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The Copenhagen Climate talks were supposed to be the place where the global community finally achieved broad consensus, providing at the very least a political way forward that everyone could rally behind. Conservationists hoped that this new consensus would include strong and unambiguous recognition of the role of nature and wilderness in climate change. I attended the Copenhagen Climate meeting with this message – in the form of the Message from Merida launched at WILD9, the World Wilderness Congress in Mexico one month earlier. The Message from Merida was signed by over 70 NGOs representing many of the largest conservation organizations in the world. With up to 20% of emissions coming from the destruction of wild nature – more than from all the cars and trucks on the planet – the critical role of natural ecosystems in the climate change equation should be obvious. Alas too little progress was made on this or any other front.

The question on everyone’s minds now, after emerging from the Copenhagen whirlwind is where are we exactly? Achieving consensus in Copenhagen would have meant finding some way to reunite, or at least establish coherence between the two UNFCCC negotiating “tracks”, which have been in place since the climate talks in Bali over two years ago. But bringing the two tracks together turned out to be a bit more elusive than anticipated.

What are the two tracks? One negotiating track is for countries that have signed and ratified the Kyoto Protocol, and believe the way forward is to extend the Protocol for another five year “commitment period” after the first commitment period ends in 2012. In essence that would mean that developed countries would sign up for new emissions reductions targets and developing countries would continue to be off the hook – free of any binding emissions reductions commitments. They didn’t cause this crisis: in their view the developed countries that got us where we are now should hurry up and put money on the table to fix the mess.

A second negotiating track is for countries that have not signed Kyoto – i.e. the U.S. – or countries that believe that a new protocol replacing Kyoto is the way forward. The catch in this second negotiating track is that developed countries are arguing for a new protocol that includes binding and verifiable emissions reductions commitments for fast-developing countries that are major carbon emitters e.g. China and India. This is something that countries like India and China have adamantly refused to consider, especially in light of the very weak emissions reductions targets and financial commitments that developed countries have put on the table.

But after two weeks of furious negotiations in Copenhagen, the tracks did not come together. The fundamental impasse over money and who would have binding emissions reductions targets remained and the talks were gridlocked. Anyone who has ever harbored conspiracy theories about UN power grabs would have been immediately reassured by the intense dysfunction in Copenhagen. The UN does not work without consensus.

And so the result at the end of the two weeks was the Copenhagen Accord, a last minute rabbit pulled out of a hat, apparently in large part by President Obama’s refusal to just let things be. Only a handful of countries negotiated and signed onto the Accord, and it emerged as something of a red-headed step child of the climate negotiations. Many countries complained the Accord was not negotiated in a transparent way and boycotted it, and so the UNFCCC was left to politely “take note” of the document at the end of the conference. Then, with only partial endorsement of the Copenhagen Accord, the UNFCCC had no choice but to announce that it was extending the two tracks for another year. So now, in effect, there are three tracks. And no one is quite sure which train to board.

One feature of the Copenhagen Accord is that it set a date of January 31 for countries to consider the Accord, and decide whether they wanted to sign on and pledge their emissions reductions commitments in the Accord’s annexes. The UNFCCC issued a release yesterday announcing that 55 countries, representing 78% of global emissions and including most major economies, had signed on and pledged emissions reductions. Of course, the pledges (which are non-binding anyway) don’t get emissions down to a level necessary to avoid a 2°C as the Accord calls, for even if all the countries lived up to their commitments. That awkward reality aside, Yvo de Boer the UNFCCC Executive Secretary characterized the pledges as an important development newly invigorating climate negotiations.

So is the Copenhagen Accord the right train to board? There are certainly those who see no reason why the stalemate over money and emissions targets won’t play out exactly the same way in Mexico at the next UNFCCC meeting as it did in Copenhagen. Informal talks will continue in the coming months in different venues, for example at G8 and G20 meetings, so we may get a better gauge of what to expect from world leaders soon. But if that reasoning is correct, and the completely non-binding Copenhagen Accord is currently the only viable track, then prospects for a strong, new climate agreement in the near future are dim. That also means that prospects for a big boost to wilderness conservation from a new climate agreement won’t be forthcoming any time soon. It’s still far too early to give up on that possibility. But it’s an important reminder that we need to push the wilderness agenda at all levels and in all venues. National and State/Provincial level efforts are crucial, as is the Convention on Biological Diversity’s COP 10 this fall in Nagoya, Japan.

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