After Copenhagen: On being sadder but wiser, China, and justice as the way forward

(Revised, Feb 19, 2010)

(For a snappier version of this analysis — without the charts! — see the Earth Island Journal)

First up, this is not another enumeration of confident judgments. I do not presume that Copenhagen was an unmitigated failure, or that this failure was Obama’s fault, or, as is the fashion, that China was the ugliest of them all. Nor do I suggest that the South’s negotiators made impossible demands. Or argue, with disingenuous resignation, that the UN process is obsolete. Or believe that, finally, only a US breakthrough really matters.

To be sure, Copenhagen was absolutely a failure, in the precise sense that it failed to catapult us into the fair and ambitious global mobilization that’s needed to prevent climate catastrophe. But this was never going to happen. What did happen, as the veteran Bangladeshi policy activist Saleem Huq put it, was a shaking of the traditional pieces of the global geo-political puzzle and their landing in a new and unfamiliar configuration. In this sense, the question of success and failure is moot. The real question is whether this new configuration offers us new ways forward, and if any of them lead beyond the “North / South impasse (a misleading formulation that implies an equal division of blame) to enable a meaningful global mobilization.

This question cannot be answered by the hard, uncompromising pragmatics of campaign logic. This is a time for reflection, not for pushing forward, one more meeting, one more demo, one more demand at a time. This time we need strategy as well as tactics, and we need it fast. 2010, which will culminate with another showdown in December in Mexico, is going to be another big year. As, for that matter, will 2011, and 2012, and all the other years in the brief period just ahead, the post-Copenhagen period in which we must, finally, begin to move.

It may be a bit hyperbolic to say this, but Copenhagen seems to have marked a defining moment, and not just in the climate war. COP15 also saw the long prepared debut of a new geopolitics. In it, China looms large, though its emergence is hardly the end of the tale. Copenhagen, in fact, may mark the real beginning of the 21st Century, in approximately the sense that 1914, and the start of WWI, is commonly taken to mark the real beginning of the 20th.

Inside / outside

Copenhagen was more than the negotiations, and far more than the Copenhagen Accord. So, while this piece isn’t about the demonstrations, the networking, the art, the slogans, the debate and the movement that was Copenhagen, it must say that, were it not for the street heat, even this provisional branch point would not be ours. To make sense of Copenhagen, you have to see it as a milestone in a process that’s still unfolding, within negotiating halls but also in civic spaces around the world.

Debates, in particular, were critical in Copenhagen, debates that span the agenda and the world. Justice and science, realism and necessity, capitalism and democracy, the cost of affluence and the rights of the poor. It was all in play, all encoded in the blow-by-blow of the negotiations. There were the plenary meetings and the backrooms; there was the convergence center and the sprawling, astonishing demonstration. There were flash mobs, and whats more they were within the conference hall! There was the climate movement itself, which is far clearer on the logic and demands of climate justice than it was even a year ago. In fact, its not too much to say that, as far as climate justice went, Copenhagen marked childhoods end. The slogans, with their focus on justice, system change and emergency their insistence that the accord has to be both fair and ambitious were the right ones. Second-order critiques of false solutions were in their proper place. There was a sense of proportion, and it came wrapped in urgency.

Now, the stock-taking. The strategy meetings and revisitations and speculation. And these too carry the air of something new. The obvious point is that, as a focus for public education and movement building, Copenhagen was an incalculable success. Most everyone, from Barack Obama on the one hand to Lumumba Di-Aping, the Sudanese chair of the Souths G77 negotiating bloc on the other, from you to me as well, dear reader, knows one hell of a lot more about the climate crisis, and its politics, than we did a year ago.

We already knew, of course, that we face a planetary emergency. This has been obvious for years. The difference now is that thanks to, and Mohamed Nasheed, the President of the Maldives, and the Pan African Climate Justice Alliance, and a whole lot of terrified scientists we know that we know it. And that we know it in a robust and appalling manner, with meaningful geographical precision. We know, at least in outline, what will happen in Africa, though we may wish we didn’t. And Tibet. And the Australian grain belt, and Florida, and the southern oceans, and of course Greenland. We’ve talked about the bogs, and the permafrost, and the methane. We know about the feedbacks. And the forests, and the people. We know how they will suffer. How they will die.

Necessity vs. possibility

Copenhagen failed to deliver the reduction targets and financial commitments needed to support a fair, ambitious, and binding global climate accord. But this, fortunately, isn’t the end of the story. We can also ask if Copenhagen was a failure when compared to, not what is necessary, but rather what was possible. And whether (this is a key twist) it opened new possibilities, or at least succeeded in preventing new possibilities from being foreclosed.

Clearly, there were successes in Copenhagen. The 350 campaign was one of the biggest, for by the end of the melee-cum-jamboree, the 350 ppm target, which once seemed so obscure, had become an object of plain speech, had been endorsed by 112 countries, and had in many ways supplanted the 2C temperature target as the mark and measure of true climate stabilization. Which, as it happens, is a story with critical details that have been almost entirely ignored.

For a glimpse at these, but take a look at the following graphic.[1]



Figure 1: The century’s emissions to date (the grey area, showing the emissions drop that accompanied the great recession), the 350 pathway (the top of the red area), a 2C pathway consistent a 75% chance of keeping warming below 2C (the red line), and a G8 style pathway (the thin black line) consistent with the aim (popular among the elites) to halve global emissions by 2050. Also shown (the big numbers), are the number of Gigatonnes of CO2 that each step in this sequence of ever less adequate targets would add to total cumulative emissions.

This graphic, which well represents the methods and conclusions of current science, shows that a global 350 ppm emissions pathway (illustrated here with a 2011 global emissions peak and global 2020 emissions that are 42% below 1990 levels) is extremely challenging. It also shows a 2C pathway (the red line), one that has a reasonable if not comforting chance of actually meeting the 2C target. And, most importantly, it shows the “G8 style” emission pathway (global 2050 emissions projected to be 50% below 1990 levels), the one that was almost written into the Copenhagen Accord, the one which the elites persist in calling a 2C pathway.

The much mis-reported context within which this pathway was dropped from the Copenhagen Accord is discussed below, but for the moment, its important to understand why we should not mourn its loss. Such a pathway has a less than 50% chance of holding the 2C line, and a significant chance perhaps 5% to 10% of provoking a temperature increase of more than 3C. And this, critically, is true even if none of Jim Hansen’s slow feedbacks are taken into account. Further, because it requires very little early action, it very soon forecloses the possibility of holding the 350 ppm pathway, or indeed the 1000 Gigatonne pathway (shown above as the red line).

Without further belaboring the technical details[2], observe how forgiving the G8 style pathway is, particularly when compared to more honest emergency stabilization pathways. And note, particularly when interpreting the bitterness with which vulnerable countries and their allies rejected 2C in Copenhagen (the word “genocide” was used on more than one occasion), that it was exactly this politically expedient interpretation of 2C that they were fixed on casting aside. The essential technical point is that the Copenhagen demand for real ambition which crystallized as “1.5 to stay alive” was indeed a call for a 350 ppm concentration target, which has about a 50/50 chance of holding the warming below 1.5C (or returning it below that level if it peaks higher), and an 85% chance of keeping it below 2C.

In this context, the emergence of a semi-organized bloc of “Most Vulnerable Countries” (the acronym is MVCs) is news that will stay news. Indeed, with the post-Copenhagen appearance of the BASIC bloc (China, India, Brazil and South Africa) of emerging economies, and a widespread tendency to divide the world between the Major Emitting Countries (MECs) and the rest, the MVCs, now that they’ve come to know themselves as frontline states, will inevitably transform the global politics of climate. But note that, though the northern medias first impulse was to stress the tension between China on the one hand and the MVCs on the other, this particular conflict of interests in hardly the only one on the table. In the coming battles, the most vulnerable will quite appropriately reserve much of their ire for the wealthy countries of the North.

No one should underplay the pressures ahead. Witness the open letter that Desmond Tutu sent on December 15th, after a walkout by the unified African bloc triggered a sudden halt in the official negotiations. Widely criticized (mostly by northerners, who saw it as dangerous brinksmanship), the Africans were also widely applauded, particularly because they aimed to pressure the North into honoring its long-standing obligation to accept stringent reduction targets. Tutu, speaking for many, made the logic of Africa’s position quite clear. His letter[3], which went out to all heads of state and many Christian leaders, was chilling its straightforward summary of implacable truths:

If temperatures are not kept down then Africa faces a range of devastating threats such as crop yield reductions in places of as much 50% in some countries by 2020; Increased pressure on water supplies for 70 – 250 million people by 2020 and 350 – 600 million by 2050; The cost of adaptation to sea level rises of at least 5 – 10% of gross domestic product.

… We are facing impending disaster on a monstrous scale. To keep temperature increase in Africa to below 1.5 degrees C requires a global goal of less than 1 degree C; keeping it below 2 degrees in Africa would require a global goal of less than 1.3 degrees C. That is the crux of the matter. A global goal of about 2 degrees C is to condemn Africa to incineration and no modern development. And then of course there is the matter of funding mitigation and adaptation.

The Copenhagen Accord, of course, did not open the road to 1.5C. What it does do (and if this is a momentous breakthrough or an historic defeat its too early to tell) is establish a framework within which both northern and southern countries are stepping forward to publish reduction pledges. As these arrive, scientists and research institutes around the world will quickly tabulate them, and normalize them, and calculate their implied impact on global temperatures, and inevitably draw conclusions about which countries are doing their fair share and which are free riding on the efforts of others. As they do we will, all of us, draw conclusions.

Such conclusions can be complicated. What, after all, should a national emissions pledge be compared to?  A projection of business-as-usual emissions?  If so, which one?  A measure of per-capita “emissions rights”? If so, what to do about the fact that the atmospheric space is already exhausted? A fair-shares national obligation?  If so, how will such an obligation be calculated, and on the basis of what principles? Historical responsibility? If so, starting when Capacity to pay? If so, how should such capacity be defined? How should the obligations of rich countries be compared to those of poor? And what about the rich people within poor countries? Or for that matter the poor people within rich ones? Such intra-national injustice cannot be ignored, but how should it be accounted?

Such questions, despite the easy cynicism of those who consider equity irrelevant, are answerable. In fact, the terms by which they can be resolved a fair enough accord based upon common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities is at this point well established and well understood. The real question is if the dynamic of the negotiations can be shifted from one in which countries jockey for short-term advantage to one in which they seek new forms of cooperation. And who must do what before such a shift is possible. Here, alas, the Copenhagen tea leaves can be read in many ways.

What we can say with confidence is that Copenhagen, a political pressure cooker, clarified the overall situation. We know now, or very soon will, what countries propose to do, and this in a public, formal manner that will resist spin and self-serving distortion. In this context, I believe, the central debate can finally be pushed to center stage. Which countries are carrying their own weight, and which are not? And how, really, can we tell? The floor is now open for proposals.

Nothing about this debate is simple. How, given the circumstances, could it possibly be? On the other hand, numbers are numbers, and at a certain point they simply become too obvious to push aside. Which, perhaps, is the real reason why the many loopholes surplus allowed emissions (so-called “hot air”), forestry and agricultural credits (calculated from bogus baselines), and of course non-additional “offsets that the northern countries have built into their various climate laws and treaties are so dangerous. They are fog, and they can hide great crimes. And if they are allowed to stand, then the wealthy countries will have to do almost nothing at all.[4]

Amidst such complexity, simplicity has its uses. Consider the following two charts, which tell a difficult tale in a straightforward manner that, though not ideal, does serve to highlight the main point US emissions, cumulated over time, are greater than Chinas, but at the same time the US is pledging to smaller cuts.


US vs China - v2

Figure 2: The first chart is responsibility, i.e., contribution to global warming, cumulated from 1900. (The total[5] for the United States is 338 GtCO2, and for China is 124 GtCO2.) The second chart is a reflection of pledged reduction effort for the year 2020 in GtCO2. It compares the United States goal of reducing emissions by 17% and the China goal of reducing emissions intensity by 40-45%. Both figures are defined relative to 2005 levels, and are pledged for the year 2020. (The United States pledge translates[6] to approximately 0.8 GtCO2 of effort in 2020, and the China pledge is calculated[7] to amount to approximately 2.5 GtCO2 in 2020, or approximately 3 times the United States effort.

These charts are not, if I may put the matter gently, consistent with the common, post-Copenhagen story of China’s climate policy, which has it that, in the words of British climate secretary Ed Miliband, China held the world to ransom in an attempt to prevent a climate treaty.[8] Nor is this an incidental point.


Copenhagen did not rise to the occasion. Inevitably, the question is “Why not”?

One possible answer is that, as the Copenhagen street had it, we need system change not climate change, and absent system change, our governments are incapable of organizing a decisive response to the climate crisis. Another is that the US was willing to oppose, undermine, and damage a fragile multilateral system that it would be better off husbanding against future need, and this with the cynical goal of avoiding real emissions commitments while, if possible, looking good. A third possibility is that the Obama administration, desperate to break the Republican hold on climate policy (Jamie Henn of quipped that this isn’t a negotiation, its a hostage crisis) was willing to pay any price to unlock the Congressional deadlock and, as White House science and technology adviser John Holdren put it, “get started.”

Alternatively, it may be that that all such difficult questions can simply be put aside, because Copenhagen’s failure was simply China’s fault. This explanation, alas, has become quite the rage. It demands discussion, beginning with Mark Lynas’ widely read, and rather fantastically misleading? “How do I know China wrecked the Copenhagen deal I was in the room.[9] Here are Lynas’ key paragraphs:

“To those who would blame Obama and rich countries in general, know this: it was China’s representative who insisted that industrialized country targets, previously agreed as an 80% cut by 2050, be taken out of the deal. “Why can’t we even mention our own targets?” demanded a furious Angela Merkel. Australia’s prime minister, Kevin Rudd, was annoyed enough to bang his microphone. Brazil’s representative too pointed out the illogicality of China’s position. Why should rich countries not announce even this unilateral cut? The Chinese delegate said no, and I watched, aghast, as Merkel threw up her hands in despair and conceded the point. Now we know why because China bet, correctly, that Obama would get the blame for the Copenhagen accord’s lack of ambition.

China, backed at times by India, then proceeded to take out all the numbers that mattered. A 2020 peaking year in global emissions, essential to restrain temperatures to 2C, was removed and replaced by woolly language suggesting that emissions should peak “as soon as possible”. The long-term target, of global 50% cuts by 2050, was also excised. No one else, perhaps with the exceptions of India and Saudi Arabia, wanted this to happen…

“… With the deal gutted, the heads of state session concluded with a final battle as the Chinese delegate insisted on removing the 1.5C target so beloved of the small island states and low-lying nations who have most to lose from rising seas. President Nasheed of the Maldives, supported by Brown, fought valiantly to save this crucial number. “How can you ask my country to go extinct?” demanded Nasheed. The Chinese delegate feigned great offense and the number stayed, but surrounded by language which makes it all but meaningless. The deed was done.

It sounds pretty bad, and no doubt it was. The showdown plenary is painful enough to watch[10] and now it seems that the back room was worse. In any case, it’s easy to see why Lynas’ fly-on-the-wall account is so compelling, particularly to desperate northerners, environmentalists of course but also, and more generally, all those who are already primed to see China as an implacable mercantilist threat to their preferred style of capitalism. The real question, though, is if his summary interpretation “This is fast becoming China’s century, yet its leadership has displayed that multilateral environmental governance is not only not a priority, but is viewed as a hindrance to the new superpower’s freedom of action” is an accurate one.

Caution is in order here, as always in the face of pat, convenient arguments. And certainly Lynas’ conclusions are much in line with the Norths strategy of hiding behind the emerging economies. See for example Snubbed In Copenhagen, EU Weighs Climate Options, a Reuters piece that told us that “Officials acknowledge privately that the mandatory system for enforcing emissions curbs created by the 1997 Kyoto protocol is doomed because China won’t accept any constraints on its future economic growth, and the United States won’t join any agreement that is not binding on Beijing.”

Still, its not enough to point out that Lynas’ argument is useful to the North, or indeed that, as a sign of northern ill will, it has reportedly had quite a destructive effect within China. Or even to remind ourselves, yet again, that by many measures China is already making greater efforts than the wealthy countries of the North. Its also necessary to go to the core of Lynas’ argument, which as he subsequently put it,[11] is that Copenhagen has opened up a chasm between sustainability and equity. Why? Because, though NGOs that ideologically support equity defend the right of developing countries to increase their emissions for two to three more decades at least, in fact, there is no room for expansion by anyone.

This chasm between sustainability and equity, in Lynas’ view, is a pitiless divide, which no amount of pro-poor solidarity can bridge. In fact, in his view, its an implacable truth of our carbon-constrained future that not only China, but also India, and South Africa, and Brazil, and Mexico, and indeed the entire emerging world is at the edge of an impossible future. Economic justice will perhaps be an unavoidable casualty, because if the climate is to be saved, the South will have to put its developmental aspirations onto the betting table, and it will have to do so soon.

Here, future history appears as a suicide pact. For it is highly unlikely that the developing countries, and the emerging economies in particular, will have their plans so rudely checked. But whats the alternative? This is a good question, though one that takes us into another country a land of necessity and cooperation that, while much discussed by those who’ve been following the fair-shares burden-sharing debate that’s raged through the climate community in the last few years, does not seem to be familiar to Mark Lynas’. Which, perhaps, is not entirely his fault. In truth, the northern climate movement has quite failed to explain the structure of the global climate justice problem to the broader population. Or perhaps even to itself.

Justice as realism

What exactly is this problem? Only that we’ve reached the limits to growth, and done so in a world that’s bitterly divided between haves and have-nots. That, despite decades of warnings, the wealthy nations have neglected to demonstrate that low-carbon development paths are actually possible. That they’ve instead pursued business-as-usual economics, and, within the climate negotiations, have stonewalled on the oft-repeated demand, made not just by the Chinese but by the entire developing world, to accept meaningful reduction commitments. That, against this dark background, China a proud though undemocratic country that has for all its many faults lifted hundreds of millions of people out of poverty has emerged as the chief voice of a southern bloc that has consistently refused to accept the choice between developmental justice and climate stabilization.

The structure of the situation is fairly easy to illustrate. See for example Figure 3, below, which nicely poses the Souths dilemma. Its lines trace the G8 style pathways that offered the occasion for China’s backroom confrontation with the North and, thus, for Lynas’ tale. In the global pathway (red) emissions peak about 2020 and decline by 2050 to be 50% below 1990 levels. Meanwhile, northern emissions (blue) decline to be at least 80% below 1990 levels.[12] Now ask yourself why might China’s rejection of such a future be reasonable? The answer lies in simple arithmetic. For, by simple subtraction (red minus blue) the southern peak (shown by the green line) must come very soon after the global one. Which, to southern eyes, traces a pretty depressing picture. It shows that the remaining global emissions budget is so small that, even in the seemingly ambitious case where northern emissions drop by 80%, southern emissions must drop almost as rapidly as global emissions themselves. Further, they must do so while, on average, the people of the South are still struggling to escape poverty, and more generally to invent new, dignified and sustainable models of life.



Figure 3: The red line shows a “G8 style pathway,” in which global emissions drop to 50% of their 1990 level in 2050. The blue line shows developed country (Annex 1) emissions declining to 80% of their 1990 levels by 2050. The green line shows, by subtraction, the emissions space that would remain for the developing countries.

It’s necessary to be clear. The problem is not that poverty alleviation, or even just forms of sustainable development, are impossible within the small remaining budget. They are not. The problem is rather that they have not been compellingly demonstrated. Indeed, the wealthy countries, through their reluctance to reduce their own emissions, have quite convincingly demonstrated to the developing world how undesirable if not actually impossible such paths must be. The simple fact is that, today, the only proven routes up from poverty still involve an expanded use of energy and, consequently, a seemingly inevitable increase in fossil-fuel use and thus carbon emissions.

Figure 3, by the way, could usefully be drawn in per-capita terms. It would then show just how very small the average southern citizen’s emissions would be when (just after 2020) the Souths emissions had to peak and then begin to rapidly decline. But per-capita emissions projections can also be badly misleading, in two critical ways. First, they hide the vast disparities in emissions between rich and poor people that exist within both rich and poor countries. These, however, will be decisive, for they allow the rich to hide behind the poor, and they must be highlighted, not hidden. Second, they reinforce the dangerous (and quite mistaken) notion that a convergence of per-capita emissions would, in and of itself, solve the justice problem, when in fact, all else being equal, the North’s per-capita income (not to mention wealth) would be much higher than that in the South after such a convergence. That is to say, per-capita definitions of justice (as opposed to cumulative per-capita definitions, which are more interesting) tend to obscure the North’s responsibility for the current situation, and perhaps even more importantly its greater capacity to act.

So, instead of the per-capita view of the above figure, consider a final image that again displays the Souths dilemma, but this time not in terms of the G8-style global emissions trajectory, which has in any case been soundly rejected by the “most vulnerable” countries, but rather in terms of the 350 ppm / 1.5C pathway.



Figure 4. The red line shows a global 350 pathway. The blue line shows developed country (Annex 1) emissions declining more than 50% below 1990 levels by 2020, and to zero by 2050. The green line shows, by subtraction, the severely restricted emissions path that would remain for the developing countries.

Here (the red line) is the same 350 ppm emissions pathway shown in Figure 1, but now it’s divided between North and South. And this time their reduction rates are emergency-scale by any measure. The North’s emissions (the blue line) drop by 50% by 2020, relative to 1990, and then continue to drop at a rate of 10% a year, reaching zero in 2050. Yet even in this rather startling case the South is left with an emission-reduction pathway that is scarcely less stringent — its emissions too must peak more or less immediately, and must also be eliminated by 2050, and, again, this would have to happen while most of its citizens were still struggling against poverty.

Whats the moral? That while the crisis demands that we look forward, its very difficult for developing countries that do so to see how they can reconcile their aspirations to the physical demands of climate stabilization. This is particularly the case because, absent environmental constraints, southern emissions would likely rise much more rapidly than those in the North, as the Souths citizens finally gained access to adequate energy services, built long-needed infrastructure, and, hopefully, moved toward rough economic parity with the North. Which is exactly why, in the absence of proven alternative routes to development or at the very least strong signs of northern seriousness it’s almost impossible for the South to imagine an equitable future in which its emissions precipitously decline. As Yvo De Boer, the Executive Secretary of the UN negotiations and a man with a reputation for frank assessments, quipped just before Copenhagen, asking the South to bind itself to a diminishing emissions budget before the rich set their own 2020 targets and come up with a serious funding offer, is “like jumping out of a plane and being assured that you are going to get a parachute on the way down. [13]

Moreover, the Souths reticence, understandable within a G8-style pathway, is all the more compelling in a 350 context. Here, even if the Norths emissions drop at a sustained rate of 10% a year, to approach zero in 2050 (an ambitious goal by any measure), the South would still be left with a reduction pathway that is scarcely less stringent. How it can be negotiated is one of the biggest and most pressing questions on the geopolitical agenda, one that this paper does not attempt to answer. But I must at least stipulate that, unless the South comes to trust the Norths willingness to accept its fair share of the necessary effort, whatever it turns out to be, honest emergency pathways will remain forever out of reach.

Return to China, which despite wealthy enclaves still has many, many people living in poverty. Consider that the targets that the Chinese expunged from the Copenhagen Accord would have important developmental implications. And that the South has for years made it clear that it will simply not allow itself to be trapped into sacrificing development for climate protection. Remember that, during the run up to Copenhagen, the South repeatedly insisted that the North accept a science-based reduction target at the “upper end” of the IPCC’s 25% by 40% range (from the 1990 baseline, by 2020). And that the North, for its part, attempted instead to enshrine a global reduction pathway that would have implicitly (as above) constrained southern development, and to do so without itself adopting science-based targets of any kind. Then ask yourself, again, exactly what (other than its failure to properly explain itself) was so unreasonable about the Chinese position.

The answer is not obvious.

Crystal Ball 2010

Clearly, the wheel’s still in spin. Copenhagen was only a moment, albeit a defining one. Positive surprises are still possible, as are turns in which Copenhagen a glimpse into the abyss leads to new resolve. We may yet see a return, this time with focused intent, to the cooperative realism of 2007’s Bali Action Plan. Cooperative realism, after all, is the only approach that can possibly work.

For the moment, though, lets admit a few difficult truths. Like the fact that the US did a great deal to poison the Copenhagen waters, and that, going forward, it may do even more. And that, despite the situation in Washington, the ball is now unambiguously in the Norths court. For there will be no breakthrough until the wealthy countries move decisively to pursue stringent domestic reductions, and as well to underwrite the larger transition. The fact that the Souths emerging emitters have, to a small extent, stepped forward from the G77s overall ranks does nothing to change this underlying reality. China’s end-game posture makes this quite clear enough.

Beyond this, the languor is over. This new game is manifestly one in which the players as well as the rules belong to a still-unclear future. In such a world, real action may be possible. Certainly new blocs, like the MVC’s, are going to be crucial players. Despite denialism, the science is clear. The need to protect the developmental rights to the poor, and the implications of this need, are widely if not universally understood. The climate movement is growing, and may yet learn to speak, coherently, for the poor in the North as well as the poor in the South. The future is open.

As Copenhagen passes into history, the politics of climate obligation may well shift in significant ways. For one thing, though the rich countries may have succeeded in sidelining the Kyoto Protocol (we don’t know yet), they failed to remove the presumption that its still their move. Nor, despite Copenhagen’s shift toward a pledge-and-review system, was the momentum of the UN negotiations broken. Copenhagen, rather, reaffirmed the need to devise a formal global accord that’s fair, stringent, and capacious enough to contain both the US and China, and at the same time to stabilize the Earths climate system. This gives us a clear mandate, one that may be challenged by events in Washington, but which will not be pushed aside to fight for a framework within which all countries, but first of all the wealthy ones, make the commitments demanded by the science, and by their own historical responsibility and capacity to act. And just as importantly it gives us a context within which to do so.

Copenhagen, for all its disappointments, marked a turn. The need for an emergency mobilization is obvious, and with it a set of challenges that can no longer be denied. These will get clearer in the days and years ahead, but the essential situation is already before us with the atmospheres ability to absorb carbon now critically limited, we face the greatest resource-sharing problem of all time. And for all its complexity, the core of this problem can be stated simply enough what kind of a climate transition would be fair enough to actually work?

Tom Athanasiou is the director of EcoEquity ( and a member of the Greenhouse Development Rights authors group (


[1] In July of 2009, the G8 leaders meet in the Italian town of L’Aquila and announced the goal of reducing global emissions by 50% by 2050, with the wealthy countries making cuts of 80%. It was a widely-noted move, though these targets are grossly inadequate, and also claim a huge fraction of the worlds remaining carbon budget for the North

[2] For an extended discussion of these pathways and their implications, see

[3] The entire letter is available at

[4] This may be hard to believe, but it’s true. See for example

[5] This is the total fossil CO2 emitted by the United States and China, respectively, since 1900, as reported by the Carbon Dioxide Information Analysis Center (CDIAC) of the United States Department of Energy. If one were to look back only to 1950 (rather than 1900), then the tally would be 260 GtCO2 for the US, and 122 GtCO2 for China.

[6] The Energy Information Agency of the US Department of Energy forecasts in their Annual Energy Outlook 2010 that 2020 fossil CO2 emissions in the US will be 3.2% lower than they were in 2005, this under a reference case (i.e., a business-as-usual scenario) in which the United States does not enact national climate policy. The International Energy Agencys World Energy Outlook 2009, projects an even greater decline of roughly 5% over the same period. Emissions were already 8.9% lower in 2009 than in 2005 owing to the ongoing economic recession, but both EIAs AEO2010 and the IEAs WEO2009 projects a modest rebound for the United States over the coming decade. To meet the 17% pledge, therefore, the US will need to reduce emissions below the expected 3.2% reference reduction by a further 0.8 GtCO2. (If one instead goes with the IEAs projection of a 5% reference reduction, the additional required mitigation would be about 0.7 GtCO2.)

[7] This estimated was calculated by the UNFCCC Secretariat and documented in their Preliminary Assessment of pledges made by Annex 1 Parties and voluntary actions and policy goals by a number of non-Annex 1 Parties. (This leaked document was widely circulated, and made available at, for example, The Secretariats 2.5 GtCO2 estimate of the abatement effort implied by the Chinese pledge is calculated relative to a constructed reference case (not the IEA WEO2009) that explicitly excludes the effort associated with China’s existing energy intensity policy. As the Secretariat explained, The level of emissions in the [IEA WEO2009] reference scenario is among the lowest compared to the other studies available. …[It] already includes the effects from some of the pledges and voluntary action in cases where the relevant legislation and policies are put in place. This includes, among others, a large part of the EU 20% reduction target, Norway 30% reduction target, Australia’s 5% reduction target and China’s current policies, notably the 20% energy efficiency improvement target.

William Chandler (Carnegie Endowment for International Peace) is more explicit: The current energy intensity policy can legitimately be described as severe, even draconian. The policy imposes hundreds of detailed industrial efficiency standards to a degree unparalleled in any other country in the world. The policy has forced closure of tens of thousands of factories, power plants, and production lines that failed to meet the standards. It is unimaginable that such a policy could ever be enacted in the United States, much less be continued for another decade. Its a non-trivial error to call it a reference case, as the IEA has done. See Memo To Copenhagen: Commentary Is MisinformedChinas Commitment Is Significant,

[8] See

[9] See

[10] Its also fantastically interesting. See the webcast at play.php?id_kongresssession=2755&theme=unfccc)

[11] See

[12] This was not the only pathway under discussion in Copenhagen, nor the only one that will be discussed in the future. For example, the Draft Third World Network Analysis of the Copenhagen Accord contains the following note: In the Draft conclusions proposed by the Chair of the AWG-LCA (L.7/Rev 1)(referred to here as the Zammit text), the options as to 1degree C, 1.5 degree C and 2 degree C are all options to be negotiated. The global emission reductions levels also have the following options 50; 85 or 95% reductions by 2050 based on 1990 levels. Consequently, the developed country share of reducing the emissions have options that include 75-85% cuts; at least 80-95% cuts; more than 95% cuts by 2050 and more than 100% by 2040 based on 1990 levels. (See para 2, L7/Rev 1). Hence, the notion of negative emissions has been captured as an option in the Zammit text for further negotiations. See

[13] See

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