As the Copenhagen climate summit approached its finish, geo-politics trumped geo-science.
Throughout Thursday—supposedly the second-to-last-day—multiple plenary sessions and working groups toiled frenetically, trying to resolve a host of controversies over procedure and substance, as heads of states delivered largely irrelevant speeches in the main hallway. At different press conferences, European officials called for merging the two dueling negotiating tracks under way in the Bella Center—it's complicated, but essentially the non-binding track includes the United States; the binding track does not—and African nations called for preserving the tracks as they are.
But the big show was the United States-China face-off. First, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton made a surprise announcement that the United States would help raise a fund of $100 billion annually until 2020 to assist poorer nations to contend with climate change—only if China and other major developing nations place their now-voluntary emissions limits into a binding agreement and subject their curbs to verification. Then the conference waited for China's response. Hours later, Chinese vice foreign minister He Yafei took the stage in the press briefing room and delivered a 20-minute presentation in which he did not explicitly mention Clinton's offer. Although he promised to "make our actions transparent" and "improve...ways of national communications," he also stated that China's reduction efforts should not be subject to supervision. These remarks were decidedly open to interpretation, keeping alive the headline-generating USA-vs-China narrative.
Yet despite all this balance-of-power drama, the issue remained: could this conference produce a worthwhile agreement that could lead to policy changes in sync with the science? At this stage, a treaty is not an option. There are far too many questions to resolve. The next best thing is an agreement—what's widely referred to as a "political agreement"—that would set a solid stage for negotiating a more ambitious treaty within the next year. But such a pact would have to include some firm (or quasi-firm) provisions.
Various advocates trolling the hallways of the conference center have their own recipes for a deal that could be considered a minimal success. Tom Brookes, head of the energy strategy center at the European Climate Foundation, a nongovernmental think tank, has identified several issues that would have to be incorporated into a (relatively) successful non-treaty: a goal of limiting the average global temperature rise to 1.5 to 2 degrees Celsius; a 50 percent cut in worldwide greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 (with developed nations decreasing their emissions by up to 95 percent during this time); binding emissions curbs for industrialized nations and voluntary action by developing nations consistent with global targets; specific figures for short-term international climate change funds and guidelines for establishing long-term financing; agreement that verification systems need to be developed (for tracking both emissions reductions and international financing); some sort of answer to the bedeviling two-track diplomatic problem; and serious money for deforestation prevention programs.
But if this package contains only the reductions currently placed on the table by the major emitters, Brookes warns, carbon dioxide concentration in the atmosphere will likely climb from the current 388 parts per million to 550 ppm. That's well above the 450 ppm advocated by the United States and far above the 350 ppm goal scientists have urged. Still, Brookes says, "if there is no deal now, we will end up lacking the instruments we need to get a start."