Bill Emmott - International Author & Adviser


No Legally Binding Treaty as Copenhagen Summit Closes
Corriere della Sera - December 20th 2009

The agreement that closed the Copenhagen climate conference will disappoint anyone who dreamed that this summit of more than 190 countries would come up with a legally binding treaty guaranteed to save the planet (or, rather, to save it by the common definition of catastrophe-prevention, namely restricting the rise in average global temperatures this century to 2 degrees celsius). But such dreams were always fantasies. Actually, the far-inferior deal that emerged was pretty good in the circumstances, and should be counted as a success. Yet quite how successful it is depends not on this deal but on what happens next, especially during 2010, but also afterwards.

            This is a deal that consists mainly of a promise to make another deal next year, at a conference due to be hosted by Mexico, but then also to introduce, in the course of the next 5-10 years, much stricter controls on greenhouse-gas emissions than most countries have so far promised. For although the agreement contained a pledge to meet the target of a 2 degree celsius temperature rise, most scientists believe the emissions cuts so far promised are too meagre to achieve that. For scientists and environmentalists who have been lobbying about this issue for at least 20 years, it is dispiriting to get so little after so long a campaign. But for governments, most of whom have only begun to take climate change seriously during the past five years—if that—this deal is, as President Barack Obama described it, an important first step.

            The question now is whether there will really be a second and a third step, and when. How can we tell? There are, most probably, some clues in the way in which the Copenhagen deal was reached. Not the fact that it happened far into the night—that is normal with summits, as any European Union negotiator knows. The clue lies in the small group of countries that thrashed out the deal, and then presented it to the others as a fait accompli.

            The first and most important clue about that group of countries is that it was headed by the United States. Whatever anyone might say about declining American power, the US remains central to any issue of global governance. It is especially central to climate change because until recently it was the world´s biggest producer of greenhouse gases (China overtook it in 2007) and because it refused to ratify the previous treaty on climate change, the 1997 Kyoto Protocol. President Obama´s offer to the conference of a 17% cut in American emissions by 2020, from 2005 levels, was modest by European standards but even that is far from certain to be accepted by Congress when legislation to implement it is debated next spring. That uncertainty gave America some leverage in Copenhagen—for President Obama could say, with total credibility, that unless a new treaty goes beyond Kyoto by including binding commitments by the big developing countries—ie, China and India—to cut emissions, Congress will reject it, along with the 17% emissions cut.

            Like it or not, that evident truth destroyed as impractical any argument—by Venezuela´s Hugo Chavez and others—that the rich world is obliged to bear all the burdens of dealing with climate change, since the industrialised countries have caused most of it. That is a nice argument for philosophy salons, but has no political relevance in the real world.

            The second clue, however, lies in the names of the other countries involved in the deal. They were China, India, Brazil and South Africa. Note first that these are not the famous "BRICs": Russia is out of this group because as a highly polluting oil and gas producer it had little interest in striking any deal. They are, however, the biggest emerging economies. We may now be in a world of multilateralism rather than the George W. Bush world of unilateralism, but it is a world in which big powers count for a lot more than small ones. This group was not the infamous "G2", of America and China, either, for other developing countries will not accept China as their sole spokesman.

            Without the participation of China, India, Brazil and South Africa, America could not have accepted a deal. But what was in it for them? Partly, prestige: they have now displayed their importance. Partly, money, in the cases of India and South Africa, but mainly on behalf of other poorer countries, who will get financial help to adjust to climate change. Mainly, though, it is probably that the fairly minimal and heavily deferred binding commitments that this deal implies are better than these big developing countries thought they might face if they were to kill the deal and wait another few years for the next climate change summit.

            Everything, however, depends on the next steps. America´s desire to get its legislation through Congress, plus the interest of China, India, Brazil and South Africa to bank this limited deal now for fear of worse later, surely make it likely that a proper legal treaty can and will be negotiated next year. Smaller, poorer countries no doubt will protest and hope for more. But in today´s world, the big and powerful call the shots. It is just that the list of big and powerful has changed, to now include China, India, Brazil and South Africa.


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