January 31, 2010 marked the official deadline for parties to the Copenhagen Accord to submit their respective plans for reducing greenhouse gas emissions. However, this was not considered a “hard deadline” by the UNFCCC Secretariat and thus responses still trickle in. To date, 95 countries have officially agreed to “associate” with the Accord, with certain emitters (arguably key emitters) also including emission reduction actions in their statement to the UNFCCC. Some big global emitters have signed on to the Accord – the US Climate Action Network (USCAN) indicated that as of the date of this posting, countries representing 80.8% of global emissions are in accord with the Copenhagen Accord.

But this fails to take into account the hodge-podge assortment of reductions so far pledged under the Accord – and the effect thereof. And it’s not clear whether activities related to the Accord represent some progress or a setback, or serve as a distracter to the two UNFCCC working groups that are negotiating an agreement that would take over when the first commitment period of the Kyoto Protocol expires at the end of 2012. First, consider some of the reduction pledges:

  • Annex I entity and Kyoto Protocol-signatory European Union (with collectively 12% of global GHG emissions) pledged a 20-30% reduction in overall GHG emission from a 1990 baseline by 2020.
  • At the same time, Annex I and late-Kyoto-signatory Australia (with nearly 5% of global GHG emissions) pledged a 5-25% reduction in overall GHG emission by the same time from a 2000 baseline (which translates roughly into a 3-24% reduction from 1990 levels, according to Australia GHG Inventory data).
  • In contrast, Annex I but non-Kyoto-signatories like the United States (with almost 15% of the global GHG share) pledged a 17% reduction from 2005 levels by 2020, which translates into a mere 3.87 percent reduction from 1990 levels.
  • Kyoto-signatory Canada, the United States largest trade partner, not surprisingly similarly pledged a 15% reduction from 2005 levels by 2020, which leads to an increase in GHG emissions of 0.25% from 1990 levels for that nation.

These vastly different reduction commitments among Annex I nations bode ill for even-handed (and more likely sustainable) GHG reductions. Also, keep in mind that developing (non-Annex-I) nations have different reduction commitments from Annex I nations for reasons of historic responsibility. But having Accord commitments differ (in type and amount) among non-Annex-I nations – what we see emerging under the Accord – is likely not workable in the long-run and perhaps not even in the short term. For example, developing countries such as China (with 16% of global GHG) pledge a 40-45% reduction by 2020 and India (with nearly 5%) pledged a 20-25% reduction in GHG intensity, a measure of GHG emissions per dollar of GDP. GHG intensity reductions cannot accurately be represented in terms of reductions on a 1990 base year due to wide variation in GDP projections so it is impossible to gauge such a commitment against Annex I nations. Not only is this non-gaugeable commitment likely to meet with resentment in the US Congress when is comes to passing domestic GHG legislation (although “GHG intensity” reductions were the only reduction measures offered as recently as one year ago by the Bush administration), but it differs from other non-Annex I countries. Non-Annex I Brazil (with a little more than 6% of global GHG emission) and a few other nations have pledged reductions not in absolute terms or in terms of GHG intensity, but on a “Business as Usual” (BAU) model, which is a commitment to reduce emissions from the most plausible projection of the future GHG emissions if climate-friendly emission reductions were not taken. In the case of Brazil, which has pledged a 36-39% reduction on a BAU model, this actually translates to an increase of between 2-7% in GHG emissions from a 1990 baseline.

So what does the Accord mean? It appears to mean different things to different countries. What we are seeing looks a lot like “from each according to ability” from a reduction standpoint and if you add in the Copenhagen Green Climate Fund (the financial pledges to support mitigation and adaptation in certain at-risk nations in paragraph 8 and 10 of the Accord), there is a component of “to each according to need.” It doesn’t take a Marxist scholar to recognize what is developing – and add the fact that there are no enforcement mechanisms under the Copenhagen Accord to encourage compliance and little verification of target compliance, one begins to worry whether the Copenhagen Accord can lead to a fair, ambitious and binding agreement to solve the climate crisis. On the positive side, it did bring the major players into the mix. But the Accord’s role is unclear given the soft and differing commitments and the continued work of the two working groups trying to hammer out the post-Kyoto agreement.