In any reasonable reckoning, the outcome of the Copenhagen climate summit falls far short of what the nations of the world, particularly the industrialised countries, absolutely need to do to combat global warming. The Copenhagen Accord, the product of personal negotiations between President Obama and the political leaders of China, India, Brazil, and South Africa, marked the end-run of a concerted U.S. strategy to corner the major developing economies in the climate negotiations. The terms suggest that the BASIC Four have successfully resisted, for now, the core strategy of the developed nations to set aside the Kyoto Protocol in its entirety and to alter the architecture of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. The unscripted follow-through to the last-minute submission of a draft accord in the summit plenary allowed a few determined nations to ensure that the Accord has less than full formal recognition. It remains an accord between interested parties that is “taken note of” under the UNFCCC process and “operationally commits” only those that declare their adherence. However, the developing countries have made some significant concessions in exchange. The Accord postpones any global quantitative commitment to climate mitigation, particularly any commitment to drastic emissions reduction by the developed nations. It pays disproportionate attention to the responsibilities of developing countries. The most serious import of these concessions is evident from the UNFCCC assessment that the current global mitigation effort allows for a significant probability that global temperature rise will reach 3 degrees Celsius. The report further observes that in the mitigation commitments currently made, the contribution of developing countries is greater than that of the developed countries. The cry of many small developing countries, led by tiny Tuvalu, that the promise of $100 billion in annual climate finance by 2020 amounts to asking them to trade their future “for thirty pieces of silver today,” is a call to conscience that must not be ignored.
It is arguable that in the state of play at Copenhagen, the developing nations had little room to ensure drastic emissions reductions by developed countries without risking the total collapse of the summit. The U.S. came with no offer of enhanced commitments nor were the others willing to bring this issue to the fore. From the ranks of the developed countries, there was no attempt to stand up to American high-handedness, typified by Mr. Obama’s take-it-or-leave-it speech wherein he mangled the well-known UNFCCC principle of “common but differentiated responsibilities” into a new formulation of “common but differentiated responses.” The later lament of the European Union that the Copenhagen Accord missed out on ambitious emission reduction targets need not be taken seriously. The political challenge before the BASIC Four, especially India and China, is to redefine the task of drastic emissions reduction globally, led by the developed nations, in a manner that refuses to counterpose the global public good to the development imperative. Climate laggards in the developed as well as developing world need to be pushed aside in a dialogue that has both the scientific case and the ethical imperative in focus. This demands a stronger display of political will that goes beyond firm negotiating stances and forces all major players in mitigation action to do their due share for humanity.