When two weeks of climate negotiations finally wound to an overtime finish in Copenhagen, the goal of a new binding treaty to combat global warming still looked elusively far away. And, even for climate activists, the question was: "Is that so bad?"
The summit officially ended Saturday with a gentlemen's agreement among the world's largest economies to take steps to curb greenhouse gas emissions, but no formal consensus on the part of the 193 nations present -- and no prescription for what comes next in the global negotiating process that is nearly 20 years old.
It was a muddled mandate from a conference originally intended to produce a successor to the 1997 Kyoto Protocol. And it left the impression that any success in humankind's efforts to avert the worst effects of climate change may be less an outcome of formal bargaining than of domestic politics, scientific innovation and, above all, the power of the emerging global market in low-emitting sources of energy.
The most celebrated aspects of the so-called Copenhagen Accord, at least initially, were a batch of provisions that will boost the likelihood of major emitters acting on their own to reduce carbon pollution and will send clear signals to clean-energy investors and inventors.
Nations joining the accord will, by Jan. 31, list their pledges for long-term emissions control. Developed nations will declare cuts, fast-developing nations will sign up for reductions as a share of their overall economy.
Other key provisions included forest protection, transparency on levels of emissions and a massive financial aid package for developing nations, along with the most formalized commitments yet that economic powerhouses China, India and the United States will take steps to move away from fossil fuels.
Each of those decisions affects a market. For example, winning Chinese and Indian commitments to emission limits, and verifying that those limits are put in place, gives confidence to American manufacturers who worried that domestic emission reductions would boost their energy prices and undercut competitiveness.
The forestry provision helps solidify a chunk of the carbon market, where companies can invest in protecting trees to offset industrial emissions. The financial aid fund, ramping up to $100 billion annually by 2020, will help developing countries adapt to climate change and make the transition to low-emission fuels.
Those decisions taken together could help unlock an investment flow that will help reduce emissions around the world by spurring cheaper, better, more widely available low-carbon energy sources.
"A market is an engine," said Peter Goldmark, who directs the climate and air program for the Environmental Defense Fund. "A treaty -- or, more broadly, public policy, decisions and rules made in the public space -- [is] the rails."
The climate accord's limitations, meanwhile, were clear to advocates and critics alike. It is not legally binding. It does not cut emissions aggressively enough to avoid a level of warming that scientists warn could prove catastrophic. It includes no measure to enforce nations' emissions pledges, other than international peer pressure, and no deadline to turn the accord into a treaty to be ratified.
President Obama acknowledged each of those points when he announced the deal Friday evening, after negotiating for hours to pull the talks from the brink of collapse. He said he wanted to achieve a legally binding agreement but suggested that it would be out of reach until major emitters build trust and band together informally to reduce emissions.
"Because of the differing views between developing countries and developed countries," Obama said, "in terms of future obligations, the most important thing I think we can do at this point -- and that we began to accomplish but are not finished with -- is to build some trust between the developing and the developed countries to break down some of the logjams."
The president predicted that energy innovation, driven by economic opportunity, would spur far greater reductions than what nations were prepared to commit themselves to in the accord.
He also downplayed the necessity of treaty enforcement, saying, "There are going to be a lot of people who immediately say, the science says you got to do X, Y, Z; in the absence of some sort of legal enforcement, it's not going to happen. Well, we don't have international government, and even treaties, as we saw in Kyoto, are only as strong as the countries' commitments to participate."
The countries negotiating in Copenhagen were bedeviled from the start by matters of process. Officials shut down sessions to quell objections from poor countries, which were angry about the level of emission reductions being offered by wealthy nations.
Major emitters such as the U.S., China and Europe huddled in unofficial side talks -- only to rouse accusations of dealing in secret and silencing the voices of nations most vulnerable to climate change.
On Saturday morning, a few nations, including Venezuela, Cuba and Nicaragua, blocked the conference from adopting the Copenhagen Accord, which stemmed from an eleventh-hour deal cut Friday evening between Obama and leaders of four fast-growing nations. Later, the agreement was blessed by a group of countries that the United Nations said included "the biggest and the richest, and the smallest and most vulnerable."
The procedural frustrations of the conference boiled over early Saturday during a negotiating marathon that featured surreal twists of rhetoric, including a representative from the genocide-racked nation of Sudan comparing the Copenhagen Accord to the Holocaust -- a move that appeared to galvanize smaller nations to speak up for the agreement.
When the conference ended with an acknowledged, but not approved, accord, even climate policy veterans were puzzled.
The World Wildlife Fund's Keya Chatterjee compared the summit's aftermath to the confusion following the 2000 U.S. presidential election, when lawyers descended on Florida for recounts and the Supreme Court eventually intervened.
"It's going to take a while to figure out what just happened" to the negotiating process, she said. "I follow this process pretty closely, and I don't really know what happened. I don't think anyone at this point knows what happened."
Even Obama, at his triumphant news conference, confessed that he wasn't sure whether the U.S. would physically sign the agreement.
Conference leaders praised the accord warily, even as they warned of its faults.
"We now have a package to work with and begin immediate action," Yvo de Boer, the U.N.'s top climate official, said in a news release. "However, we need to be clear that it is a letter of intent and is not precise about what needs to be done in legal terms. So the challenge is now to turn what we have agreed politically in Copenhagen into something real, measurable and verifiable,"