As BSR predicted, COP15 came down to hard bargaining between the United States and China, and the event materialized as much less of an end to climate policy than as a beginning. This turned out to be an understatement: no binding commitment was reached, and it is increasingly clear that an effective agreement will take much more than simply another meeting.
In terms of progress, views are mixed. Some have called it a complete failure. That is because leaders have been working on the issue for two decades and have had two years since Bali, where they agreed to develop firm action plans. Yet, at Copenhagen, nothing concrete or enforceable was produced; rather, negotiators simply agreed to have more talks, a result which the UN “took note” of—that is, acknowledged symbolically weakly.
Also, the process leading to that point was rather undiplomatic. A deal (the Copenhagen Accord) was rammed through by a few countries—notably the United States and China—without real involvement by the G77 or the EU in crafting it. This subverted the regular UN process while passing over details on critical issues like forestry and carbon markets.
On the other hand, there weren’t any surprises. In the time leading up to Copenhagen, it became clear that such a complex undertaking would require more than one event. That is due in part to the fact that U.S. President Obama cannot act unilaterally on behalf of his government, no matter how ambitious he may be.
The fact that there were no real walkouts or other disasters, and that a foundational political agreement was developed, shows that there was real progress forward. Moreover, Copenhagen proved that climate change has not only become a mainstream agenda item, but that it has become one of the most important political movements in history, with more than 100 heads of state involved (at Kyoto, there was only one there, and it represented the hosts).
On balance, it is disappointing that Copenhagen did not produce more needed clarity and predictability to encourage companies to invest in low-carbon energy, agriculture, and emissions markets. But perhaps there will be a method to this madness. There is still time to act, and we have the ability to ratchet up commitments once it is understood how these commitments contribute to jobs and investment opportunities. Also, for better or for worse, it appears that Copenhagen will spawn negotiations and forums among smaller numbers of large countries (such as the G-20), to expedite progress. This will likely increase opportunities for businesses to contribute in progressive ways.
As for next steps, Al Gore—someone who arguably has more insight into these negotiations than anybody—offers two things: First, why not keep up the momentum and hold COP16 in Mexico City in July 2010 rather than November? Second, says Gore, “The key to success remains as it has always been: to convince people one by one, person by person, family by family, community by community, of the need for the present generation to accept and understand the obligation we have for the future of humanity, to take the steps necessary in our time to safeguard their future.” Gore is referring to grassroots communication. Keep that in mind as the U.S. Senate debates American legislation—which will be key to building (or losing support for) multilateral commitments—this winter.