Copenhagen summit: Major powers broker compromise voluntary climate pact

The US, China, India, South Africa, and Brazil agreed to a voluntary climate pact. President Obama acknowledged that 'we have much further to go.' The deal did not produce commitments on emissions reductions.

Anja Niedringhaus/AP
Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jiabao after delivering his speech at the climate summit, Friday. President Barack Obama met twice on Friday, with China's premier as world leaders pressed to salvage a global warming accord amid deep divisions between rich and poor nations.
Larry Downing/Reuters
US President Barack Obama speaks after attending the United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP15) at the Bella Center in Copenhagen, Friday.

The United States and four other countries agreed to a new, voluntary climate pact today. The move, which could become the framework for a broader agreement here, drew responses ranging from cautious acceptance to outrage. But it could prove a historic development in big-power negotiations, say some analysts.
The announcement came at the end of nearly 24 hours of intense talks among nearly two dozen world leaders and their negotiators. In announcing the agreement to reporters from the United States, President Obama acknowledged that it falls short of what the science demands in order to hold global warming to roughly 2 degrees Celsius over preindustrial levels.

But, he added, "it's a first step," one designed to overcome what he called a "deadlock in perspectives" between developed and developing countries and build the kind of confidence between the two camps that will eventually allow for a legally binding treaty.

"But if we just waited for that," added Mr. Obama, "we wouldn't make any progress.... We have to keep moving forward."

The outlines of the agreement reached between the leaders of the US, China, South Africa, Brazil, and India acknowledge the 2-degree goal, focus on the emissions-control actions countries already have put on the table, and include provisions for verification along the lines of those set up by the World Trade Organization.

Reactions within the cavernous conference center included support as well as anger.

"If accepted by other parties, this tentative agreement would be an important step forward," says Elliot Diringer, vice president for international strategies at the Pew Center for Global Climate Change in Arlington, Va. "It’s well short of what’s ultimately needed. But it would provide a reasonable basis for negotiating a fair and effective climate treaty. But even if other parties do accept this as a basis for going forward, achieving the legally binding agreement we need in a year’s time will be an enormous challenge."

Several environmental groups are far less charitable,for instance. "Copenhagen has been an abject disaster," said Nnimmo Bassey, who heads Friends of the Earth International, in a prepared statement. "By delaying action, rich countries have condemned millions of he world's poorest people to hunger, suffering, and loss of life as climate change accelerates."

Yet the agreement -- and the approach to reaching it - could have far-reaching and positive implications for future negotiations on difficult issues, particularly for the US and China, according to Harvard University's Robert Stavins, director of the university's Project on International Climate Agreements.

Mr. Stavins calls the agreement historic. It marks the first time in any major international negotiations that heads of state "pushed the bureaucrats out of the way" to craft a deal, he says. "That's unprecedented in any world talks."

Despite the disappointment many here are expressing about the climate implications of the deal, it speaks volumes about the importance the leaders put on the issue and the future of US-Chinese relations, he adds.

Those relations are "of the utmost importance" for the future of the two countries and for global security in general, as the world's most important economy today works out its relationship with the world's most important economy tomorrow, he adds.

"If the US and China had left this meeting without an agreement, it would have boded poorly for dealing with a range of other issues, from trade, to the environment, to human rights," he says.

From a climate standpoint, he continues, the agreement lays the foundation for bringing emerging economies into a global climate agreement.

At the time of this writing, it was unclear how much support this agreement was getting among the more than 190 countries here. If they do accept it, it will be up to the technical negotiators to work out the language to turn the broad parameters the deal sets out into text the conference can agree on -- a process that could continue well into the weekend.

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