Good COP, Bad COP?

Many environmentalists saw the Copenhagen Conference of the Parties (COP15) in December as a failure. There was no binding agreement. There were signs of the process collapsing. Somehow, a document emerged at the end of climate conference, though. Known as the Copenhagen Accord, it contained language acknowledging climate change as being a threat and limiting warming to 2 degrees Celsius. It also let countries who had obligations under the Kyoto Protocol set their own emissions limits for 2020 and allowed countries without obligations declare nationally appropriate mitigation actions. Governments had until Jaunary 31st to fill in the blanks.

Well, the results are in. Drum roll please. Out of the 196 countries that are observers or parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), 55 signed the Copenhagen Accord. This might seem like a bit of a downer. There’s a positive spin, though: these 55 countries account for 78% of global greenhouse gas emissions. That sounds a little better, doesn’t it? Even more hopeful, Costa Rica and the Maldives have pledged to become carbon neutral by 2020.

Still, the lack of a treaty with binding emission targets is a disappointment. Right now local, provincial, and regional level governments are the major players fueling mitigation efforts. Has the international process finally gotten too unwieldy to lead to meaningful change? Should it be abandoned altogether in favor of a more regional-focused effort to mitigate the effects of climate change?

At the “Copenhagen debriefing” this evening, an event put together by the Commonwealth Club of San Francisco and Climate One, many of the speakers indicated this is already happening. California assembly member Nancy Skinner noted that if all states with climate action plans succeeded in implementing them, their emissions in 2020 would be 25% below 1990 levels. This is further reaching than the foggy in the range of 17% below 2005 levels the US proposed for the Copenhagen Accord.

There are also state and regional greenhouse gas trading schemes with snazzy acronyms such as RGGI, WCI, and EU ETS that are helping meet Kyoto Protocol obligations and trying to make up for lack of US participation. Though most of these initiatives are for specific regions (for example, RGGI includes states in the Northeast), there are also proposals for provinces in geographically disparate regions. Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger has suggested the R20, a group of provincial governments modeled after the G20 with participants in the US, Canada, Nigeria, and France.

There efforts being made at the city level as well. The C40 is a group of the 40 largest cities in the world. They have committed to taking actions to mitigate climate change including increased energy efficiency and helping emerging cities harness the benefits of carbon finance mechanisms. Over 500 mayors in US cities have also signed a Climate Protection Agreement, with the goal of meeting or beating the suggested US Kyoto Protocol emission reduction target of 7% below 1990 levels by 2012.

Clearly regions, states, and cities are taking actions at a much faster pace than international negotiations are going. Still, I feel that while the international process is flawed, its not without its merits. While many of the speakers at the Copenhagen debriefing acknowledged the importance of local efforts, they also agreed that international negotiations are still relevant.

Climate change is a global problem, and the COP process offers a unique opportunity to bring together the voices of each country. It may sound like a cacophony at times, but there are also moments of harmony. Witness the $3.5 billion pledged to prevent deforestation.

Though there was no binding agreement in Copenhagen, the Accord signed by 55 nations is a step in the right direction. As Yvo de Boer, the Executive Secretary of the UNFCCC, said “these pledges clear signals of willingness to move negotiations towards a successful conclusion.”

There are also numerous side events for NGOs to connect and spread new ideas. At the Copenhagen debriefing Sally Osberg, of the Skoll Foundation noted that “innovation always happens at the margins.” Deforestation, conservation, indigenous rights, and many other issues that weren’t central to the negotiations still had forums where people could engage in debate and work on solutions.

Finally, international events have the benefit of exposure. People need to hear more about climate change and negotiations. It’s both inspirational, and if done right, the transparency can aid goodwill. Discounting these benefits is a folly.

So negotiators are getting ready for round 16 in Cancun later this year. The draft treaty that was worked on at Copenhagen is still alive. COP16 will take place in Cancun at the end of November this year, and as long as it’s on, I’ll still hope for an agreement.

In the meantime, local, state, and regional efforts will put us in a better position to get off the business as usual emissions track. There’s no reason why we shouldn’t be trying every way we can think of to address climate change.

Photo Credit: Flickr