First and foremost, it seems pretty clear that this 193 nation UN process isn't the right forum for agreeing to emissions reductions in the short time scientists tell us we have -- if we are to avoid some pretty unpleasant climatic consequences (e.g., devastating water and food shortages). It's certainly not anywhere near as efficient and effective as it needs to be.
This article on Grist points out how in this respect, the outcome of the conference -- an agreement struck between 5 major polluters -- could be an important game changer in the solutions process:
There is a(n)...aspect of this deal that could be the beginning of a game changer in how the world looks at ending carbon pollution. The Copenhagen Accord was not forged among our closest allies in the developed world; it was the product of cooperation between the U.S. and a group of the largest carbon emitters in the developing world. In fact, this same group had met prior to the Copenhagen meeting in China to declare that they would never move beyond one of the core guiding assumptions of the Kyoto Protocol: that the world is divided between developed and developing countries and that only the former are required to take steps to curb their carbon emissions and be held accountable for those reductions.
This union of the U.S. with these four countries is premised on what could become a new guiding assumption: that the world is divided between the major emitters of carbon pollution and everyone else. In that respect the fact that the accord includes a robust compromise on measurement, reporting, and verification acceptable to both the U.S. and China is significant. A framework has finally been advanced for cooperation between developed and developing countries on reductions rather than continuing a process mired in the old divisions which have hampered us for so long.
Though there will be differences among the expectations of emissions reductions among this group, the major emitting countries all will be expected to carry their fair share of emissions reductions thus avoiding the creation of a world where decreasing carbon pollution is only advanced at the expense of economic competitiveness.
Additionally, while some parties will join us in moving forward some in this forum most likely never will. What is most important about this outcome though is that the biggest objections for getting agreement on the Copenhagen Accord came from Bolivia, Venezuela, Cuba, and Sudan. It’s highly doubtful they would ever go along with a U.S. led process.
As leaders continue to push forward into 2010 to turn the accord into a legally binding document we should also move forward on a parallel path: Exploring the possibility that multilateral emissions reductions can be achieved in smaller arenas like the G20 or the Major Economies Forum, MEF (which includes the 17 largest emitters in the world). This past September the G20 produced an agreement ending fossil fuel subsidies by 2050; throughout the year the MEF has produced an array of technology cooperation schemes fulfilling the promise made in 2007 in Bali to provide technology assistance to developing countries in exchange for emissions reductions.
As Joe Romm and I have argued before, we don’t need 192 nations to come to an agreement on mitigating carbon emissions in order to get the job done. We only need those countries responsible for 85 percent of emissions to move forward on the pathways identified by the IPCC with a promise to the world to do so in a responsible manner. Other agreements should be left to the U.N., such as instruments for dealing with adaptation and technology transfer. But it might be better to find a forum for carbon abatement that is less hampered by the procedural constraints that have hindered this process.
The current process just hasn't worked in the way that scientists have made clear we need it to. So it's time to blaze new trails to get to the place we need to get to: 350 ppm. I like the type of thinking that's reflected in this Grist article because it's constructively honest, it's adaptive, it's solution-oriented, and it's not afraid to jump out of the box -- identifying what's clearly not working, and proposing smart, viable new pathways to achieving our goals.
We've just got to keep going until we get there.
Update: The Economist chimes in, agreeing that the outcome of Copenhagen may yet prove more constructive than many now think...