and sufficiently equitable to generate support from the key countries of the world, and thus do something truly meaningful about the long-term path of global greenhouse gas emissions.  There were (and are) some promising paths forward, as we have documented in the Harvard Project on International Climate Agreements, and as we examine in a pair of current books (Post-Kyoto International Climate Policy: Summary for Policymakers; and Post-Kyoto International Climate Policy:  Implementing Architectures for Agreement).

At the final hour in Copenhagen, the leaders of a small number of key countries worked creatively together to identify a politically feasible path forward.  I have previously argued (“Defining Success for Climate Negotiations in Copenhagen”) that the best goal for the Copenhagen climate talks was to make progress on a sound foundation for meaningful, long-term global action, not some notion of immediate, numerical triumph.  That has essentially been accomplished with the “Copenhagen Accord,” despite its flaws and despite overt challenges from five of some 193 countries represented (Bolivia, Cuba, Nicaragua, Sudan, and Venezuela).

An Unprecedented Process

Before turning to the substance of the Copenhagen Accord, it is worthwhile taking note of the quite remarkable process that led up to its “last-minute” creation.  From all reports, the talks were completely deadlocked when U.S. President Barack Obama arrived on the scene at 8:00 am on Friday, December 18th, the scheduled final day of the conference.  Through a series of bilateral and eventually multilateral meetings of President Obama with Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao, Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, and South African President Jacob Zuma, a document gradually emerged which was to become the Copenhagen Accord.

It is virtually unprecedented in international negotiations for heads of government (or heads of state) to be directly engaged in, let alone lead, negotiations, but that is what transpired in Copenhagen.  Although the outcome is less than many people had hoped for, and is less than some people may have expected when the Copenhagen conference commenced, it is surely better – much better – than what most people anticipated just three days earlier, when the talks were hopelessly deadlocked.

The Copenhagen Accord – Its Fundamental Architecture

The fundamental architecture of the Copenhagen Accord is one we recently analyzed in the Harvard Project on International Climate Agreements in “A Portfolio of Domestic Commitments: Implementing Common but Differentiated Responsibilities,” and about which I blogged at the end of November (Approaching Copenhagen with a Portfolio of Domestic Commitments).  Essentially, under such an approach each nation commits and registers to abide by its domestic climate commitments, whether those are in the form of laws and regulations or multi-year development plans.  This is essentially the “schedule approach” introduced by the Australian government in spring 2009.

After its release, President Obama characterized the new Accord as “an important first step” at his press conference shortly before returning to Washington.  I would prefer to amend that characterization to call the Accord a potentially very important third step.  Step One was the UN Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro in 1992, which produced the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change.  Step Two was the Kyoto Protocol, signed in Japan in 1997.  But what many policy wonks (myself included), not to mention the United States Senate, immediately recognized was the absence from the Kyoto Protocol of involvement in truly meaningful ways of the key, rapidly-growing developing countries, a small set of important nations that are now better termed “emerging economies” – China, India, Brazil, South Africa, Mexico, and Korea.  This was a primary deficiency of Step Two, as well as the lack of serious attention to the long-term path of emissions (as opposed to the five-year time horizon of Kyoto).

The Copenhagen Accord establishes a framework for addressing both deficiencies, and thereby can be characterized as a potentially very important third step – expanding the coalition of the willing and extending the time-frame of action.  With this step, all of the seventeen countries of the Major Economies Forum– which together account for some 90% of global emissions – are agreeing to participate.  Nevertheless, let’s be honest about the difference between the outcome of the 1997 negotiations in Kyoto (a detailed 20-page legal document, the Kyoto Protocol) and the outcome of the 2009 negotiations in Copenhagen (a general 3-page political statement, the Copenhagen Accord).  Still, it remains true that the COP-15 negotiations were “saved from utter collapse” by the creation and acceptance of the Copenhagen Accord.

The Copenhagen Accord – Key Provisions and Preliminary Assessment

It is unquestionably the case that the Accord represents the best agreement that could be achieved in Copenhagen, given the political forces at play.  Indeed, were it not for the spirited – and as I suggested above, quite remarkable – direct intervention by President Obama, together with the other key national leaders, there would have been no real outcome from the Copenhagen negotiations.  That said, let’s take a critical look at the Accord, item by item.  The key provisions (as I interpret them, with my own numbering, not that of the Accord) are these:

1.      The signatories validate their will to “urgently combat climate change in accordance with the principle of common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities.”  The signatories agree that deep cuts in global emissions are required to hold global temperature increases to 2 degrees Centigrade, and commit to take actions to meet this objective, “consistent with science and on the basis of equity.”

Assessment: Although the Accord notes the importance of the frequently-discussed 2 degrees Centigrade target, it does not spell out actions that will achieve it.  The Accord also notes the importance of the principle of “common but differentiated responsibilities,” which is of great importance to developing countries.

2.      Action and cooperation on adaptation is urgently required, particularly in the least developed countries, small island developing states, and Africa.  Developed countries commit to provide financial resources to support adaptation measures in developing countries.

Assessment: Recognizing the importance of adaptation and providing financial resources to support it in developing countries is an important departure from Kyoto.  Targeting the funds to the “least developed countries” is sensible.

3.      Annex I Parties of the Kyoto Protocol (the 1997 list of the industrialized countries and the emerging market economies of Central and Eastern Europe) commit to implement mitigation actions (specified in Appendix I), and Non-Annex I Parties (the developing world, as defined in the Kyoto Protocol) also commit to implement mitigation actions (specified in Appendix II), all of which will be submitted to the UNFCCC Secretariat by January 31, 2010.

Assessment: These appendices (“schedules”) of domestic mitigation targets, actions, and policies are the heart of the Portfolio approach, as I described above.  This is where the action is.

It is unfortunate (but was probably politically necessary) that the Accord maintains the distinction of Annex I versus non-Annex I countries from the Kyoto Protocol.  I have characterized this distinction in the Kyoto Protocol as the “QWERTY keyboard” (unproductive path dependence) of international climate policy, because it has been the greatest impediment to developing a meaningful international arrangement.  It is because of the presence of this distinction that developing countries have insisted on a continuation of the Kyoto Protocol for a second (post-2012) commitment period.

Note that even if the Annex I list was appropriate in 1997, it surely no longer is:  more than 60 non-Annex I countries now have greater per capita income than the poorest of the Annex I countries.

An important improvement would be to employ a formulaic mechanism that takes a variety of factors into account, including per capita income, to determine the stringency of ambition, targets, or actions for individual countries, rather than the dichotomous distinction of having targets or not (“Global Climate Policy Architecture and Political Feasibility: Specific Formulas and Emission Targets to Attain 460 PPM CO2 Concentrations”).

If a continuous spectrum with all countries listed in the same table is not politically feasible, then a mechanism is needed for countries to transition from one list to the other.  Korea and Mexico joined the OECD six months after Kyoto, but they remain off the Annex I list.

4.      Emissions reductions for the Annex I parties will be measured, reported, and verified according to guidelines (to be established), which will be rigorous and transparent, whereas mitigation actions taken by non-Annex I parties will be subject to domestic measurement, reporting, and verification (MRV) reported through national communications, with international consultation and analysis.

Assessment: There was a great deal of attention to this issue in Copenhagen, with all members of the U.S. delegation talking about the importance of “transparency.”  The compromise seems acceptable:  developing countries employ domestic measurement, reporting, and verification, but it is subject to “international consultation and analysis.”

Interestingly, the Accord is silent on the issue of “international competitiveness” and the possible use of border adjustments (border taxes or import allowance requirements in national cap-and-trade systems).  This is a controversial point, since inclusion of such mechanisms is important in domestic U.S. politics, but is anathema to China, India, and other developing countries.

5.      Least developed countries and small island developing states may undertake actions voluntarily and on the basis of support (from other countries).  Such actions will be subject to international measurement, reporting, and verification.

Assessment: This is the third element of the national schedules, reserved for the poorest developing countries (which contribute only trivially to greenhouse gas emissions), and it seems acceptable, although a graduation mechanism would again be desirable.  Interestingly, if their actions are funded by developed countries, then those actions are subject to the most stringent MRV.  So-called technology transfer mechanisms are included in this context.

6.      The parties will establish positive incentives to stimulate financial resources from developed countries to help reduce emissions from deforestation and degradation.

Assessment: This is a potentially important change, as the lack of meaningful attention to retarding deforestation was a significant deficiency of the Kyoto Protocol.  We have investigated appropriate mechanisms in the Harvard Project on International Climate Agreements (“International Forest Carbon Sequestration in a Post-Kyoto Agreement”).

7.      The parties agree to pursue opportunities to use markets to achieve cost-effective mitigation actions.

Assessment: As we have documented in the Harvard Project (“Linkage of Tradable Permit Systems in International Climate Policy Architecture”), it is very important that future international agreements facilitate or at least not discourage voluntary linkage of national and multi-national cap-and-trade systems.  Needless to say, this provision in the Accord – like virtually all of the provisions – will require specific details to make it operational.

8.      Predictable and adequate funding will be provided to developing countries for emissions mitigation, reduction of deforestation, and adaptation.  There is a collective commitment from developed countries “approaching” $30 billion for the period 2010-2012, “balanced between adaptation and mitigation,” with adaptation funding being prioritized for the most vulnerable developing countries.

Assessment: To whatever degree the funding for mitigation is of government-government form (expanded foreign aid), legitimate concerns exist about both the feasibility of marshalling the necessary amounts and the efficiency of its use.  The private sector needs to be employed, as I have previously argued (“Only Private Sector Can Meet Finance Needs of Developing Countries”).

9.      The developed countries commit to a goal of jointly mobilizing $100 billion annually by 2020 from sources both public and private.

Assessment: It is important that the Accord notes that the funds can come from either public or private sources.  Governments can — through the right domestic and international policy arrangements — provide key incentives for the private sector to provide the needed finance through foreign direct investments for emissions mitigation (clearly a role exists for government assistance for adaptation).  For example, if the cap-and-trade systems which are emerging throughout the industrialized world as the favored domestic approach to reducing CO2 and other greenhouse gas emissions are linked together through the existing, common emission-reduction-credit system, namely the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM), then powerful incentives can be created for carbon-friendly private investment in the developing world.

Clearly the CDM, as it currently stands, cannot live up to this promise, but with appropriate reforms there is significant potential.  Of course, problems of limited additionality will inevitably remain.  Therefore, what is needed is for the key emerging economies to take on meaningful emission targets themselves (even if equivalent to business as usual in the short term), and then participate directly in international cap-and-trade, not government-government trading as envisioned in Article 17 of the Kyoto Protocol (which will not work), but firm-firm trading through linked national and multi-national cap-and-trade systems.

Such private finance stands a much greater chance than government aid of being efficiently employed, that is, targeted to reducing emissions, rather than spent by poor nations on other (possibly meritorious) purposes.

10.  Evaluation of the Accord’s implementation is to be completed by 2015, including consideration of strengthening the long-term goal as the science indicates.

Assessment: Depending upon when the Accord is implemented, completing an assessment by 2015 might or might not be reasonable.  A provision to strengthen the long-term goals of the Accord may be sensible, but it would seem that the provision should provide more generally that the long-term goal should be “adjusted as the science indicates,” so as not to pre-judge what future scientific research may reveal.

11.  In the official version of the Accord released by the UNFCCC, Appendix I (quantified 2020 economy-wide emissions targets for Annex I countries) and Appendix II (nationally appropriate mitigation actions of developing country parties) are left blank, to be completed by January 30, 2010.

Assessment: It is unfortunate that no numbers or other specifics were included in the two appendices, because many of the various parties have previously made public statements regarding commitments, plans, or expectations that would actually have provided considerable information.  Some specificity of the tables – both numerical pledges from Annex I countries and “voluntary pledges” from developing countries — would have better demonstrated the compelling substance of the Accord, and would thereby have given the agreement greater credibility, at least in news media reports.

The Way Forward

Many details regarding these elements of the Accord as well as other unspecified issues remain on the table, and will presumably be examined and negotiated if nations move forward with the Copenhagen Accord and the basic architecture it promulgates.  We are already at work on many of these issues in the Harvard Project on International Climate Agreements, including:

·         metrics for evaluating commitments

·         climate policy review mechanisms

·         compliance mechanisms

·         afforestation and deforestation mechanisms

·         facilitating international market linkage

·         fostering technology transfer

·         methods of negotiating and updating climate agreements

·         methods of providing incentives for developing country participation

·         methods of carbon finance

·         making an international climate agreement consistent with international trade rules

Whether the next step in international deliberations should be under the auspices of the UNFCCC or a smaller deliberative body, such as the Major Economies Forum (MEF), is an important question.  Given the necessity of achieving consensus (that is, unanimity) in United Nations processes and the open hostility of a small set of nations, bilateral and multilateral discussions, including via the MEF, could be an increasingly attractive route, at least over the short term.  (Such questions about preferred institutional venues for international climate negotiations and action constitute an important topic on which we are focusing research in early 2010 in the Harvard Project on International Climate Agreements, and about which I will write in future posts.)

The climate change policy process is best viewed as a marathon, not a sprint.  The Copenhagen Accord – depending upon details yet to be worked out – could well turn out to be a sound foundation for a Portfolio of Domestic Commitments, which could be an effective bridge to a longer-term arrangement among the countries of the world.  We may look back upon Copenhagen as an important moment – both because global leaders took the reins of the procedures and brought the negotiations to a fruitful conclusion, and because the foundation was laid for a broad-based coalition of the willing to address effectively the threat of global climate change.  Only time will tell.


After I completed writing this blog post, I came across a superb essay on the same topic by David Doniger, Policy Director of the NRDC Climate Center in Washington, D.C.  It deserves to be read (and distributed).