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How to Shape a Global Approach to Climate Change: More Davos, Less Denmark

<p>Only one month after the Copenhagen conference failed to give the world a clear picture of what the future holds, this year's World Economic Forum may do just that.</p>

As a follow-up to "How Important Is Copenhagen" it might make sense, after some breathing space to understand what really happened in the Danish capital from December 7 - 18 of last year. Will this event shape the future of a global agreement on climate change or will it be forgotten in a few years?


In the earlier piece I wrote that for Copenhagen "to be a success it must produce a politically binding agreement that makes compulsory emissions reductions -- from industrialized economies and developing ones -- inevitable. An eventual treaty must create a global system for trading carbon as a commodity, with liquidity and price transparency. It must provide compensation to those countries that avoid deforestation and thus preserve important carbon sinks. And it must ensure that emission reductions can be verified."

Surprisingly, the final two points -- deforestation and transparency -- received much greater attention and success than most would have predicted a priori. In some sense the REDD agreement on reforestation compensation and the movement by China to accept some level of MRV standards were the two clear bright spots in an otherwise murky two weeks. Less clear were the fates of legally binding emissions and a global carbon market.

The Copenhagen Accord

If brevity is the soul of wit, then the Copenhagen Accord may be the most clever international climate agreement ever written. There are only 12 points to this political and non-legally binding accord, each averaging a mere 100 words. The 12 points include: 

1.    Commitment to < 2°C temperature rise
2.    Reaching peak global emissions ASAP
3.    Funding transfers for adaptation
4.    Industrialized country mitigation targets for 2020 5.    Developing country mitigation actions
6.    Forestry - REDD
7.    Incentives for Action
8 - 10. Aid from the industrialized to developing world
11. Technology transfer
12. Next steps

Winners and Losers

Copenhagen refocused the climate conversation from the one taking place among 100+ nations to one happening among five countries, the U.S. and the so-called BASIC countries (Brazil, South Africa, India, China). These countries flexed their "climate muscle" at Copenhagen, usurping an international process that had been in place since Kyoto.

In that sense they could be seen as winners, with the international process of negotiation and the smaller nations the losers. Barack Obama's leadership to help salvage something out of Copenhagen made him look like a winner, with Europe losing influence after all of the years of diligent work leading the COP process. Lack of a clear path to a legally binding agreement on emissions must make oil and coal interests feel like winners, with carbon price predictability and the cleantech sector the losers.
But what about the public and the planet? Were they winners or losers? Having the U.S. and China front-and-center on climate change is indeed hopeful, but without legally binding agreements that align with the science and bring the rest of the world along the people and the planet may be the ultimate losers.

More Davos - Less Denmark

It is becoming increasingly clear that if one really wants to know how the 21st century is going to play out, the COP process may be a lagging rather than leading indicator. In many ways the COP process is mired in the past. China is still categorized as a developing nation yet emits more greenhouse gases than any other. Talk of technology transfer implies the world's leading economies help developing ones, yet it is China again that is leading the technology race on clean green energy.

Only one month after the Copenhagen conference failed to give the world a clear picture of what the future holds, this year's World Economic Forum may be doing just that.

As reported by Katrin Bennhold from Davos in the New York Times last weekend, "Topic A this year was the race to develop greener, cleaner technology." The Times went on to say that the job-creating potential of green technology was "seen by many here as the next industrial revolution," and a revolution in which China was moving ahead of the West.

U.S. Senator Lindsay Graham was impressed, "… my concern is that every day that we delay trying to find a price for carbon is a day that China uses to dominate the green economy." Graham is a not a Northeast Democrat, he's a Republican from South Carolina. This is a hopeful glimmer in an otherwise dark landscape for climate legislation in the U.S. Senate.

Copenhagen's successor, COP-16, is scheduled for Mexico this November. If the COP system is to stay important and relevant, it has to put that price on carbon that Graham is asking for, and enforce a system of legally binding emissions reductions. Then to those Americans who think cap-and-trade puts their economy at risk, it becomes Graham's job to get them to stop looking at trees and instead see the forest. The risks to the U.S economy are infinitely greater if we don't lead in the cleantech sector over the next decade -- and without a price on carbon we will not lead.


Andrew McKeon is founder and principal of CarbonRational, a consulting firm specializing in business strategies around climate change and sustainability. He has been an active contributor to the Climate Project and maintains a blog at

Image credit by Sebastian Derungs, © World Economic Forum.

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