Obama Announces Climate Deal, UNFCCC Crumbles?

December 18, 2009 | Jesse Jenkins, Devon Swezey, Yael Borofsky,

In a late night press conference at the close of the international climate negotiations in Copenhagen, President Obama declared that a "meaningful deal" had been reached with major emitting nations moments before boarding Air Force One and returning to the United States. While the final structure of "the Copenhagen Accord" is still in question, the content and reverberations of President Obama's speech today leave little doubt that the UNFCCC process, for all intents and purposes, is dead. Whether it continues to shamble on like a zombie through sheer force of inertia is yet to be determined...


Breaking free from the auspices of the UN's 190+ nation negotiating framework, major emitters, including the U.S., China, India, Brazil, and South Africa, appear poised to move forward with or without the rest of the UNFCCC nations.

According to a flurry of tweets and reports from observers on the ground in Copenhagen, Lumumba Stanislaus Di-Aping, the Sudanese chairman of the "G77," a large group of developing nations, is crying bloody murder, declaring that the deal "locks countries into a cycle of poverty forever" and saying "Obama has eliminated any difference between him and Bush." The EU is grudgingly signing on to the accord "as better than no accord." And protestors, led by increasingly radical activist Bill McKibben, are gathering outside the Bella Center hoisting images of President Obama and crying "shame on you."

"The President has wrecked the UN (and the planet)," declared a press release from McKibben's 350.org.

Despite the backlash he left behind in Copenhagen, President Obama's remarks at a press conference earlier today appeared firmly rooted in the political and economic realities of climate policy and seemed to embrace many of the tenets of an emerging Climate Realpolitik that could finally spell a new way forward for effective international action on climate change.

In his remarks, Obama succinctly outlined the fundamental tension that has impeded progress on addressing climate change under the UNFCCC process for 17 years.

"Essentially you have a situation where the Kyoto Protocol and some of the subsequent accords called on the developed countries who were signatories to engage in some significant mitigation actions and also to help developing countries. And there were very few, if any, obligations on the part of the developing countries.

Now, in some cases, for countries that are extremely poor, still agrarian and so forth, they're just not significant contributors to greenhouse gases. But what's happened obviously since 1992 is that you've got emerging countries like China and India and Brazil that have seen enormous economic growth and industrialization. So we know that moving forward it's going to be necessary if we're going to meet those targets for some changes to take place among those countries. It's not enough just for the developed countries to make changes. Those countries are going to have to make some changes, as well -- not of the same pace, not in the same way, but they're going to have to do something to assure that whatever carbon we're taking out of the environment is not just simply dumped in by other parties.

On the other hand, from the perspective of the developing countries like China and India, they're saying to themselves, per capita our carbon footprint remains very small, and we have hundreds of millions of people who don't even have electricity yet, so for us to get bound by a set of legal obligations could potentially curtail our ability to develop, and that's not fair."



Under the new pending agreement, a time-line to achieve a "legally binding" international treaty has been dropped and the President said that reaching such an agreement "is going to be very hard and it's going to take some time."

President Obama also reminded the world that a "legally binding" international climate agreement is not, in the end, legally binding anyway, while repudiating the notion that "Science" can dictate and bind national economic and political decision-making.



"And the second point that I'd make is that Kyoto was legally binding and everybody still fell short anyway...And so I think that it's important for us, instead of setting up a bunch of goals that end up just being words on a page and are not met, that we get moving--everybody is taking as aggressive a set of actions as they can....I think that as people step back, I guarantee you there are going to be a lot of people who immediately say, the science says you got to do X, Y, Z; in the absence of some sort of legal enforcement, it's not going to happen. Well, we don't have international government, and even treaties, as we saw in Kyoto, are only as strong as the countries' commitments to participate."



The framework of the deal appears to essentially be an agreement amongst major emitters to move forward with verifiable domestic actions to reduce carbon emissions and spur clean development, rejecting the abstract emissions targets and timetables that were the hallmark of the Kyoto protocol.

Noting that the deal falls short of many expectations, Obama recognized that technology is our last best hope to bridge the gap between what actions nations are willing (or able) to take today and what climate scientists argue is necessary to avoid the worst consequences of climate change:



"Our hope is that by investing in clean energy, in research, in development, in innovation, that in the same way that the Clean Air Act ended up spurring all kinds of innovations that solved the acid rain problem at a much cheaper and much more rapid pace than we expected, that by beginning to make progress and getting the wheels of innovation moving, that we are in fact going to be in a position to solve this problem. But we're going to need technological breakthroughs to get to the goals that we're looking for."



Hopefully, it was only President Obama's visible exhaustion that led him to confuse investments in research and innovation with regulations like the Clean Air Act, that, while successful for their limited purpose, offer no real insight or viable strategy for solving a technology innovation challenge as complex as climate change. If President Obama is serious about embracing technology innovation as a means of accelerating the creation of a clean energy economy and fueling sustainable global development, we hope the President and his advisers will take a fresh look at the kind of strategy necessary to jumpstart a clean energy revolution and make clean energy cheap.

Ultimately, we will have to wait and see as the dust settles in Copenhagen whether the first sprouts of a new Climate Realpolitik, focused on the clean technology innovation capable of achieving real climate progress, have emerged. Mainstream green groups like the League of Conservation Voters are already spinning the deal as "a breakthrough" that "provides a path forward towards a binding global treaty in 2010," raising the specter that the UNFCCC may shamble onwards... Stay tuned.

Update: 12/18/09 7:42 pm Pacific time, 4:42 AM Copenhagen time. The COP15 plenary has reconvened (live webcast here). It now appears to be a forum for the smaller developing nations to cry "Injustice!" about major emitters deal. Tiny Tuvalu leads a procession of nations, including Bolivia, Venezuela and Cuba decrying deal. The drama continues...

Update: 12/19/09 4:50 pm Pacific time.
The COP15 has concluded in Copenhagen with the parties unable to reach the consensus of all nations required to make the Copenhagen Accord operational under the auspices of the UNFCCC.

Throughout an early morning plenary session convened after President Obama's announcement that a the "meaningful and breakthrough" deal had been reached between major emitting nations, a handful of countries, chiefly Bolivia, Venezuela, Cuba and Sudan, blocked agreement and refused to back down, despite appeals from almost all other nations -- ranging from the EU to the Maldives -- to accept the deal as the only route forward.

In the end, the international climate conference concluded with the UNFCCC officially "noting" the Copenhagen Accord -- essentially the 190+ assembled nations acknowledge that the document exists, and that's it. That outcome leaves the future of the UNFCCC and that body's participation in the path from the hastily reached 11th hour accord to an operational treaty or international agreement highly uncertain.

It is clear as the dust settles after the dramatic final hours of the COP15 that the ramifications and reverberations of the Copenhagen Accord could take weeks or months to fully play out.

Here's several initial post-mortems on the COP15 (provided without endorsement). Breakthrough's analysts will have more on Monday.