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Copenhagen accord: 'essential beginning' to some, shaky foundation to others

Participants approved a Copenhagen accord that sets out emissions-control objectives, sets a target of less than 2 degrees for global warming, and pledges $30 billion in aid to developing countries. The pact is not legally binding.

By Peter N. SpottsStaff Writer / December 19, 2009

European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Sweden's Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt, French President Nicolas Sarkozy, U.S. President Barack Obama, and Britain's Prime Minister Gordon Brown hold a meeting during the United Nations Climate Change Conference 2009 in Copenhagen, Friday.

Steffen Kugler/BPA/Reuters



Ministers from more than 190 countries approved a new climate agreement today that lays out emissions-control objectives for the US and a range of developing countries, sets a target of less than 2 degrees for global warming, and pledges $30 billion in aid for adaptation and other climate-related needs for developing countries.

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The deal first emerged yesterday after leaders from 28 countries backed the accord, which was negotiated by the US, China, Brazil, South Africa, and India. The goal was to have the pact adopted by all the countries taking part in two weeks of global climate negotiations here.

But the agreement left many observers disappointed – and laid bare the challenges of negotiating a climate agreement among 193 countries with such a broad range of political and economic interests, and with such diverse levels of economic development.

The pact that was agreed to today barely survived last-minute objections in an all-night plenary session aimed at gaining the needed consensus to become an official adjunct to the 1992 Framework Convention on Climate Change. Only after UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and a group of international lawyers intervened with a last-minute word change did negotiators unanimously accept the pact.

The result: a pact countries can sign up for if they want to, once they've had time to study closely its provisions and get comfortable with them. A large number of countries do indeed want to be in on the pact, because of the climate aid package it contains.

Secretary Ban acknowledged that negotiators "did not get everything that everyone hoped for." But, he added, the pact "is an essential beginning. It lays the foundation for the first truly global agreement" on climate."

Not legally binding

To many negotiators, especially from developing countries, it is a shaky foundation. The pact is not legally binding, although negotiators will try to craft formal treaty language over the next year. The emission-control efforts countries have included in the agreement falls well short of the emissions reductions the UN-sponsored Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change indicates is needed to achieve a 2-degree goal. And long-term financing provisions to help developing countries adapt to global warming and afford the green technologies they will need to keep their emission-control pledges is too vague for many.

During the morning's plenary debate, the head of the delegation from the Marshall Islands lamented that he would "leave this conference with a sense of loss and sadness." The highest spot among the islands that make up the Marshalls is only about 7 feet above sea level, he explained. The 2-degree goal, he continued, is insufficient to prevent sea levels from eventually rising high enough to swamp most of the islands. "My country is one of the biggest losers in this exercise," he said.

European Union officials, who had dangled aggressive emissions cuts as an incentive for others to offer up more ambitious emission-control, also viewed the pact with a level of resignation.