Climate deal reached, but limited

Obama leads all-out push for last-minute agreement; pact not legally binding; no deadline for emissions treaty

By Beth Daley
Globe Staff / December 19, 2009

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COPENHAGEN - The United States, China, India, Brazil, and South Africa last night reached what President Obama called a “meaningful and unprecedented breakthrough’’ to control climate change, although the agreement will not be legally binding and falls short of even the most timid expectations of what would come out of the much-anticipated talks here.

The deal, brokered by Obama in the frenetic waning hours of the final day of the two-week climate summit, will set a target of keeping average worldwide temperatures from rising more than 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit above pre-industrial levels or roughly 2 degrees above today’s average. At current emissions levels, temperatures are expected by leading climate scientists to rise between 3 and 7 degrees by the end of the century.

But Obama acknowledged that the deal fell far short of most people’s expectations and “will not be sufficient’’ to keep within the temperature target and avoid the worst consequences of global warming.

“This is not a perfect agreement,’’ he said.

The three-page accord pledges billions of dollars from rich nations to help developing countries deal with global warming. It also requires developed countries to list voluntary emissions-reduction targets, but they are not legally binding and there is no long-term goal for how much global emissions should be reduced by 2050, a critical issue as developing nations industrialize and release more greenhouse gases.

The agreement also establishes no deadline for completing a treaty that would require countries to cut greenhouse gas emissions. Most had expected that the talks would produce consensus to reach a treaty next year.

’’We have come a long way [but] we have much further’’ to go, said Obama, who in an unusual move negotiated directly with other heads of state, including face to face with Premier Wen Jiabao of China. When asked whether he could foresee a time when a binding treaty would be brokered, Obama said, “I think it is going to be very hard and take some time.’’

Obama left for home soon after he spoke at a news conference because of a brewing snowstorm in Washington, although he said US negotiators could sign the accord. That won’t happen, however, until other world leaders have a chance to review and vote on the agreement.

A plenary session to discuss the deal began after 2 a.m. this morning. Before it started, Lumumba Di-Aping, the Sudanese head of the G77 group of developing countries, gave a withering assessment of the agreement, saying “the deal remains an idea.’’ The G77 have called for emission targets that would keep the world’s temperature rise below 1.5 degrees Celsius and have said they need upwards of $200 billion a year to adapt to climate change and switch to greener technologies, far less than developed countries have offered.

“This is the worst development in climate change negotiations,’’ said Di-Aping. “I say this because gross violations have been committed today against the poor.’’ However, he did not go so far as to say he would reject the deal.

European Union officials said they were hoping for a far more ambitious accord but indicated they would probably accept the agreement.

The deal includes language to address the US insistence that China’s emission-reduction promises be monitored and verified, a contentious issue that brought the talks to a standstill in recent days. The agreement would require countries to share information about how they are lowering emissions “with provisions for international consultations and analysis under clearly defined guidelines.’’ But Obama said the verification system would not be legally binding.

The agreement also includes a financing mechanism to assist developing countries. The United States and other industrialized countries have pledged about $10 billion a year through 2012 and long-term financing, with a goal of raising about $100 billion a year by 2020. Much of that money is expected to come from selling emission permits after the United States and other countries pass legislation that would charge polluters money to emit carbon dioxide.

Reaction was swift and harsh from nongovernmental environmental groups, which had once looked to Copenhagen - it was often referred to as “Hopenhagen’’ - as a place to get a legally binding climate deal for the world after more than 20 years of effort. But since the US Congress failed to pass climate change legislation this year, a move many countries wanted to see before agreeing to strict emission goals, it was widely believed that a political agreement would be crafted here that would lead to a legally binding pact by a meeting in Mexico City next November.

“Climate negotiations in Copenhagen have yielded a sham agreement with no real requirements for any countries,’’ said Erich Pica, president of Friends of the Earth U.S. “This is not a strong deal or a just one - it isn’t even a real one. . . . This is a disastrous outcome for people around the world who face increasingly dire impacts from a destabilizing climate.’’

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the leading scientific authority on global warming, has concluded that temperatures will rise between 3 and 7 degrees Fahrenheit by the end of the century if emissions continue to grow unchecked, and that sea levels will rise 7 to 23 inches in that time. More frequent extreme weather is also predicted without aggressive steps to reduce the amount of heat-trapping gases being released into the environment, chiefly from burning fossil fuels and deforestation.

US Senator John F. Kerry, coauthor of stalled climate change legislation, said the pact could be a “catalyzing moment’’ because Senate approval of the emissions-reduction bill is now crucial to demonstrate the US commitment to the world.

With the pact, he said “we can work to pass domestic legislation early next year to bring us across the finish line.’’

The 12-day conference was fractious from the start. Observers said developed nations did not fully appreciate the anger from developing countries, which say they are bearing the brunt of richer countries’ industrial eras that are responsible for most of the manmade heat-trapping gases in the atmosphere. Many were angry at the US refusal to use an earlier climate agreement, the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, as the foundation for a pact. The Kyoto agreement measures reductions based on 1990 emissions levels. Obama pledged to reduce US emissions about 17 percent below 2005 levels by 2020.

Although Secretary of State Hillary Clinton eased the anger Thursday by announcing that the United States intended to help create a $100 billion annual fund for developing countries, the offer was seen as too vague by some, with no clear mechanisms to ensure the money would be forthcoming.

And developing countries - particularly China, which recently surpassed the United States as the largest emitter of greenhouse gases - did not realize how much developed countries wanted them to be part of a more structured regime to reduce greenhouse gases. Under climate change law, developing countries do not have to have binding emission targets.

China, with its rapidly expanding economy, offered to reduce its carbon intensity - the amount of carbon dioxide emitted per unit of production - 40 to 45 percent below 2005 levels by 2020. But the US insisted the country be internationally monitored, a move Chinese officials called an infringement on their sovereignty.

Beth Daley can be reached at