On February 1st, the secretariat of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (the “Convention”) announced the pledges made by countries under the Copenhagen Accord (the “Accord”). Developed country parties to the Accord pledged greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions reduction targets to be achieved by 2020. Most notably, developing country parties to the Accord also pledged mitigation actions. By the January 31st deadline, pledges had been provided by countries representing approximately 80% of global GHG emissions.

pledges made under the Accord

Adhering to legislation passed in its House of Representatives, the U.S. pledged a 17% reduction from 2005 levels.1 Canada also pledged a 17% reduction from 2005 levels, “to be aligned with the final economy-wide emissions target of the United States in enacted legislation.”2 Like Canada, many parties made pledges contingent on action by others. The European Union, for example, pledged to reduce its emissions 20% below 1990 levels, or by 30% should other parties make comparable commitments.

As an example of a mitigation action pledge of a developing country, China pledged to lower its carbon intensity (per unit GDP) by 40-45% by 2020, to increase to 15% the share of non-fossil fuels used in primary energy consumption, and to increase its forest coverage and forest stock volume.3 In comments following the announcement of the pledges, U.S. Special Envoy for Climate Change, Todd Stern has made it clear that the U.S. expects of developing countries, stronger mitigation actions than those contained in the Accord.4

the 2009 UN climate change conference

The Accord was the outcome of the fifteenth Conference of the Parties (the “Conference”) to the Convention,5 attended by yours truly. In an unprecedented display of the prominence that climate change is gaining on the world stage, the Conference was attended by 115 heads of state and over 40,000 delegates.

The stage that was the Conference was not without its share of theatrics. When the leaders arrived in the final days to find that little progress had been made, the drama moved behind the scenes. In a telling moment, frustrated by negotiating only with Chinese Premier Wen’s aides, U.S. President Obama walked in on a private meeting between Wen and the leaders of Brazil, India, and South Africa.6 It was largely these five major economies that would go on to produce the Accord, which calls for any global temperature increase to be limited to two degrees Celsius.7

However the parties to the Convention’s Kyoto Protocol (the “Protocol”), the first commitment period of which ends in 2012, were unable to agree to its extension. The lack of consensus leaves in suspension the status of the Protocol’s Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) and the value of the Certified Emissions Reductions (CERs) generated by thousands of projects thereunder. The International Emissions Trading Association (IETA), which held a parallel conference, nevertheless remains optimistic: “an international injection of increased demand remains a strong possibility over investment timescales but still has to be treated as an upside rather than a given.”8

back on the home front

As mentioned above, Canada’s climate change policy is explicitly tied to that of the United States. 2009 saw in the U.S. the passage in the House of Representatives of the American Clean Energy and Security Act (“Waxman-Markey”). Waxman-Markey calls for a 17% reduction of emissions below 2005 levels by 2020 and provides for the trading of allowances.9 Debate in the U.S. Senate of the similar Kerry-Boxer bill is nominally scheduled for debate this spring, though it may be 2011 before it comes to a floor vote. Tri-partisan senators John Kerry (D), Lindsey Graham (R) and Joe Lieberman (I) have taken it upon themselves to ensure passage of a climate (or “energy independence”) bill.

For many U.S. senators, any climate legislation must be accompanied by developing country emissions reductions and the international verification thereof. As China and others are less keen on international monitoring, reporting and verification (MRV), the Accord features compromise language. Countries will communicate their actions “with provisions for international consultations and analysis under clearly defined guidelines that will ensure national sovereignty is respected.”10 In any case, with more than two thirds of Americans supporting the regulation of GHG emissions,11 the passage of legislation through Congress and, consequently, Canadian federal regulation, may be on the horizon.

International climate change negotiations will occur in a number of fora this year. While the sixteenth Conference of the Parties will occur in December in Cancun, one might now wonder how much can be expected of 192-party negotiations. In June, Canada will host the G8 and G20 summits, and it is rumoured that climate change policy may be included on the agenda.12 Finally, it is likely that a second meeting of the Major Economies Forum will occur later this year to discuss climate policy.13