What Went Right and Wrong at the Copenhagen Climate Conference

The non-binding agreement was a bummer to activists, but the talks were far from a total bust

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Out of a Copenhagen conference that went from bad to worse as the Obama administration made a last-ditch effort to manufacture a deal, the Copenhagen Accord was born. While the agreement is non-binding--a disappointment to many--some say the Copenhagen climate conference was far from a failure. (Of course, it was by no means a smashing success, either.) Here's where pundits and politicians think the conference succeeded, failed, and showed us possible courses for the future:

  • What Went Right  Calling many criticisms of the agreement "unsound," the Council on Foreign Relations' Michael Levi explains that while some may have wished for a legally binding agreement, such an agreement still wouldn't have "guarantee[d] that countries will deliver ambitious efforts." This accord has the merit of dealing with big economies in a "roughly uniform" matter, unlike the Kyoto Protocol. At Harvard's Belfer Center, Robert Stavins adds that the Copenhagen Accord also goes beyond the Kyoto Protocol in better incorporating "the key, rapidly-growing developing countries." British Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change Ed Miliband also points out that "we have ... established an unprecedented commitment among rich countries to finance the response to climate change: $10bn a year over the next three years--starting to flow now--rising to $100bn a year by 2020." The New York Times editorial board is encouraged by "China's willingness to submit to a verification system" for carbon cuts. Finally, Stavins notes that "from all reports, the talks were completely deadlocked when U.S. President Barack Obama arrived on the scene at 8:00 am on Friday, December 18th, the scheduled final day of the conference." Unprecedented high-level bilateral meetings saved the conference from failure.
  • What Went Wrong  "Let's be honest," writes Robert Stavins, "about the difference between the outcome of the 1997 negotiations in Kyoto (a detailed 20-page legal document, the Kyoto Protocol) and the outcome of the 2009 negotiations in Copenhagen (a general 3-page political statement, the Copenhagen Accord." The Guardian's James Garvey is likewise unimpressed:
Our governments failed to agree a deal which might have avoided a global catastrophe. They did nothing but take yet another "important first step". We've had nearly two decades of those.
  • What We Learned  At The Daily Beast, Leslie Gelb thinks Copenhagen showed the "future of international politics": it's not pretty. "The next decade," he concludes, "portends at best small accomplishments in world diplomacy; at worst, stalemates festering into disasters, as well as torturous leadership days ahead for the United States, with China increasingly lying in wait as a successful spoiler." Every nation now has veto power--"it's as if the world is brimming with the likes of Senators Ben Nelson and Joe Lieberman"--while "African nations in particular seem to have gotten religious about bloc power." Michael Levi agrees that "this conference ... starkly demonstrated the limits of the UNFCCC process. Future climate arrangements," he thinks, "are far more likely to be hammered out in small groups like the one that gathered Friday night to salvage a deal than in plenaries of nearly two-hundred countries." 
  • What Now?  The New York Times editors say "there can be no letup by the rest of the world's negotiators,"while Ed Miliband asks readers not to "lose heart and momentum," and discusses different countries' domestic political battles ahead. James Garvey, on the other hand, thinks politicians' "failure means that we're all eco-warriors now," and need to take matters into our own hands. Tom Friedman thinks that instead of trying for more multilateral action we should search for market solutions, a clean technology race with each country trying to outdo the other.
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.