Copenhagen’s moment of truth

On Sunday, we will learn if world leaders meant what they said when they agreed last month to act collectively to stabilize Earth’s overheating climate.

Having failed to complete a legally binding agreement at the chaotic Copenhagen summit, world leaders instead endorsed what they said would be a “politically binding” agreement -- the Copenhagen accord -- that calls on countries to submit national targets and action plans for reducing greenhouse gas emissions. The plans are due by Sunday, and without them, the accord is a hollow symbol.

Defections by major developed or developing countries would doom, in its infancy, the three-page political agreement cobbled together in the Danish capital.

The accord is far from perfect. It will not in itself rescue humankind from dangerous and unpredictable levels of warming. But it provides a solid platform to do so, and the way it came about suggests a new model for global leadership, one that broke through the stalemated U.N. climate negotiations of recent years.


The deal was struck in face-to-face negotiations between President Obama and the leaders of four emerging world giants: China, India, Brazil and South Africa. Disagreements between the four developing nations and the U.S. had deadlocked negotiations among a larger group of leaders from 27 countries in Europe, Asia, Africa and the Americas. The compromise hammered out by the five leaders was ultimately accepted by almost 190 nations after a marathon all-night session. Only a small group of countries -- including Sudan, Cuba, Tuvalu, Bolivia, and Venezuela -- opposed the agreement.

The accord included three elements essential to reversing the dangerous buildup of global warming pollution in the atmosphere.

First, the group set a long-term goal of holding the global temperature rise to 2 degrees Centigrade, or 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit (so far, temperatures have risen about 0.8 degrees Centigrade, or 1.4 degrees Fahrenheit). Second, all big emitters -- not just the developed countries of the north -- agreed to control global warming pollution in their countries. Third, the countries in the accord agreed to regular reporting and review of progress on their commitments.

The “Copenhagen Five” -- the group of leaders whose compromise made the accord possible -- is very different than the small group of wealthy northern nations that have steered global economic policy since World War II. Only the U.S. is part of both groups. Collectively, the five represent 45% of the world’s population and 44% of global greenhouse gas emissions.


Whether the “politically binding” accord is ultimately workable will depend on a variety of factors. It will require political will among a broader group of nations. Yes, it depends on China, India, Brazil and South Africa. But it also depends on the nations of the European Union, traditional leaders on climate action, to provide leadership in implementing the accord. It will require nations to stand by their Copenhagen pledges. (The U.S. pledge, delivered in person by Obama, is for a 17% cut in domestic emissions from 2005 levels by 2020.) And it will need countries such as Japan, Australia and Indonesia to follow through and register their commitments.

Which brings us back to Sunday’s all-important deadline.

As I write this, the signs are encouraging that the great majority of nations -- including those that matter most -- will “associate” themselves with the accord, as required, and register pledges. Two of the Copenhagen Five -- Brazil and South Africa -- are already signatories. The United States is expected to register its plan before the deadline, reiterating its Copenhagen pledge. And China, the world’s biggest greenhouse gas emitter, and India have said publicly they will sign up and make commitments. Given that, less than a year ago, these same countries were vociferously arguing that the industrialized world must bear the entire emissions-reduction burden, this is grounds for optimism.

China, in particular, has strongly signaled that it intends to green its massive, polluting economy. Last month, with the dust barely settled on the Copenhagen summit, it adopted new measures requiring electric utilities to purchase wind and solar energy.

In addition, the European Union has signaled that it will stand by the accord, and Australia, Canada and South Korea have already “associated” themselves.

The biggest single question hanging over the fate of both the Copenhagen accord and ongoing United Nations climate negotiations is whether the U.S. will take the steps required to reduce pollution and join the fierce global competition to sell tomorrow’s low-carbon technologies. The willingness of China, India, Brazil and South Africa to break with the past and commit to controlling emissions signals not only a concern with the effects of global warming on their populations, but a realization that they need to adopt clean-energy policies to compete. They have come to see low-carbon development not as a threat but an opportunity.

In the wake of the Massachusetts Senate election, however, it is not so clear how the U.S. will proceed.

Though the House has passed a comprehensive clean-energy and climate-protection bill, Senate leaders are struggling to find 60 votes for effective legislation. A bipartisan group is working to craft compromise legislation emphasizing energy security and jobs. Such an approach -- laying out a road map for green jobs, energy security and pollution reduction -- makes sense for the U.S. economy and would give life to the Copenhagen accord.


The mood in Washington is grim and partisan, but I firmly believe that Congress can rise to the challenge of effective climate legislation. A solid majority of Americans continues to support clean energy and reducing global warming pollution. I hope their views prevail.

Jonathan Lash is president of the World Resources Institute in Washington.