Q & A: Climate of Compromise

Not so fast: Leaders from five countries, including Bolivia’s Evo Morales, above left, and Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez, center,

Not so fast: Leaders from five countries, including Bolivia's Evo Morales, above left, and Venezuela's Hugo Chavez, center, refused to consent to accord; protestors, above right, demonstrated throughout conference. left: Peter Dejong/AP, right: AFP/Getty Images

Duke sent a delegation of twenty-two researchers, policy analysts, and students to the Copenhagen climate-change conference this past December. Last-minute deal making, and deal breaking, made headlines as world leaders sought a plan of action to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions and mitigate the effects of global climate change. Brian Murray M.S. '87, Ph.D. '92, director for economic analysis at the Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions and research professor at the Nicholas School of the Environment, offers his impressions on what happened at the conference.

Brian Murray M.S. '87, Ph.D. '92

What kinds of things happen behind the scenes at a major climate conference like this?
Our delegation from Duke was what's called an observer organization. So we can observe the process but not the negotiations—we can't be in the room. There was another time, at another conference, that I was actually considered part of the delegation, and the negotiations can get kind of arcane, with a lot of wordsmithing of the text.

Most of us who operate in climate policy are there with our colleagues—these are people we're working on projects with, people we have joint initiatives with—and so, what a conference like this ends up being is a number of very long days of project meetings, making progress on your initiatives.

Though, most important, if you're there, you're accessible to the government delegations. At their request, we had several meetings with members of the U.S. government delegation as they sought clarification on issues that helped inform their participation in the negotiations.

What was the most important thing that came out of the talks?
Literally the most important thing to come out of the talks was the three-page agreement called the Copenhagen Accord. It was basically a political document, and by political document we mean an agreement across the countries on a set of principles and a process to move forward on.

What's notably absent from that agreement are any real specific targets or timetables for what emission reductions will be required of what countries and at what point in time. But, there's a plan to get those commitments on paper.

No one, really, going into Copenhagen thought that they would come out with "the U.S.
agrees to a specific target by 2020, the U.K. agrees to this, and China agrees to that." So
you've got a general accord that comes out of this that says all of the countries of the world agree in principle on the following things: the need to do something about climate change
and the reality that most of the expenditure to fix the problem, at least in the immediate term,
is going to have to be from the developed countries.

What is the role of developing countries in the negotiations?
The developing countries have to participate in some way. That doesn't mean that they have to finance all of it or most of it—or any of it, in some cases—themselves.

In the U.N. there are only two types of countries: You're either a developed country or a developing country, which some see as a problem in the U.N. process. China is a developing country, just like Chad, just like Haiti. They're treated sort of the same in this process, so clearly nothing can be done in the long run about climate change if we say, "China, do your best and the rest of us will make real hard commitments."

Something has to be done in terms of them committing to take action. The nature of those actions doesn't have to be the same as the developed countries, but some sort of action is necessary.

How will nations be held to the agreement?
When President Obama left Copenhagen on Friday [December 18], the last day of the conference, he thought that the unanimous agreement had been forged, that there was a fully binding Copenhagen Accord, even as a somewhat vague set of principles.

But, what happened was that late in the day Friday, five parties—Venezuela, Cuba, Bolivia, Nicaragua, and Sudan—all essentially refused to consent to the Copenhagen Accord written as it was. Legal scholars have been scratching their heads and trying to figure out what all this means.

The issue is whether this is something that requires unanimity or consensus, and apparently it requires consensus. If any major objections are put out there—and these five countries stepping in and saying, "We don't agree," was deemed by the chair to be a major objection—then it's not an agreement, so the term that was used was that "the community takes note of the Copenhagen Accord." They'll then try to iron out the details, or iron out an agreement that is more of a consensus. The ideal consensus is unanimity.

Was this a successful outcome?
It depends what your ambitions were.

If your ambitions were to take the first steps to go beyond the Kyoto Protocol, then I would say it was successful. If your ambitions were that there was going to be a hard, legally binding agreement with strong emissions targets and timetables from all the countries in the world, then it did not accomplish that.

Part of this is that the U.S. came to Copenhagen with an agreement in one body of Congress to implement a cap-and-trade program that was largely consistent with the goals of the Copenhagen Accord, but the Senate hadn't passed it. Congress is not particularly interested in passing legislation in the U.S. if major emitters such as China don't agree to anything tough. That's the back-and-forth game: Who moves first?

One hopeful thing that came out of Copenhagen was a fairly strong agreement to reduce emissions from deforestation and degradation, called REDD, which we've worked on extensively for some time on the policy front. It basically said that deforestation reduction has to be part of the solution, and real money was put on the table by the U.S. and other countries starting at $3.5 billion a year, which I believe is still moving forward.

What comes next?
The first thing that happens is that the countries put down the commitments they are going to make, for emissions, money flow, and actions. There will be meetings during the year leading up to Mexico City, which will be the next large Conference of Parties meeting, in November, and will try to accomplish what wasn't done at Copenhagen.

Another aspect of this is that some people now question whether the U.N. process is the correct process to resolve these issues. Climate policy is complicated and requires collective action. The greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere come from economic development in the developed world. It wasn't intentionally done to harm the atmosphere, but those were the consequences.

So there are some deep and serious questions about whether the broad-based, 196-party U.N. convention on climate change is the best way to deal with the mitigation problem, or whether small groups like the G-20 or a group that the U.S. helped create, called the Major Economies Forum on Energy and Climate, might be a more efficient way to deal with this problem. You'll get the countries responsible for 90 percent of the emissions in the room hammering out a solution. But what that does is take the voice away from all the other countries who may say, "You're not doing enough."

My guess is that there's too much that's been invested in the venue itself to just disband it, so it might be that the U.N. deals with some climate change issues  but that the mitigations, targets, and actions might be taken by smaller groups.

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