The Copenhagen Consensus

Dec21 2009 // By: RESCUE GREEN // Categories: Sustainability, International Green Movement No Comments

After two years of pre-negotiations and two weeks of international discussions in Copenhagen, hope turned into disappointment. What resulted was an accord between the US, China, Brazil, India, South Africa, France, Germany, and the EU over the scientific case for global warming and the goal of capping temperature increases at 2°C. Leaders agreed that cutting emissions would provide the most effective strategy at reaching this goal – but not at the expense of development and economic prosperity. Additionally, the accord calls upon developed nations to provide annual payments of $30 billion, rising to $100 billion in funds to less developed nations by 2020 – however there are no guidelines as to who the provider and beneficiary of these funds will be.

Amidst confusion and disagreement over the details of a treaty, leaders of Northern and Southern countries fell short of reaching a conclusion or course of action. The unfortunate outcome underlines the key obstacles when tackling transnational issues such as climate change. There are several players with separate motives and individual priorities. Without a legally-binding treaty, there is no incentive to pollute less – making it clear that the COP15 fell short of their prescribed goal.

The goal of the 2009 Climate Change Summit – and customary international law – is to open communication to address disputes, constrain behavior, regulate costs of policies or actions, set rules, and establish commitments. This process forms a set of principles, norms, rules, procedures, and institutions, so actors can act upon, manage, mitigate, and frame environmental problems. By doing so, a framework for global governance is in place to respond to environmental issues that extend further than national borders and thus require international attention. Ultimately, this transnational cooperation between states and various actors will help to address the issue regarding protecting the global commons.

Unfortunately, this did not occur in Copenhagen. Instead of an authoritative obligation that a treaty would provide the COP15 presented a much softer form of international law. Soft law – in the form of guidelines, declarations, and recommendations – can exert pressure and establish compliance. As Prime Minister Gordon Brown and President Barack Obama made clear, these are meaningful first steps to combat climate change. However, the fact remains the same, accords are non-binding. Rights and duties are not clearly stated, nor are rules of conduct. Punishment is often subjective, and there is a lack of established organization. Negotiation costs, transaction costs, modification costs are all very low but may entice countries to “free ride”.

What does all this mean for future climate change talks? While each state wishes to be independent not interdependent, therefore cooperation is discouraged, the reality is our world is interconnected and the actions of one are felt by many. The only way to ensure global collaboration to combat climate change is through a fair treaty. Treaties are the most important source of international environmental hard law, because it establishes obligations for all states, and the existence of a rule through practice. Collectively, a treaty is clear and detailed, provides infrastructure, concrete consequences to violations, and establishes rules of conduct. In our interrelated world a legally-binding treaty would be reliable and straightforward.

Pleasing all parties is complex, especially when 192 countries with different ideologies, economic situations, and cultures convene, unanimous compliance is difficult to reach. There are several obstacles to international environmental policy. Nations must collectively assist each other through financial assistance, technology transfer, and exchange of scientific knowledge in order to improve coordination and environmental resolutions.

On January 31, 2010, agreeing parties of the accord must submit emission reduction goals. This will set the tone for future talks expected next year in Mexico, where hopefully conflict will be set aside making room for collaborative efforts and promising results.