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A Look at Climate Change After Copenhagen

December 21, 2009 at 12:00 AM EDT
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In the aftermath of the Copenhagen climate summit, about the only thing certain is the need for more talks. Ray Suarez speaks with Jeffrey Brown about how the nonbinding agreement struck in Copenhagen will impact future negotiations.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now: the high-level, high-stakes talks in Copenhagen.

Ray Suarez looks back at what happened and ahead at what’s next.

RAY SUAREZ: The recriminations have been building almost from the moment the talks ended in Copenhagen Saturday. In India today, mourners chanted in a solemn funeral procession. They said the dear departed was no cherished community leader, but planet Earth.

VINUTA GOPAL, Greenpeace India: The world leaders have failed the planet, and now it’s up to people to come together, because we need a deal that is real.

RAY SUAREZ: That deal, of course, is the 12-paragraph nonbinding Copenhagen accord announced after two weeks of grueling negotiations and last-minute dealings. One hundred and ninety-three participant nations formally called for billions in aid to help poor nations cope with climate change, but set no firm targets for cutting greenhouse gas emissions.

The U.N.’s climate chief, Yvo de Boer:

YVO DE BOER, executive secretary, United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change: An impressive accord, but not an accord that is legally binding, not an accord that, at this moment, pins down industrialized countries to individual targets.

RAY SUAREZ: At heart, the accord represented just how far President Obama and the leaders of China, Brazil, India, and South Africa were willing to go. At a snowed-in White House Saturday after his return, the president had a more upbeat assessment.

U.S. PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: For the first time in history, all of the major — the world’s major economies have come together to accept their responsibility to take action to confront the threat of climate change. After extremely difficult and complex negotiations, this important breakthrough lays the foundation for international action in the years to come.

RAY SUAREZ: European leaders were notably absent from President Obama’s last-minute meetings. Today, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown demanded the entire process be reformed. He said, “Never again should we let a global deal be held to ransom by only a handful of countries.”

On a different note, the British climate change secretary, Ed Miliband, singled out developing nations.

ED MILIBAND, secretary of state for energy and climate change, United Kingdom: Because there was point-blank refusal from many of those countries to have legally binding targets. I think it shows in a sense how far we do have to go to tackle the problem collectively.

RAY SUAREZ: China came under criticism for refusing to agree to legally binding and verifiable actions. But the world’s largest developing economy and the biggest carbon emitter held its ground today.

A government spokesman said future negotiations will have to acknowledge China’s right to develop. Still, nations most threatened by a warmer planet said they hope Copenhagen paves the way for a broader agreement.

MOHAMED NASHEED, president, Maldives: This document allows us to continue negotiations and have a proper document or a proper legally binding agreement within the course of 2010.

RAY SUAREZ: Next stop on that effort will be Berlin in the spring, and then Mexico City late in 2010.

JEFFREY BROWN: And Ray is back from the cold of Copenhagen to the snows of Washington.

Welcome back.

RAY SUAREZ: Good to be here.

JEFFREY BROWN: So, was there, at the end, a sense of biting off too much? What happened at the end there?

RAY SUAREZ: I think the preparations that went on after the Bali meetings went on with the assumption that there would be enough work done before everyone assembled in Copenhagen so that you would just have to get that last little bit to an agreement in those final two weeks in the Danish capital.

But once they saw where the parties were, how they were dug in, those gaps seemed to be just too broad to cover.

JEFFREY BROWN: All week long, you talked about the various rifts. There was the rich vs. the poor, U.S.-China. And there were the three big issues, right, the emission standard targets, and funding, and verification.

In the end, you couldn’t unravel — you couldn’t pull apart any individual one? Is that what happened? They were all sort of tied together.

RAY SUAREZ: At one point, the conference was looking for one victory that it could seize on and say, well, at least we got this done.

But everything was so, as you suggest, tightly interwoven, that there was no one thing that you could agree on while other things were still left to be carried out in the future. So, the money — well, yes, Japan offered $15 billion right away. The United States offered an undetermined sum and promised to help raise $100 billion by 2020. But everything else was left undefined and unresolved.

Yes, the West agreed, the wealthy industrial nations agreed to targets, but they couldn’t talk about near-term targets, only ones that are very far away, like 2050. And what you got the sense of was that people were thinking of CO-2 like it was a national asset, not asset, but something possessed nationally, like China’s CO-2 would stay above China, instead of it being the world’s CO-2 that, once it’s belched out into the atmosphere, it kind of belongs to everybody and it’s everybody’s problem.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, you know, speaking of politics and — I guess it’s geopolitics, I mean, we — we went into this starting to talk about climate change. A lot of people came out talking about geopolitical change and how that showed up in Copenhagen.

RAY SUAREZ: It was the G2 raising its head again. There was speculation after the last G8 meeting that the world was now really run essentially by two countries: the United States and China. But China hadn’t yet even woken up to the fact that it runs the world with the United States. It still wants to count itself as a developing nation, in the way that some of the poorest countries in the world do, and wants to slide in under their rules, rather than be part of the solution, part of the — building the mechanism that gets the world out of the fix it perceives itself to be in.

You know, we spent two weeks with leaders from all over the world saying, we have got to do something. We’re running out of time. And this is our last great chance.

And then very little came out of it.

JEFFREY BROWN: So — but where did that leave everybody else, besides those G2? I mean, you cited in your piece that European leaders, for example, weren’t even there in the final negotiations.

RAY SUAREZ: The Europeans were scratching their heads when it was all over, because they’re among the largest emitters, still. Europe wanted some credit and some recognition for having taken very serious steps toward limiting their emissions just in the recent past, creating a continent-wide architecture for bringing down the release of greenhouse gases into the air.

But you saw that picture at the end. Who was it? Jacob Zuma, the president of South Africa, Lula da Silva, the leader of the Brazilians, Wen Jiabao, the premier of China. It was the new kids on the block, in effect, the ones that are going to be the biggest global emitters in 2020 and 2030 that were sitting around that table with President Obama.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, now, looking ahead, there are clearly some — some calls for changing the process, right? We saw that from Gordon Brown. What does that mean, actually? What are people calling for to look ahead toward some of these next meetings?

RAY SUAREZ: Well, everybody is pointing to the fact that there were 192 states gathered there, and everyone spoke as if the smallest countries with very few emissions were the same as the biggest countries with the biggest emissions, not when it came to responsibility or who would pay what, but having a voice in the proceedings.

And there’s some speculation about how to do the spadework in advance of the conference, so that the smallest countries in the world, those, in fact, who have very little industries to cut back emissions from, don’t get to gum up the works by being able to intrude on the councils of the biggest countries that have to actually do the hardest work to get anything done.

JEFFREY BROWN: To the point where there may be some questions about whether these kind of grand meetings are even useful in something like this?

RAY SUAREZ: Some columnists over the weekend pointed out that this may be the model that proves that the model doesn’t work, that Copenhagen may be the example that people point to years from now and say, look, when you have got a problem as vast as this one, as complicated as this one, getting 192 voices into the room maybe isn’t as useful as getting 20, 25 or even 40, when you need to do something quickly and you need to do something comprehensive.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, Ray Suarez, thanks again. Thanks for the whole week. And welcome back.

RAY SUAREZ: Good to be home.