Climate change: No cop out

At Copenhagen world leaders moved forward in step on climate change. More progress is needed in the year ahead.

No matter how firm the scientific evidence may be, confronting the climate change problem globally and effectively remains a challenge.

After weeks of negotiating and uncertainty about who would be on board, an 11th hour agreement dubbed the Copenhagen Accord was finally drawn up on 18 December by a limited group of leading countries, and the next day the Conference of the Parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (COP15) took note of the accord.

No-one doubted that solving climate change would be difficult, economically and politically, and for many in civil society, business and policy circles, the outcome of the conference fell short of expectations. But in the circumstances there was also some relief, and even satisfaction, that an agreement was finally reached. In the words of the Danish prime minister and conference chair, Lars Løkke Rasmussen, “we have achieved a result.”

Having heads of state and government from the world’s largest emitters gather in a room and acknowledge that “deep cuts in global emissions are required” and the need for countries to “co-operate in achieving the peaking of global and national emissions as soon as possible”, bearing in mind priorities such as development and poverty eradication, sent a serious signal. “Though far from perfect, the Copenhagen Accord is a hard-fought political agreement,” said OECD Secretary-General Angel Gurría after the conference. “With most countries likely to sign, it is a breakthrough towards collective international action to limit global emissions and help build cleaner, more resilient economies.”

The accord’s package of measures was agreed by leaders of both the largest emitting countries and small vulnerable states who together expressed a “strong political will to urgently combat climate change in accordance with the principle of common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities.” The ultimate objective is to “stabilise greenhouse gas concentration in the atmosphere at a level that would prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system”, which the agreement recognises as holding the increase in global temperature at “below 2 degrees Celsius”.

Various approaches to mitigate climate change are to be used, including market opportunities to enhance the cost-effectiveness of mitigating action. The accord recognises the need to tackle deforestation and agrees to establish a Copenhagen Green Climate Fund to mobilise financing and a high-level panel to study the contribution of potential sources of revenue, including alternative funding, towards meeting the finance goals. New financing to help developing countries to address climate change more generally was a notable feature of the agreement, with developed countries committing to “a goal of mobilising jointly US$100 billion a year by 2020 to address the needs of developing countries” and “to provide new and additional resources, including forestry and investments through international institutions, approaching US$30 billion for the period 2010-2012”, with least developed countries, small island developing states and Africa being the priorities.

An assessment of the implementation of the accord to be completed by 2015 is called for. For this to happen, many experts say more clarity will be needed on the likes of targets, market mechanisms and measuring, reporting and verifying progress. Policymakers, business and civil society will be working together to fill in these gaps in the run-up to the next climate change conference in Mexico later in 2010. The OECD is supporting international efforts towards a substantial outcome at that meeting. “We look forward to working with Mexico and the broader international community, ideally to establish a legally-binding agreement for post-2012 action,” Secretary-General Gurría said, warning that to “achieve this agreement, international organisations have a major role to play by informing the discussions and helping negotiating parties reach a common understanding of the issues at stake.”

Take the issue of targets for reducing greenhouse gas emissions. OECD analysis suggests that under the targets declared up until Copenhagen, developed countries would reduce emissions by only 18% in 2020 compared with 1990 levels, which is below the 25-40% reduction needed to stay within a 2°C temperature increase according to the scientists.

Developing countries also need to go further, and the OECD is working to help both developed and developing countries identify where they can step-up reductions, while still allowing the economy to grow. This also means greater analysis of how to adapt to climate change in all areas of economic development, and focusing on ways to assist developing countries to manage the risks and become more resilient to possible impacts of climate change.

On financing, the OECD is exploring ways for governments to ensure that their domestic policy frameworks set the right price for carbon and send the right signal to private investors. For instance, if developed countries reduced their emissions by 20% by 2020, based on a mix of policies that included instruments such as taxes and trading markets that put a price on carbon, they could raise the equivalent of 2.5% of their GDP. A fraction of that amount would be enough to supply the public money they agreed to provide in Copenhagen.

All these steps matter, reinforcing other areas policymakers must encourage, such as better access to technological innovations, more consumer and industry information, and more effort in adaptation.

While the outcome of Copenhagen did not deliver the certainty that many people had hoped for, declarations of targets and actions that both developed and developing countries have already made under the Copenhagen Accord indicate that COP15 did at least secure an important step in the right direction. The challenge the global community now faces is to deliver on country pledges for mitigation action by 2020. That means world leaders must step up to the plate and deliver climate finance, and agree on a broad post-2012 climate framework. The task will not be easy, but it is achievable, and necessary for a sustainable future. That should be enough to drive everyone forward on the road to COP16 in Mexico later this year. RJC

Download the Copenhagen Accord at  


©OECD Observer No 276-277 December 2009-January 2010

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