from Energy, Security, and Climate and Energy Security and Climate Change Program

How the Copenhagen Climate Talks Succeeded

November 11, 2013

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Negotiators are gathering in Warsaw this week and next for the nineteenth annual UN climate talks (COP19). Their job will be to prepare the groundwork for a big summit in Paris in 2015 where countries are supposed to ink a new climate agreement. Many diplomats and observers are likely to warn against repeating what they see as the disastrous 2009 Copenhagen summit. That meeting merely produced a voluntary pact, but only legally binding commitments, many will insist, can do the job.

But the evidence from at least one big country suggests otherwise. There’s a good argument to be made that Copenhagen is having a real impact on carbon dioxide emissions in the United States.

In early 2009 the House of Representatives passed the Waxman-Markey climate bill. That bill mandated a 17 percent cut in U.S. greenhouse gas emissions from 2005 levels by 2020. When Copenhagen rolled around in December, the United States needed to make an offer. It took the 17 percent number from the Waxman-Markey bill and told the world that would be its goal.

We all know what happened next. The world agreed only to a voluntary deal; the 17 percent number was put into the final agreement but it did not become legally binding internationally. A few months later cap-and-trade died in the U.S. Senate. That meant that the 17 percent target didn’t become legally binding domestically either.

Yet a lot of anecdotal evidence suggests that the 17 percent goal remains a focal point for many U.S. policymaking conversations. When the Obama administration issued its draft Climate Action Report in September, it laid out a suite of options that might get the United States to the 17 percent target. Many of those tools are being actively pursued. The 17 percent goal, for example, appears to be on people’s minds as they sort through possible ways to tackle carbon dioxide under the Clean Air Act and judge whether they’re sufficiently ambitious. And as people (including in government) debate how much to do, the U.S. Copenhagen commitment is often central, with people arguing (not without some controversy) that delivering on the 17 percent pledge would strengthen the U.S. hand in future talks, and hence is something worth pursuing. It’s highly doubtful that would be the case were the 17 percent goal only a relic of a failed piece of legislation.

Of course, one shouldn’t overstate the influence of the U.S. Copenhagen commitment. Many factors are informing U.S. regulation of carbon dioxide. And had U.S. emissions not plummeted as a result of the natural gas boom, steadily rising efficiency, and government support for renewables, the United States wouldn’t be in striking distance of the 17 percent goal; in that context, where meeting the 17 percent target would be highly costly, it’s doubtful that policymakers would be trying to use existing regulatory authority to close the final gap.

But these caveats shouldn’t distract from the central lesson. International commitments influence domestic policy in many different ways. Whether those commitments are legally binding or not is only one of the things that determines how likely they are to succeed.

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