06/28/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Copenhagen Accord Falling Flat -- Well Not Even That

There's no fizz in the bottles whose corks were popped after the Copenhagen Accord.

It was hailed by some as the last-minute "Hail Mary" pass that saved last year's climate talks at Copenhagen. After days of confusion and rancor, President Obama swept into the meeting at the eleventh hour, crashed a backroom meeting, and hammered out an agreement on how to help get the world on track to address climate change.

Highlights of the Copenhagen Accord

The result was the Copenhagen Accord [pdf]. Among other things it:

  • reaffirmed the objective of limiting the rise in global temperatures to less than two degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels; and
  • called on all nations to submit, by January 31, 2010, non-binding pledges of the emissions reductions they will achieve by 2020 in order to meet the above objective. (See pledge summaries and full text here.) 

All 193 nations attending the summit did not receive the accord with huge enthusiasm, and in the end the member nations could only agree to "take note" of it rather than adopt it.

Nevertheless, hope was expressed in many quarters that the Copenhagen Accord represented a breakthrough -- a new path for moving the global community toward a global agreement on climate change. And when some 55 nations, representing about 78 percent of the world's energy-related greenhouse gas emissions, submitted emissions pledges, many trumpeted the accord as a resounding success. (As of April 13, 2010, 76 nations have submitted their voluntary
, representing 80 percent of global emissions from energy use.
For more on pledges, see earlier post.

Deficits in the Copenhagen Accord

Unfortunately, claims of success seem premature. Some countries' pledges (e.g., China's and India's) amounted to roughly the emissions they would have achieved under business as usual, or even less.

Other pledges were made with contingencies, including those by the United States, whose non-binding commitments hinge on passage of a climate bill. I haven't checked the book in Las Vegas, but I would bet that the odds on that happening any time soon are pretty long. And given that the pledges are non-binding, can we even take them seriously? 

The accord's discord continues. Now studies are surfacing that conclude that even if all the nations meet their pledges, the effect on global emissions will be far too small to achieve the stated objective of limiting the global-temperature increase to two degrees Celsius.

Writing in the journal Nature last week, Joeri Rogelj of Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research in Germany and coauthors report that the pledges are not even adequate to keep global emissions flat between now and 2020 and could easily result in increased global emissions by 10-20 percent (or about 50 gigatons of CO2) in 2020. Unfortunately, other analyses agree that emissions will likely overshoot IPCC targets for 2020.

What this means is that if we are serious about not exceeding the two-degree Celsius limit, cuts in greenhouse gas emissions beyond 2020 will need to be much steeper.

What Is Needed Beyond the Accord

Indeed, Rogelj and co-authors note that the world could still avoid crossing the two-degree Celsius threshold following this path, but it would require:

"Global industrialized emissions ... to decline on average 3.0-3.5% (compared to 2000 levels) in each year between 2020 and 2050. ... Such reductions would require unprecedented political will to drive the necessary technological and economic innovation. For comparison, building all new power plants 100% emission-free would result in only a 0.7% annual reduction in global emissions until 2050."

In the authors' view, the Copenhagen Accord in its current form will put
us on a greater than 50 percent chance of exceeding three degrees
Celsius by 2100.

Such predictions don't seem to have caused many ripples on the U.S. political scene. The tripartisan alliance that promised a Senate climate bill this year appears to have disintegrated over a political spat, and as the nation watches an oil slick spread in the Gulf of Mexico where some 40,000 gallons of greenhouse-gas producing crude are leaking from a pipe daily, we're planning to expand offshore drilling to most of the gulf and much of the East Coast.

Of course it's possible that our representatives in Washington know something we don't. Since the Great Recession began, the rise in global emissions have been seriously curtailed, declining an estimated three percent in 2009. The emissions projections of Rogelj and others assume that the global economy recovers. Maybe our gals and guys on the Hill know better. Then again, maybe they've just been drinking too much flat champagne while watching reruns of Gigi.

Crossposted with