What are the Prospects for a binding Climate Accord – ever?

  • Date: 15/12/09

WSJ Environmental Capital: So the Copenhagen climate conference is heading into crunch time, with an avalanche of world leaders arriving in coming days to put the finishing touches on the big climate accord. With just three days left, where do things stand at Copenhagen?

Not particularly good. On almost every point of contention, countries have drifted farther apart since the conference began. Even Ed Miliband, the optimistic British climate minister, said the conference could “still fail.”

That’s brought home by the latest draft agreement, which leaves for later pretty much everything that’s controversial: How much to cut greenhouse-gas emissions globally and in each country; who will pay for all that and how much; how to verify what other countries are doing on emissions; how to square the climate deal with international trade agreements, and more.

At the same time, the sniping among countries has gotten more intense. Developing countries such as China and India have long taken shots at the U.S. position on climate change. But instead of finding common ground, U.S. and Chinese negotiators have been trading barbs.

Xie Zhenhua, leading the Chinese delegation, decried “beautiful words” and “empty promises” from richer countries and reiterated his call for the maintenance of the Kyoto Protocol.

That “definitely” won’t be happening, countered U.S. climate envoy Todd Stern. Mr. Stern also took square aim at China’s reluctance to put its domestic climate actions inside some sort of international agreement: “If we are going to have an international agreement, as opposed to a bunch of individual countries doing their own domestic thing, but an international agreement where countries come together to work together, then they [China] have got to be prepared to put what they are doing into that international agreement.”

The sniping isn’t just limited to the developed-versus-developing country debate. The U.S. and Europe also went head to head over who really has more ambitious plans to curb emissions, an extension of the fight over when to start measuring emissions cuts.

Actually, that worries plenty inside Europe, too: The huge surplus of emissions credits left over after the implosion of the Soviet and East bloc economies threatens to undermine all the environmental progress that could come out of Copenhagen, EU officials said today.

So what does all this bickering mean? Copenhagen wasn’t going to produce a legally-binding international treaty at any rate, but just a framework for a real agreement at a later time.

But will that happen a year from now when the climate circus goes to Mexico City? The deadlock at Copenhagen hasn’t been caused by a lack of time for negotiation, but because of the intractable nature of the underlying issues—especially the fight over whether to jettison the Kyoto Protocol altogether or just update it.

Could failure at Copenhagen actually be a good thing? Much as that horrifies some observers, others sure think so: That is, if there’s no breakthrough in the next few days, failure could set the stage for an entirely new approach to cleaning up the world’s economies, such as more money for clean technology.

Copyright 2009, WSJ

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