Copenhagen, the Accord, and the Way Forward

by Trevor Houser, Peterson Institute for International Economics

March 2010

Policymakers and the public had high expectations for the UN climate change summit in Copenhagen last December. Since the international community embarked on a new round of negotiations in Bali in 2007, elections in the United States, Australia, and Japan raised developed countries' climate change ambitions and a number of emerging economies—including China, India, and Brazil—announced their first ever nationwide climate change targets. Yet while political will to tackle climate change appeared to be building, international climate change negotiations were failing to deliver. The UN process launched in Bali struggled for two years to reach agreement on even the most basic issues between the Parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). These two trends collided in Copenhagen, when ministers and heads of state arrived to find a negotiation process in disarray and no consensus text on the table. An eleventh-hour diplomatic flurry by leaders of a diverse and representative set of countries produced a political accord addressing the core issues of the negotiations. While attracting broad support among the 192 Parties to the UNFCCC, the accord did not receive unanimous approval. Instead, the UN "took note" of the agreement.

This policy brief assesses the two-week conference, evaluates the Copenhagen Accord that resulted, and discusses key issues the international community will face moving forward. Author Trevor Houser argues that despite the chaos in Copenhagen, the accord is a significant step in addressing global climate change. The chaos in Copenhagen presents the international community with a unique opportunity to go back to first principles and craft a more suitable and sustainable long-term approach to this challenge. Houser calls for combining the UN process aimed at producing a legally binding agreement with a small-group process that would start work immediately on a politically binding basis—an approach that would prevent near-term substantive action from being held hostage to disagreements over legal form while demonstrating that meaningful international cooperation is possible and thus building support for a future treaty.

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