Copenhagen accord: 'first step' to curb climate change

by Rich Heffern

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The world's press covers the U. N. conference climate in Copenhagen.

An historic U.N. climate conference ended Saturday, Dec. 19, with only a nonbinding "Copenhagen Accord" to show for two weeks of debate and frustration. It was a deal short on concrete steps against global warming but signaling perhaps a new start for cooperation between rich and poor countries on climate change.

The agreement brokered by President Barack Obama with China and others in last-minute diplomacy huddles on Friday, Dec. 18, sets up the first significant program of climate aid to poorer nations.

But although it urges deeper cuts in emissions of carbon dioxide and other gases blamed for global warming, it does nothing to demand them. That will now be subject to continuing talks next year.

As delegates wrapped up an exhausting overnight negotiating marathon Saturday afternoon, to end the 193-nation conference, U.N. climate chief Yvo de Boer assessed the results for reporters.

It's "an impressive accord," he said of the three-page document. "But it's not an accord that is legally binding, not an accord that pins down industrialized to targets."

A legally binding international agreement -- a treaty -- requiring further emissions cuts by richer nations was the goal in Bali, Indonesia, in 2007 when the annual U.N. conference set a two-year timetable leading to Copenhagen.

A new pact would succeed the first phase of the 1997 Kyoto Protocol whose relatively modest emissions cuts by 37 nations expire in 2012. It was hoped a new agreement would encompass the United States, which rejected Kyoto.

In a news conference Friday evening, Obama deflected criticism that the conference had failed to achieve a strong agreement. If the world waited to reach a binding deal, "then we wouldn't make any progress," he said, warning that could produce "such frustration and cynicism that rather than taking one step forward, we ended up taking two steps back."

Environmentalists and a handful of developing countries were unconvinced.

"The deal is a triumph of spin over substance. It recognizes the need to keep warming below two degrees but does not commit to do so. It kicks back the big decisions on emissions cuts," said Jeremy Hobbs of Oxfam International, a group that works with developing countries.

The full U.N. conference, in its long overnight session that finally ended Saturday, approved by consensus a compromise decision to "take note" of the accord, instead of formally approving it.

"We have a deal in Copenhagen," said a visibly relieved U. N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, who has made climate change his number one priority. He said "this is just the beginning" of a process to craft a binding pact on emissions.

The next deadline for a treaty will be the 2010 U.N. climate conference in Mexico City.

Most world leaders welcomed the Copenhagen Accord. Despite its lack of targets to curb emissions, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and other leaders agree to defend the new climate deal.

"This breakthrough lays the foundation for international action in the years to come," Chancellor Merkel told the German newspaper Bild am Sonntag.

"Copenhagen is a first step toward a new world climate order, nothing more but also nothing less. Those who are only putting Copenhagen down are helping those who want to blockade rather than move forward," the chancellor added.

Both China and the United States, the world's largest emitters of greenhouse gases, lauded the outcome of the historic U.N. climate conference.

"With the efforts of all parties, the summit yielded significant and positive results," Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi said in a statement, and President Barack Obama said that this breakthrough laid "the foundation for international action in the years to come."

Indian Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh called it a "good deal" and told Hindustan Times that India had "upheld the interests of developing nations" and their "national sovereignty."

Comments displaying disappointment were plentiful from NGOs and scientists in the early aftermath of the conference.

"What we have after two years of negotiation is a half-baked text of unclear substance. With the possible exceptions of U.S. legislation and the beginnings of financial flows, none of the political obstacles to effective climate action have been solved," Kim Carstensen, leader of global conservation organization World Wildlife Fund's (WWF) Global Climate Initiative, states in a press release.

According to WWF's estimates, the contents of the Copenhagen Accord translates into "three degrees Celsius of warming or more" and "millions of lives, hundreds of billions of dollars and a wealth of lost opportunities lie in the difference between rhetoric and reality on climate change action."

The accord "clearly falls well short of what the public around the world was expecting … it's clearly not enough to keep temperatures on a track below two degrees," says Alden Meyer of the Union of Concerned Scientists, according to Reuters.

The two degree target is linked by the United Nation's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change to keeping the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere below 450 parts per million.

"Going above 450 parts per million will change everything. It's not just one or two things. There will be changes in water, food, ecosystems, health, and those changes also interact with each other," Cynthia Rosenzweig, NASA climate impacts researcher, told the Associated Press.

According to Reuters, Jake Schmidt of the Natural Resources Defense Council says that "part of the dysfunction [of the Copenhagen talks] is that China is feeling its way into a new, more powerful role."

Toward the conference's end, Sierra Club executive director Carl Pope observed: "Indeed, at times it seemed that a lethal brew might prevent any agreement at all. The ingredients in that brew included the weak hand dealt to President Obama by obstructionism in the U.S. Senate, the highly compressed timetable between Obama's inauguration and this conference, and, finally, a profound and historic distrust between the developing economic powerhouses like China and Brazil, the least-developed countries in Africa and elsewhere that are still mired in poverty and subsistence agriculture, and the industrial world."

Pope concluded with a reference to the famous amusement park in Copenhagen: "The Tivoli roller coaster ride has ended, and I'm exhausted. Too much adrenaline. Not enough sunshine."

Watch the NCR Ecology channel and the NCR Today group blog for updates on the Copenhagen climate conference.

[Rich Heffern is an NCR staff writer. His e-mail is]

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