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An alternative to the UN

Many events alter history, but some are turning points that can put us on a completely different track. The UN conference on climate change in Copenhagen was a defining moment in which we had the opportunity to solve the world’s most complex problem. It tested our ability to act collectively for the greater good, and we failed miserably.

Officially, a deal was struck last week in Copenhagen. At the eleventh hour, US President Barack Obama furnished an agreement with leaders from China, India, Brazil and South Africa. Called the Copenhagen Accord, the deal recognizes the need to restrict warming to 2 °C and outlines financing to help the world’s poor cope with climate change, offering US$30 billion from rich nations in the period 2010-2012 and US$100 billion per year from 2020. The accord provides guidance on how nations can verify that their emissions are, in fact, falling, and in doing so it irons out a thorny issue that plagued two weeks of talks between almost 200 countries. Importantly, the deal also commits to implementing REDD, the mechanism that will protect forests, keeping their carbon locked up and out of the atmosphere.

But while any deal is better than no deal, the outcome from Copenhagen is worrisome for two reasons. Of most immediate concern, the accord ultimately fails to address the key objective of the UN body that oversees the climate talks — that is, to protect the world from dangerous climate change. Although the accord acknowledges that crossing the 2 °C threshold would be dangerous, it omits any reference to specific targets for reducing greenhouse gas emissions, not even including the pledges that were — to great applause — put forward by the world’s biggest polluters ahead of the summit. Meeting those targets would not guarantee a safe climatic future, but it would at least represent a firm commitment to changing course from business as usual.

Moreover, the outcome of Copenhagen calls into question the competency of the United Nations to solve the climate problem. Despite the presence of delegates from almost 200 countries, an agreement was finally forged behind closed doors between only five; others were then given a choice — they could accept what little was on offer or walk away from two painstaking weeks of talks without a deal and without the financial support they need to cope with the summit’s failure.

The manner in which the final deal was struck did not embody democracy, but it did allow for expediency. This suggests that we must now look outside the UN for solutions. With emissions still rising, postponing a decision on a legal treaty by a whole year, until the next UN convention, would be wholly wasteful. The accord that emerged last week signifies a starting point for convergence among the world’s biggest polluters, and it renews hope for the speedy passage of legislation through the US Senate. And if the last two weeks have proved anything, it’s that when the US moves, others follow.


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    Harry Rossignol said:

    China reached ‘peak coal’ in 2008.

    Although the worlds largest coal producing country(42% of world production), they became a new importer in 2008.

    It would be quite easy for China to reach a decision that increases in GDP based on imported coal, oil and natural gas was probably not in their national interest.

    It is quite easy for any country to conclude that increases in GDP based on importing increasingly scarce products was not in their long term national interest.

    US Energy use per capita has been flat since 1980.

    US CO2 intensity per dollar of GDP has been trending down since 1980.

    Surprise, President Obama promised to maintain that trend.

    US Politicians worked out that trying to grow the economy on the back of imported oil was a bad idea in the 1980’s.

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    Bob said:

    Olive, while not reaching any agreement at Copenhagen is distressing to you, what is disturbing to many of us is your utter contempt(deduced)for those of us who have dug deeply into the science of AGW and are not the least impressed. You editorial is written in a manner that reveals your lack of objectivity.601460

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    online newspapers USA said:

    Until economic alternative is available widely and easily , no carbon emitting industry will opt for it.No rule cant protect our environment ,until society accept it.More and more environment education is needed.

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    Ed G-W said:

    The hype was incredible and the action taken inaudible. Top level executives from each of the 200 countries should be consulted and properly briefed and a plan thrashed out with credible scientists in the loop. If the UN cannot oversee this then they should be scrapped and a body more substantial initiated.

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    Fred Heutte said:

    You are expounding a logical fallacy that is spreading through the ranks of conventional political analysts. What makes you think the same countries that reached such a weak deal in the backrooms at the UNFCCC, which at least has rules and customs to promote transparency and participation, will do any better in venues like the G-20 or MEF that do not?

    The lesson is not that the UNFCCC didn’t work, it’s that when countries abandoned its ground rules for expediency’s sake, they failed.

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