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On the Environment

Tuesday, February 23, 2010
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Lessons from Copenhagen

By Dan Esty

In the run-up to the 1992 Rio Earth Summit, Maurice Strong, the Conference’s Secretary General, noted that there are only two possibilities when the world’s leaders come together: success or real success. In defiance of this characterization, the Copenhagen Summit in December turned out to be neither. Although there had been no possibility of a “beyond Kyoto” treaty for many months, the extent of the chaos surrounding the negotiations was unpredicted and unfortunate.  Poor management on the part of the Danish authorities coupled with the undisciplined behavior on the part of various other parties led to negotiations that spun badly out of control.

Not all the news is bad, of course. After years of failing to participate seriously in the climate change negotiations, the United States is finally back in the game. The principle of “common but differentiated responsibilities” was, moreover, reestablished as the foundation for any new treaty. China and India signaled that they are prepared to take action. And progress was made on the important issues of forest protection, adaptation, and funding for the least developed countries.

Yet Copenhagen has left us with a number of important lessons that must shape the climate negotiations process going forward. First, the participation of too many parties is bound to make the negotiations unwieldy and unproductive. The best path to reaching an effective climate deal would accordingly involve a set of “pivotal” states. A group of about 15 nations, selected based on demographic logic (i.e., the scale of their emissions), bolstered by 5-8 other countries that serve as representatives of key groups, such as the island nations, would make sense. Such a core negotiating group should produce an agreement to present to the rest of the world that provides incentives for all to participate in the form of funding for mitigation and adaptation.

Second, the science-driven agenda promoted at Copenhagen by the EU proved not to be sufficient. Reaching an effective climate deal has clearly become an issue of power politics. Although good climate policy requires a foundation in good science, climate change cannot be solved based on science alone. What is needed is commitment by key countries, including the U.S., China, and India. Such an agreement, however, will be difficult as long as China remains hesitant about revealing emissions data—and the U.S. cannot mobilize for action. In the modern world, transparency is essential, and sound data, metrics, and indicators are fundamentally good policy. And part of the challenge in getting the U.S. Congress to vote for a climate change action plan stems from a fear that major trade competitors, most notably China, will not take real action. So reporting and verification mechanisms are critical to having climate change legislation move in the United States.

Given the challenges that are present both domestically for the United States and globally in terms of forming a “beyond Kyoto” agreement, even if the focus is narrowed to a pivotal group of states, it may now be time to think about a new approach. While national governments must ultimately work together in forming a comprehensive solution to climate change, an alternative parallel plan should involve a more disaggregated set of incentives, implemented on a country-by-country or subnational basis, directed toward promoting a post-carbon future. National and local jurisdictions moving forward after Copenhagen should accordingly work to engage the private sector in pursuing green energy innovation.

Posted in: Energy & Climate

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