Pragmatism, realism prevail

They struck a deal in Copenhagen. As expected, it satisfies few and angers many. That means it is probably the best deal that could have been reached given the profound differences among the 193 nations that negotiated the agreement. The document that was finalized urges, but does not require, deep cuts in greenhouse gas emissions by major polluters and provides billions of dollars in aid to poor nations to help mitigate the impact of climate change.

The Copenhagen Accord is a step forward, but it is clearly not the bold initiative that many had hoped for. It is a triumph — if we can call it that — for pragmatism and realism.

Despite two years of negotiations, it became clear several months ago that the 15th United Nations Climate Change Conference, better known as COP15, would not conclude with a fully fleshed out accord to succeed the Kyoto Protocol, which expires in 2012. At best, leaders would outline a framework with details to be filled in next year. Yet, even those modest ambitions were set to be thwarted after 10 days of frustrating negotiations.

The divide between rich and poor nations appeared to have grown, rather than narrowed, by the time leaders arrived to close the deal. The developed world, which has produced the overwhelming majority of the greenhouse gasses that cause climate change, was insistent that rising powers such as China, India and Brazil would also have to accept limits, a position those nations adamantly refused.

The breakthrough came when U.S. President Barack Obama joined — reportedly uninvited — a meeting of heads of state from Brazil, China, India and South Africa. Together, they forged a three-page accord that sets the goal of limiting the global temperature rise to 2 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels, which implies, at least, deep cuts in greenhouse gas emissions. Rich nations must identify individual emissions targets and developing countries must list actions they will take to reduce growth in their global warming pollution by specific amounts. It sets out a system for monitoring and reporting progress toward national goals and “provisions for international consultations and analysis under clearly defined guidelines that will ensure that national sovereignty is respected.”

The agreement also calls for billions of dollars in aid from rich nations to countries that will be hardest hit by climate change. At first, poor countries will get $30 billion in emergency assistance over the next three years, with the goal of providing $100 billion a year by 2020. Those funds will mitigate the impact of global warming, as well as help them reduce their own greenhouse gas emissions.

It is easy to criticize the accord. Details are missing and the problem is being kicked down the road. A consensus has been reached, but most importantly the goal of completing a legally binding treaty by 2010 has been abandoned. There is no sugar coating that change.

While the goal of limiting the temperature rise to 2 degrees Celsius is laudable, in fact, temperatures have already risen 0.7 degrees and are on track to rise 3.9 degrees by the end of this century even if Copenhagen goals are met. And significantly, if those goals are not met, there are no penalties.

Then, the aid figures are derided as too low: Some studies argue that as much as $100 billion is needed annually now to deal with the impact of climate change. And there is no mention of aid to countries to preserve rainforests, which are vital to protecting the climate. Burning trees to clear land boosts carbon dioxide levels by as much as all the world’s cars, trucks, trains, planes and ships combined.

Environmentalists have dismissed the Copenhagen Accord as “a triumph of spin over substance,” but that goes too far. As Japanese Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama acknowledged, the deal is “a major step forward.” As Mr. Obama explained, Copenhagen represents the first acceptance by all major economies of “their responsibility to take action to confront the threat of climate change.”

That may be true, but the disappointment at what was agreed is no less palpable. The deal is just a first step. Leaders have been timid, but the real problem is that there is little indication that publics are prepared to make the sacrifices required for a path-breaking accord. That reluctance has been compounded by the impact of a global economic crisis.

Ultimately, a successful climate regime requires a new mentality among people, one that is not only “climate conscious” but that also sees opportunity in green growth. Precious little effort has been made to propagate that kind of thinking. If we see the Copenhagen Accord as a political document, then that change is not likely to ever occur. Instead, we should acknowledge that agreement for what it is — a first step in a long road that changes the fundamentals of how we think about economic activity. If we genuinely exploit this opportunity, Copenhagen will be remembered as a success, rather than the disappointment that so many are eager to brand it today.