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Chaos and the Accord: Climate Change, Tropical Forests and REDD+ after Copenhagen

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Issue date: 
April 06, 2010
Publisher Name: 
John O. Niles
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The Copenhagen Accord, forged at COP15 upended international efforts to confront climate change. Never before have 115 Heads of State gathered together at one time, let alone for the singular purpose of crafting a new climate change agreement. Even though the new Accord is still in intensive care, two things are already clear. First, we have entered an entirely new world. And second, tropical forests have the greatest potential to breathe life into the new agreement.

A New World

The old world, embodied by the Kyoto Protocol, was black and white. Only two types of countries existed – “developed” (wealthy) countries that agreed to cap their own greenhouse gases and “developing” countries that had no specific obligations to reduce emissions. Developing countries could however reduce their emissions and then sell UN-verified rights to emit, also know as carbon credits. The Kyoto Protocol capped emissions from developed countries and instituted a trading system in certified emissions reductions. All the accounting was monitored by the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), its Secretariat, and its bodies.

The Kyoto Protocol drove a $125 billion per year industry in pollution abatement (carbon credits) dominated by Europe’s greenhouse gas trading system and the Clean Development Mechanism. Real money changed hands ostensibly to reduce greenhouse gases. And while some of the emissions reductions were not additional (that is they were not genuine reductions in greenhouse gases) for the most part the CDM carbon market channeled money to reduce greenhouse gases. The Kyoto Protocol worked but was also staggeringly complex. Thousands of pages of methodologies, protocols, guidelines, standards, tests, and registration systems were required. Consultants consumed a lot of the green investments.

In addition to its complexity, the Kyoto Protocol was politically flawed. The largest emitters either had no obligations to reduce (China, India, Brazil, and Indonesia) or simply chose not to (the US and Canada). The Clinton administration had helped write the Kyoto Protocol and had set a “cap” for US emissions, but the Bush administration quickly made it clear the US would not uphold this commitment. The US never acceded to the Kyoto Protocol despite being the largest economy in the world, the largest annual emitter until 2006 (when China became the largest emitter), and the chief architect of the cap and trade system.

The US withdrawal could have capsized the ship, but Europe and its allies persevered to keep it afloat. Climate change policy from 2000 to 2008 could be summed up as Europe biting the bullet and imposing higher costs to pollute. This led to China, India, Brazil and Mexico making money from Europe’s leadership by generating offsets.

If the old regime was a black and white world (countries with caps and countries without caps), the new political reality for climate change cooperation is multi-colored. Under the Copenhagen Accord, all major countries are stating quantitatively what they will try to by 2020 to combat climate change. That is the good news.

Tropical forests have the greatest potential to breathe life into the new agreement.

The bad news is it doesn’t add up to a significant reduction in global warming. Embodied by the Copenhagen Accord, a scant 12-paragraphs and 1361 words, the new world is still largely aspirational. The Copenhagen Accord rests in legal, political and environmental limbo. There is no flesh on the agreement and it is unclear where the authority sits. Yet despite its flaws the Copenhagen Accord does a good job bringing key players to the table to sign up for real reductions across a variety of spheres, industries, and sectors all around the world. There are vague assurances that the reductions will be measured, reported and verified.

While the new Accord would solve some of the major defects of the Kyoto Protocol, it is still unclear if this agreement will be an asset to climate change cooperation or a setback. How could this happen after years of negotiation? How could the majority of Heads of State gather on one of humankind’s most pressing problems and come up with an Accord that remains ambiguous?

Two Overarching Problems Leading Up To Copenhagen

Although a gross oversimplification, there were two key problems affecting the talks.

China/US relations set up a difficult dynamic for getting a deal at Copenhagen. The US under the Obama administration wanted to reinvigorate the climate change process but needed to wrestle substantial concessions out of China and other large emitters. Without a clear signal that developing countries would also undertake emission cuts, Obama’s team would never be able to get Congress to pass aggressive climate change policies. But China was not interested in hearing another US lecture (especially when the US had no moral ground to stand on, having walked away from the Kyoto Protocol). America’s executive branch wanted to show leadership, but has been dealing with a hostile Congress, two wars, a severe recession and the fact that China owns almost a trillion dollars in US Treasury Securities. A host of overarching economic, military and strategic issues between the two greenhouse gas giants was complicating a climate change deal.

The process for creating a new climate change accord was also under immense strain politically and logistically. The actual UNFCCC negotiating process had become virtually unworkable due to extraordinary complexity. Six separate and interrelated UN “bodies” were negotiating the agreement for 192 countries in 6 official UN languages with hundreds of pages of draft agreements, each often riddled with brackets indicating disagreement among nations. The UNFCCC did a good job holding the whole system together for years. But going into the Copenhagen talks, the UNFCCC was operating at the outer bounds of international diplomacy in terms of technical work and organization.

An Accord Rises from the Ashes

Going into COP15, there was an unwieldy 200-page negotiating document as well as dozens of “non-papers” and other draft decisions. The whole process was supposed to get wrapped into a cohesive global strategy for combating climate change. As the Copenhagen meetings opened, diplomats had less than two weeks to eliminate all differences in time for the historic congregation of world leaders. That did not happen.

Instead, midway through the second week of the two-week talks, the effort to reach a detailed agreement fell apart. Chaos ensued and consensus could not be reached. The precipice of a new deal became the precipice of failure. Negotiating documents that had been years in the making were largely (though not completely) discarded and the Copenhagen Accord was hastily assembled by a few Heads of State and inner circles. To this date, it is not clear who wrote the initial draft. (On what laptop did the nascent hurried accord get typed?) It was then rather unceremoniously introduced to the world as the new agreement, with Heads of State jetting home without any formal signing ceremony.

For observers of this process, it was surreal. Years of work by thousands of scientists, diplomats and observers literally evaporated. In its place is, well…no one is quite sure. Pundits from around the world and across various political spectra are weighing in, some declaring the Copenhagen Accord a flop, others calling it a tentative success, and almost everyone saying it is too soon to tell.

What is the Copenhagen Accord?

The new Copenhagen Accord consists of a list of countries, 12 paragraphs and two Appendixes. It calls for massive new funding for climate change abatement and adaptation and it creates four new UN “bodies” to help us get from point A to point B. As of April 2, 2010, 115 countries have associated with the Accord and 75 countries representing 80% of global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions have made public declarations to reduce GHGs.

The Two Appendixes: Declarations of Commitments

So far, most of the major greenhouse gas emitters have sent in their intentions and the submissions will be organized into the two Appendixes (one for developed countries and one for developing countries). Countries are publicly declaring how much of an emission cut they think they can achieve between now and 2020.

For the most part, developed nations are saying they will reduce their emissions absolutely. The United States announced a target of a 17% reduction in greenhouse gases below a 2005 baseline. Europe will strive to cut its emissions by a more aggressive 20% to 30% below 1990 levels.

Developing nations are making different declarations. India and China have said they will reduce the intensity of their emissions (emissions per unit of economic output). And while not yet an absolute reduction, these are important concessions. The cuts these large developing countries have proposed are a significant step beyond what was required of them by the Kyoto Protocol. Mexico, which is hosting the next Conference of the parties (COP16), has said it will reduce its emissions by 30% by 2020. Most developing countries are making emission reductions commitments contingent on adequate financing by developed nations. They are going on record that they will undertake substantial measures to cut their greenhouse gas emissions if assistance is provided by the wealthiest countries.

Importantly, countries are registering commitments based on what they think is politically feasible given their domestic circumstances. A critical player here, once again, is the United States. Three US administrations (Clinton, Bush, and Obama) failed to submit the Kyoto Protocol to the US Senate for ratification since it never would have mustered the requisite two-thirds majority vote. After Copenhagen, the US “signed up” to reduce its emissions by 17% below 2005 levels - an emission reduction cut on par with what was in congressional legislation at the time. Now, even that modest ambition already seems unattainable. With changes in the US Senate after Copenhagen, congress has officially has ditched its previous plans for an ambitious cap and trade framework. At this point, if any US climate and energy legislation is enacted by congress (itself a long shot), the legislation will almost certainly not achieve the Obama administration’s Copenhagen goal.


The Copenhagen Accord states that it is the intention of developed countries to leverage $100 billion per year by 2020 to assist developing countries mitigate and adapt to climate change. The Accord also calls for the immediate leveraging of $35 billion in fast track funding over the next three years. On the sidelines of the Copenhagen meetings, Australia, the UK, France, Norway, Japan and the US announced that of the $35 billion in funds, $3.5 billion would be committed to REDD+ internationally over the next few years  including $1 billion from the United States.

All of these pledges are staggering. They represent an immediate opportunity to accelerate cooperative efforts on climate change mitigation and adaptation. Many groups are already working to ensure that financial pledges made in Copenhagen will be honored. Early indications suggest some developed governments will repackage existing aid commitments and the Copenhagen monies will not be anything new. Still, developed nations have started reaching into their pockets in an unprecedented way.

Four New Entities

In addition to the stated emission reduction goals and the money pledged by wealthy nations, four new UN “bodies” were created by the Copenhagen Accord. These four bodies include the “REDD+ Mechanism” (paragraph 6); the Copenhagen Green Climate Fund set to handle $30 billion in funding until 2012 and up to $100 billion per year by 2020 (paragraph 8); a High Level Panel to study the contribution of the potential sources of revenue (paragraph 9); and a Technology Mechanism to “accelerate technology development and transfer in support of action on adaptation and mitigation.” (paragraph 11).

High Level Panel

This body is unlikely to be critical. It has a fuzzy mandate to study potential sources of revenue and is not going to significantly solve climate change.

The Copenhagen Green Climate Fund (CGCF)

Importantly, the donations (some might say reparations) pledged by rich counties for poor ones will be loosely coordinated by the CGCF. While not likely to wield great authority initially, the CGCF will probably keep track of and set some basic rules for how individual donors spend and account for their stated pledges. In the Copenhagen Accord, the CGCF has a loose affiliation with the UNFCCC process and its supreme body, the Conference of Parties (COP). If in fact there will be $100 billion in carbon finance annually by 2020 (a huge “if”), then whatever body helps oversee these funds will be an important one. And the language in the Copenhagen Accord tying the CGCF to the original UNFCCC creates a necessary hitch between the old world and the new.

Mechanisms: Technology and REDD+

The Copenhagen Accord also creates two new mechanisms. Mechanisms in climate change policy are how developed and developing countries shake hands, pay for, and measure emission reductions. Under the Kyoto Protocol, it was the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) that oversaw the carbon market between developed and developing nations. The CDM was only a ten-paragraph Article (Article 12) yet its implementation channeled hundreds of billions of dollars in green investments. The two new mechanisms in the Copenhagen Accord have the potential to become vital engines for climate change mitigation. But, right now, these two mechanisms have been authorized by an accord that has no clear authority.

Of the two mechanisms, the REDD+ mechanism is conceptually more advanced. (This despite that in the Copenhagen Accord, the Technology Mechanism is capitalized and the “mechanism including REDD+” is lower case. In international treaties, sometimes small typographic differences can matter.) Regardless of the diminutive form of the REDD+ mechanism, it rests on a vaster body of information, decisions and agreements. REDD has its own Web Platform at the UNFCCC. This is the result of the Bali Road map and agreement by Parties that it was important to share technical and scientific information on REDD. There is no such platform for technology transfer. And from 2005 to 2009, just as the world was trying to retool its overarching climate change strategy, REDD+ had a series of technical workshops, meetings, reports and international agreements about many core REDD+ issues. REDD is the only sector of the global economy that has a long string of negotiated texts and UN decisions. This is not the case for technology (and the Technology Mechanism). Compared to any other issue in global environmental sustainability, REDD+ is a paragon on technical and diplomatic progress.

Further confirming REDD+'s front runner role, during the Copenhagen talks a subsidiary negotiating track adopted a decision called "Methodological guidance for activities relating to reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation and the role of conservation, sustainable management of forests and enhancement of forest carbon stocks in developing countries." This text that was adopted by consensus sets in motion a series of next steps for REDD+ in the UNFCCC process. One part of the decision was to request developing countries to “establish robust and transparent national forest monitoring systems and, if appropriate, sub-national systems as part of national monitoring systems” and to make the results available for review by the Conference of the Parties. This small part of negotiated text is actually a breakthrough. It suggests if developing countries and sub-national levels of governments (state and provinces) can reduce emissions from deforestation and get emissions reductions reviewed by the UNFCCC process, this could lead to financial support and incentives from the developed nations. This will become a major focus of diplomatic work over the next years and could facilitate substantial new levels of sustainable finance for countries that demonstrate real reductions in deforestation.

Now the door is open for governors from developing countries, not just countries themselves, to stop deforestation and access incentives. If governors can measure, report and verify (MRV in climate change vernacular) the reductions, presumably carbon finance will be unleashed. This does not mean federal governments are cut out of the process, just that states and provinces can move at their own pace to recruit carbon finance and stop deforestation.

The sub-national issue of REDD+ is fundamental for another reason. Recently a growing number of state and provincial governors from the US, Indonesia, Brazil, Nigeria, and Mexico have been working on the Governors’ Climate and Forests Taskforce, initially spearheaded by California. This GCF Taskforce includes governors of around 50% of the world’s forests (in the US, Mexico, Indonesia, and Nigeria). These governors (some of the most progressive environmental leaders of our time) and their staffs are working to fast-track REDD+ activities and finance. One key arena where this may occur is under California’s landmark climate change legislation, the Global Warming Solutions Act. Often, what California adopts for rules in environmental circles eventually filters up to the US federal level. The GCF holds its next meeting in May in Aceh, Indonesia and has been working on a series of measures to build a REDD+ regulatory framework for states and provinces. The governors of the Taskforce are moving faster than either the Copenhagen Accord, the UNFCCC or the US legislative processes. They are also moving faster in most cases than their federal counterparts. It is plausible that the GCF could streamline international efforts and bring substance to the lofty opportunities of the REDD+ mechanism. The Copenhagen decision clearly allows this type of forest conservation to be measured, verified and ideally, funded.

What the Copenhagen Accord doesn’t do.

The Copenhagen Accord does not provide a coherent framework. The key question is whether and how the Copenhagen Accord can get “stitched” to the better parts of the UNFCCC and the Kyoto Protocol and cover new ground.  There are a few references in the accord to the Convention but this relationship is not yet codified. This will be a primary focus for negotiators in 2010. The Copenhagen Accord also does not indicate whether developed nations will continue to use measured emission reductions in developing countries. Without this demand for credits, the carbon market that has defined much of the current efforts to fight climate change will be seriously and negatively impacted. The Copenhagen Accord also fails to establish penalties for countries that do not meet their stated obligations.

Is the Copenhagen Accord Enough? See REDD+ for Answer

A central question facing this planet is whether the Copenhagen Accord, born from chaos at the highest levels of global governance, is up to the monumental job of slowing and reducing greenhouse gas emissions. To be effective, the Copenhagen Accord must reduce CO2 emissions rapidly enough to avoid significant disruption to the thin film of life surrounding our planet.

Whether the Copenhagen Accord is ultimately successful may be largely decided by what happens with REDD+ and the world’s remaining tropical forests. As the world tries to resuscitate the UNFCCC process, REDD+ is the most promising concept in a turbulent time. REDD+ is the frontrunner in the twisting race to reach political agreement on climate change. There are various forums where REDD is being advanced (the UNFCCC, the UN REDD Web Platform, the World Bank, UN-REDD, the GCF and communities and indigenous lands worldwide). REDD+ has a mechanism in the Copenhagen Accord, a shared history of adopted technical decisions, and an immediate infusion of funding. With all that as a backdrop, efforts over the next three years to reign in emissions from tropical deforestation and promote sustainable land use practices will be the most important area of global climate change policy to watch and support.

REDD+ is the frontrunner in the twisting race to reach political agreement on climate change.

The evolution and progress of the new REDD+ mechanism will significantly influence the overall trajectory of international climate change policy. If REDD+ goes well – and developed countries leverage significant resources to help developing countries stem deforestation - this positivity could spill into other areas of international cooperation. If REDD+ goes sour, prospects for successful climate change mitigation and adaptation significantly dim.


The work kicks off again with the first formal round of negotiations after the Copenhagen meetings in Bonn Germany from April 9 to April 11, 2010. Stay tuned for more news, here on mongabay.com or at http://tropicalforestgroup.blogspot.com/.

John-O Niles is the Director of the Tropical Forest Group.


Extpub | by Dr. Radut