The Copenhagen Accord, agreed to on Saturday, is neither earth-shattering nor a failure. It avoids an international political mess that appeared likely as late as Friday afternoon. It falls short of expectations mainly because expectations had been ratcheted up far beyond what was realistic. It is a meaningful step forward, but its ultimate value remains to be determined.
Attention should now turn to elaborating the transparency measures contained in the text, and to implementing ambitious and intelligent domestic emissions-cutting efforts in the major emitting countries. It would be unwise to place significant hopes on converting the deal into a legally binding pact soon.
Some criticisms of the accord are unsound. Most notable of these is the fact that the deal dropped a goal of halving emissions from 1990 levels by 2050. Instead, it retained only an aim of keeping global temperatures from rising more than two degrees above preindustrial levels. But since the latter target is probably more stringent, it is not clear what the real problem is. Others have bemoaned the fact that the deal was not adopted by the Conference of the Parties (COP) of the United National Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), but instead was merely "noted" by it. But that is simply a perverse artifact of the "democratic" nature of the COP, which requires consensus for any decision to be adopted. Almost all countries appear to be on board with the deal; the fact that it was apparently blocked by Venezuela, Sudan, Bolivia, Cuba, Tuvalu, and possibly a few others does not make it less legitimate.
Many have also focused their concerns on the fact that the deal is not legally binding, and have emphasized the importance of converting the agreement into a legal pact. As President Obama noted in the interesting Q&A session following his remarks on Friday, having a legally binding deal does not guarantee that countries will deliver ambitious efforts. A good transparency arrangement can, on the other hand, help build confidence and spur a virtuous cycle of increasing ambition over time from all sides. One of the biggest open questions following the Copenhagen conference is whether the transparency deal agreed to in principle can be into practice in a meaningful way. The United States clearly got less on that front than it wanted to. The details of the "consultation and analysis" process agreed to, which should be elaborated over the next year, will be important.
One other non-trivial victory in the deal is its roughly uniform treatment of the big economies. All countries will take actions under the pact, and the United States will not be bound any more tightly to its pledges than countries like China will be. This is a sharp break from the asymmetric Kyoto Protocol, which is environmentally and economically unsustainable.
Two other big issues remain for U.S. policymakers. First, they will need to convert on their offers of a 17 percent cut in U.S. emissions from 2005 levels and of working with others to deliver $100 billion annually in mitigation and adaptation assistance to developing countries by 2020. Both could be easy delivered with cap-and-trade legislation resembling what has been passed in the House and introduced in the Senate, as well as with the bill being developed by Senators Lindsay Graham (R-SC), John F. Kerry (D-MA), and Joseph Lieberman (I-CT). Without such a bill, though, it will be difficult to deliver the promised emissions cuts, and essentially impossible to produce the promised funding. The Obama administration took significant calculated risks by getting out ahead of Congress on both fronts. Second, the United States will need to engage in a long-term effort to increase the ambitions of several major developing countries. The pledges made before the Copenhagen conference, while certainly not trivial, are also not commensurate with the challenge.
This conference has also starkly demonstrated the limits of the UNFCCC process. Future climate arrangements 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. Bilateral cooperation will be critical too. The UNFCCC will continue to contribute, particularly in transparency efforts and in ensuring that the concerns of the most vulnerable are heard. But this is likely to be the last time that the world places such high hopes on the global climate conference.