Hopenhaggling for a Miracle
For the better part of a decade, U.S. greens, liberals, and EU policymakers insisted that international efforts to reduce carbon emissions had floundered due to Bush administration intransigence. Once the United States put a serious plan to reduce its emissions on the table, the argument went, the rest of the world would get serious about reducing emissions.
But even with a domestic cap approved in the House, Senate leadership promising to follow suit, and the president promising to sign it, U.S. negotiators were unable to secure emissions reduction commitments from China, India, or other developing countries. The further the Obama administration stepped out on the limb, promising emissions reduction action that had not yet passed the U.S. Congress, the farther into the distance agreement receded.
After the realization that the Copenhagen summit would result in nothing -- no new treaty, no emissions reductions, no new technology -- the hunger for symbolism grew stronger. Greens formed the magic number 350 with their bodies, tweeted deliriously, and threw their lot in with tiny island countries like Tuvalu and the Maldives, which championed green demands for deeper emissions cuts. The United Nations hired an advertising agency to hokily brand the summit "Hopenhagen" and create a creepy movie about global warming earthquakes and tsunamis menacing a little girl's dreams.
Under pressure from green groups, Obama agreed to parachute into the talks at the end instead of the beginning to bolster the perception that progress was being made. But the talks that Obama parachuted into were going far worse than anyone had expected. Attendees had not even been able to agree upon a series of symbolic agreements. China sent increasingly lower-level diplomats to meet with Obama and even tried to block developed countries from making binding emissions-reduction commitments.
A long night of shuttle diplomacy and tortured wordsmithing saved greens and U.N. officials from having to openly admit that climate negotiations had completely collapsed. Major emitters -- China, India, Brazil, South Africa, and the United States -- issued a joint communiqué pronouncing that they had agreed to keep negotiating among themselves. The United States made a nonbinding commitment to reduce its emissions under the auspices of the Waxman-Markey bill, should it, or something like it, ever pass. China agreed to keep its emissions to business-as-usual levels of growth through 2030.
When all was said and done, greens split over the denouement in predictable fashion. Grassroots greens cast Obama as Bush-lite and accused him of blowing up the talks and discrediting the United Nations as a venue for climate-change negotiations. National green leaders, who had spent the previous year insisting that progress toward capping U.S. carbon emissions would ensure the successful conclusion of a global emissions-reduction agreement in Copenhagen, pretended like they'd never suggested that the United Nation's climate change conference could ever achieve such an outcome and praised Obama for ditching the United Nations and striking out to reach an agreement -- any agreement -- among major emitters.
But the intramural debate among greens about the utility of the United Nations as a venue for reaching emissions reduction agreements obscured the Copenhagen summit's larger outcomes. The entire Kyoto framework for reducing carbon emissions died with the U.N. climate negotiations at Copenhagen. While mainstream greens praised Obama for ditching the United Nations and getting China and other developing countries to discuss making their own climate commitments, they continue to imagine that the final disposition of that process will be binding emissions-reduction agreements among major emitting countries.
But such an outcome is unlikely. China and other developing countries are unlikely to agree to binding emissions reductions, and the "national schedules" that some have proposed to take their place are unlikely to appease domestic constituencies in the United States and elsewhere concerned that domestic emissions-reduction commitments will further exacerbate the economic advantages that China and other developing economies have on their competitors in the developed world.