Take Note of the Copenhagen Accord

Take note, everybody — the world leaders at Copenhagen agreed to “take note.” Not exactly what many expected.

“Politically, incredibly significant,” said Yvo de Boer, the Executive Secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), of the Copenhagen Accord.

According to UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown it was “a vital first step.”

U.N. Secretary General Ban-Ki Moon called it a “deal.”

And President Obama hailed it as a “meaningful and unprecedented breakthrough.”

My “Take Note” Impression

I am reminded of something my Mom used to say (and apropos of this holiday season) as she watched me get increasingly frustrated trying to get the corners right while not snarling tape as I wrapped presents. My Mom would look over my shoulder tsk-tsking and advise: “Just put a bow on it and call it pretty.”

In a similar vein, the negotiators at Copenhagen took note of a fairly meaningless political statement and called it an accord.

Last Minute Back-Room Deal Supposedly Saved the Day

The newspapers report that on the last night of the climate talks, the United States, China, India, South Africa, and Brazil met privately and cobbled together the so-called “Copenhagen Accord [pdf]” — a last minute statement that broke little new ground and isn’t legally binding. (If you have any doubts that this was a last minute effort, take note of all the typos that still remain in the document [pdf] posted online.)

The next step was to get the 193 member nations at the meeting to endorse the accord, which they did — maybe, sort of — by “taking note” of the accord (188-5) as the gavel came down on the talks that were to have established a new, historic agreement that would have brought down global greenhouse emissions and in the process laid the groundwork for the new low-carbon economy of the 21st century.

A Dictionary Please

So what did the folks at Copenhagen mean by “take note?”

According to the Free Online Dictionary:

  • “take note” is a verb that means “observe with care or pay close attention to.” Not exactly the words one would use to mean endorse or accept.

However, we have been assured by others that in this case, take note does mean accept.

I’m not so sure, and I suspect many others are not either. For the time being I will take note that the member nations took note of the Copenhagen Accord and see what happens.

Fortunately we may not have to wait very long for an answer. The accord calls on the Annex I countries to “implement individually or jointly the quantified economy-wide emissions targets for 2020, to be submitted … to the secretariat by 31 January 2010 and for non-Annex I countries to “implement mitigation actions, including those to be submitted to the secretariat … by 31 January 2010.” (Emphasis added.)

Did the Parties to the Convention accept the accord or did they merely “take note”? We’ll have a hint at the end of the January. Of course, whatever the countries do submit will be voluntary and non-binding. And yet, the $64-trillion question is still: What will President Obama “commit” to at the end of January in the absence of a climate bill out of Congress?

Need Rose-Colored Glasses to Take Note of Positives

On so many levels the Copenhagen meeting disappointed. One attendee I know referred to the meeting — with its endless lines, changing requirements for getting past security, appalling delays, and almost comic posturing — as “Psychoville.” But enough of all that for the moment. Let’s put our rose-colored glasses on and in the spirit of the meeting itself, “take note” of two positives.

  1. The United States and our President played a constructive role — now there’s a change.  Secretary of State Clinton’s offer to help build a $100-billion fund for developing nations appears to have had a positive effect, and Obama worked hard to find common ground with China and India.
  2. In spite of the fact that transparency and verification of emission reductions are fundamental to any agreement between parties, China has been firmly opposed to any kind of verification of their emission-reduction actions. However, language in the accord could be interpreted as showing some movement on China’s part, especially where it states that non-Annex I countries such as China will “communicate information on the implementation of their actions through National Communications, with provisions for international consultations and analysis under clearly defined guidelines that will ensure that national sovereignty is respected.” Not exactly a hard and fast commitment to transparency, but hey we’re talking Copenhagen.

A Path Not Yet Followed

There are signs of a consensus coming out of Copenhagen that the UNFCCC’s almost 200 member nation approach is perhaps not the best way to hammer out an agreement on cutting global greenhouse emissions. For example see here.

In a report [pdf] that I co-authored two years ago with Duke colleague Prasad Kasibhatla, we pointed out the task of keeping CO2 concentrations below 450 ppm could be achieved with an accord between just 13 nations — the G8 (Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States) plus five of the largest developing country economies (Brazil, China, India, Mexico, and South Africa). Why involve 200 when 13 can do the job? And these 13 already meet to discuss global economic issues and could quietly negotiate a real climate deal without the circus atmosphere that a COP meeting now brings.

Bottom Line on the Climate Talks in Copenhagen and Beyond

There will no doubt be lots of post mortems of the Copenhagen meeting and indeed of the entire COP process. For me there is one glaring message: The world is not yet sufficiently convinced of the danger global warming poses to take concerted action. Something to take note of as we welcome in a new decade.

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