Why the ‘political agreement’ in Copenhagen was not a failure

Indian Minister of State for Environment and F...

Jairam Ramesh. Image by AFP/Getty Images via Daylife

A legally-binding agreement was never going to happen.

In testimony before India’s parliament yesterday, Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh said the BASIC countries–an acronym-jumble for Brazil, South Africa, India and China–would not have accepted a legally binding agreement:

“The BASIC group was able to… ensure that the Copenhagen Accord was not legally binding and there was no mention of a new legally binding instrument in the accord,” Ramesh testified.

“I did not go to Copenhagen to save the world. I went to Copenhagen to protect India’s national interests,” he added in a subsequent press conference. “For India, climate change is a developmental issue and my mandate was to protect India’s right to foster economic growth.”

Ramesh’s comments confirm accounts by European negotiators during and after the summit that a few key nations, led by China, opposed a binding agreement.

Without the BASIC countries, home to the world’s fastest growing economies, any agreement would have been meaningless. So a political agreement is all that could have emerged from the talks. And the difference between legal and political may be negligible anyway.

In 2007 Friends of the Earth sued Canada for failing to meet its obligations under the legally-binding Kyoto Protocol. A federal judge threw out the suit, saying it was not the court’s place to evaluate Canada’s compliance with an international commitment. A court order, he added, would be unenforceable.

Nonetheless, the UN has pursued legally-binding language, and officials from other BASIC countries have been less forthcoming than Ramesh has about their opposition.

Chinese officials reacted angrily yesterday after British Environment Minister Ed Miliband accused them Monday of obstructing the talks. But Miliband’s editorial was only the first salvo. In yesterday’s Guardian, a British journalist who sat in the talks also pinned the blame firmly on China:

The truth is this: China wrecked the talks, intentionally humiliated Barack Obama, and insisted on an awful “deal” so western leaders would walk away carrying the blame. How do I know this? Because I was in the room and saw it happen.

China’s strategy was simple: block the open negotiations for two weeks, and then ensure that the closed-door deal made it look as if the west had failed the world’s poor once again. And sure enough, the aid agencies, civil society movements and environmental groups all took the bait.

via Mark Lynas, The Guardian.

Lynas defends Obama from armchair lefty firebrands like George Monbiot and Naomi Klein, who have blamed Obama for a weak accord without considering what transpired in Copenhagen: “I saw Obama fighting desperately to salvage a deal,”Lynas writes, “and the Chinese delegate saying “no”, over and over again.”

In my experience, likewise, it was Obama who salvaged an accord from a meeting that otherwise would have ended in a shambles.

Ramesh’s statement does more than help to focus blame. It shows the narrow path delegates from different regions had to walk, making convergence rare and agreement difficult.

Ramesh was defending himself and the Copenhagen Accord yesterday from opposition-party representatives who accused him of giving up too much and compromising India’s sovereignty. (Video of the hearing)

The sovereignty concern stems from an issue of oversight. The BASIC group opposed international oversight of emissions-control efforts, while the United States refused to contribute aid without oversight.

The U.S. wanted the phrase “examination and assessment” in the accord, while India favored the term “information.” In the summit’s final hours, President Obama and the BASIC heads of state compromised, settling on “international consultations and analysis.”

Ramesh took heat for agreeing to that phrase.

“I plead guilty. I moved from information to consultation. Yes, there has been a shift,” he said.

India agreed to that phrase to avoid being “responsible for failure,” he said, and only after all parties agreed to add another clause ensuring national sovereignty.

“We have been able to incorporate a specific provision that these clearly defined guidelines will ensure that the national sovereignty is respected.”

In this morning’s Times of India, Ramesh pledges flexibility in negotations in 2010. China seems bent on a harder stance:

“The diplomatic and political wrangling over climate change that is opening up will be focused on the right to develop and space to develop,” a Foreign Ministry official, Yi Xianliang, said Monday in China’s official newspaper, the People’s Daily.

The BASIC countries were collectively responsible for 8.5 billion metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions in 2007, compared to 6.0 billion metric tons for the U.S. Their emissions are expected to grow much faster. But leaders of the BASIC countries worry that a legally binding cap on emissions could imperil economic growth.

Miliband revealed it was China that refused to include a hard emissions target in the Copenhagen Accord:

“We did not get an agreement on 50 percent reductions in global emissions by 2050 or on 80 percent reductions by developed countries. Both were vetoed by China, despite the support of a coalition of developed and the vast majority of developing countries.”

Environmental groups have criticized the accord because it allows the signatory nations to volunteer the emission cuts they are willing to make. But it’s naive to think emission cuts could be imposed on any nation by the UN, especially in a proceeding in which 192 governments are trying to reach consensus.

The Copenhagen Accord does include a commitment to keep the mean global fever from exceeding 2 degrees Celsius. Climate scientists in Copenhagen argued that current national commitments would not achieve that goal, so nations are under pressure to make deeper cuts as negotiations continue in 2010.

In a concession to small-island states and least-developed countries, the accord mandates a review of that goal in 2015, with the option to adjust it to 1.5 degrees.

India could improve on its promise to reduce its carbon intensity 25 percent by 2020, Ramesh also said yesterday, and should do so for the sake of its people.

Index of posts from Copenhagen

Previous post:

Next post: