The Copenhagen Disaccord

The Copenhagen Disaccord

Activists are figuring out what went wrong at the climate summit and what to do next.



We have entered the post-Copenhagen era of climate politics–but just what that means is still very much undecided. The summit was widely regarded as humanity’s last good chance to prevent catastrophic climate change. It plainly fell short of that goal, but giving up is not an option, not for anyone who cares about preserving a livable planet for our children. Instead, we need the most unfettered, open-minded discussion possible of the terrain confronting us post-Copenhagen and how best to traverse it. Which actions and strategies make sense now? What should governments be pressed to do, and what role should activists, media and civil society play?

Unfortunate as Copenhagen’s outcome was, all is not lost. Bear in mind, the goal was to reach an agreement to take effect in 2012, when key provisions of the Kyoto Protocol expire; that timetable might still be met if governments make sufficient progress at meetings this June in Germany and this December in Mexico.

One clear sign of hope was the emergence of a mass movement on behalf of climate action. Of course, this movement did not achieve all it wanted at the summit–mass movements rarely succeed right away–but its massive presence signaled to power brokers that civil society was watching and would not be satisfied with a weak agreement. Indeed, one important achievement of civil society, including the news media, at Copenhagen was that it prevented governments from spinning the summit’s outcome as a success. Witness, for example, the about-face by President Obama. On the summit’s closing night, he labeled the side deal he brokered with China and other large greenhouse gas emitters an “unprecedented breakthrough.” A few days later, after activists and journalists had made clear the so-called Copenhagen Accord’s sharp limitations, the president acknowledged in a PBS interview that people “are justified in being disappointed” about Copenhagen.

As civil society decides what to do next, it’s important to recognize how much it has already accomplished. US activists have brought about a de facto moratorium on building new coal-fired power plants, notes Lester Brown of the Earth Policy Institute. Brown argues that such grassroots pressure, both here and around the world, may prove more important to halting climate change than international negotiations like Copenhagen, with their glacial pace and lowest-common-denominator results. Hundreds of local and regional governments have also implemented ambitious green energy programs ahead of federal policy. A pioneer of this effort, California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger announced in Copenhagen the formation of the R-20 Group–twenty regions around the world that will “set high standards for cutting carbon and creating green economies, then invite others to join them,” in the words of Terry Tamminen, the governor’s former environment adviser. Tamminen argues that the work of the R-20, along with improvements in national government policies, will end up putting a price on carbon by 2012. That would be transformational, leading corporations, governments and citizens to shift their economic behavior in climate-friendly ways.

But there is no getting around the central role the governments of China and the United States, the two climate superpowers, play in the drama. Differences between the two appear to be the main reason for the outcome in Copenhagen, though again it is crucial to remember how far both nations moved in the lead-up to the summit. At their November Beijing meeting, Obama and Chinese President Hu Jintao broke decisively from the past by pledging for the first time that each nation would limit its future greenhouse gas emissions. Although the emissions cuts announced a few days later fell well short of what science says is necessary, the shift in direction was profound. Now the task is to get the superpowers to extend and honor their promises of better climate behavior.

In this regard, one of the most fascinating post-Copenhagen commentaries came from Mark Lynas, a British writer and activist who has written one of the essential books on climate change, Six Degrees. Lynas serves as an unpaid science adviser to the Maldives, the Indian Ocean island nation that led the fight in Copenhagen to reduce the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere to 350 parts per million. Writing in the Guardian, Lynas charged that it was above all China that wrecked the summit. Lynas was in the room during the final hours of negotiations between Obama, Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao and other world leaders–talks that, he argued, could have produced an agreement that would have had environmentalists “popping champagne corks.” But China repeatedly blocked progress, according to Lynas, including by demanding the removal of all specific targets for emissions reductions, even the 80 percent reductions by 2050 that the United States and other rich industrial nations were proposing for themselves.

Such accusations are “totally unjust and irresponsible,” responded Yunliang Zhou, chief of the political and press office at the Chinese consulate in San Francisco. Referring to China’s pledge before Copenhagen to reduce its economy’s carbon intensity by 40 to 45 percent by 2020, Zhou added, “Our voluntary target has no conditions attached, nor [is] it linked to any other country’s goals. Given the performance of some countries at the conference and their long failed commitments, they have no right or qualification to blame China and other developing countries.” Zhou declined to address China’s alleged veto of the 80 percent emissions cuts by 2050 by developed countries.

But the United States cannot easily stand in judgment of such foot-dragging. Citing domestic constraints, the Obama administration has pledged to cut US emissions by a mere 4 percent from 1990 levels by 2020, well short of the 25 to 40 percent cuts the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change says are required to (perhaps) limit global temperature rise to 2 degrees Celsius over pre-industrial levels. China offers its own domestic justifications: with 150 million Chinese living in poverty, economic development must be the top priority, and that for now means more fossil fuels. Some independent experts also refute Lynas’s claim that China’s commitment to reduce its carbon intensity is a mere PR move. “[That commitment] is a very big deal,” says Mark Levine of the China Energy Group at the University of California, Berkeley, who has collaborated with China for the past twenty years to improve energy efficiency. “If other emerging economies were to do likewise, it would cut projected global emissions by 2050 in half.”

One root of the US-China disagreement concerns the historical responsibility for climate change. Developing countries have long argued that it is not fair to expect them to slash their emissions when millions of their people live in poverty. After all, it is the historic emissions of rich industrial nations that caused global warming in the first place. The planet has only so much “atmospheric space”–the capacity to absorb carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases. With global temperatures having risen 0.8 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, and with another 0.6 “in the pipeline” because of the long life span of carbon dioxide, much of the atmospheric space has already been occupied.

This distribution of atmospheric space is the apparent basis of China’s objection to the 80 percent target for developed countries and to a related proposal for 50 percent reductions in global emissions by 2050. “If you agree to 2C and a global 50 percent reduction and then accept [the developed countries’ 80 percent reductions by 2050], it has the effect of locking in your own future emissions,” says a China expert who requested anonymity for fear of jeopardizing professional relationships. “That would allow China much lower per capita emissions than those of the US and other developed countries.”

Lynas rejects such arguments as a recipe for disaster. “The historical responsibility argument makes sense in one way only: as an argument for adaptation financing,” he wrote in an e-mail. (One of the few bright spots in the Copenhagen Accord was a pledge to mobilize $100 billion a year by 2020 to help poor countries cope with climate change, though it is unclear whether the money will materialize.) But such historical responsibility, insists Lynas, “is not an argument for others to pollute just as much….That is the logic of ‘mutually assured destruction’–where human concepts of equity triumph over the necessity for planetary survival.”

The world’s leverage over China would doubtless increase if the other climate superpower was moving more aggressively. The Obama administration, Congressional Democrats and many mainstream environmental groups are pinning their hopes on the climate legislation that passed the House last summer and, in somewhat different form, awaits Senate action this spring. More radical environmental groups, such as Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth, have criticized the bill as woefully weak–not just on its emissions targets but because it would cancel the Environmental Protection Agency’s authority to regulate greenhouse gases. Instead, the bill would rely on a cap-and-trade system, which critics complain is fatally compromised by its giveaways of the vast majority of pollution permits.

The most persuasive defense of the climate bill comes from Joe Romm, an assistant secretary of energy in the Clinton administration who blogs at Romm points out that the legislation’s “lame” 2020 targets get much tougher after 2020 and hit 80 percent by 2050. “If you put in place a shrinking cap on emissions, that will inevitably raise the price of carbon, and that will be transformational,” says Romm. He sees legislation as superior to EPA regulation, in part because he suspects that industry lawsuits would cripple EPA action, at least regarding existing power plants and other pollution sources. “I would love to keep EPA authority,” Romm says, “but it makes no sense for progressives to take down this bill [on those grounds]. Once you’ve set up the economy-wide shrinking cap, the only thing you get from EPA authority is easy regulation of new–though not existing–coal-fired plants. But if the climate bill passes, no one is going to build those plants anyway.”

“Contrary to what we keep hearing, Obama’s hands are not tied by the tragically weak cap-and-trade bills,” says Kassie Siegel, senior counsel at the Center for Biological Diversity, whose report “Yes, He Can” outlines the case for unleashing the EPA. “Extremely deep emissions reductions are feasible with today’s on-the-shelf technology…. Moreover, the Clean Air Act is a ‘technology forcing’ statute, so the EPA is supposed to do what’s necessary to protect the public health, even if [that] appears impossible with current technology.” As for potential lawsuits thwarting the EPA’s effectiveness, Siegel replies, “Sure, industry can bring lawsuits, but that doesn’t mean they will win, and there is nothing to stop them from suing over a cap and trade system either. Of course we want climate legislation too. But that legislation must build on the foundation of highly successful environmental law we already have, not roll it back.”

Romm responds that canceling EPA authority is the price Republicans and wavering Democrats demand for backing climate legislation. “That’s a price I’m willing to pay,” he adds.

So, tough choices, tough challenges, tough timetables. As we grapple with them, we must above all reject the temptation of despair, which only warps thought and paralyzes action. The fight against climate change has reached a decisive moment. We must seize it with all our hearts.

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