[Part 3 in the Shriver Center’s series on Climate Change and Low-Income Communities.]
After a chaotic two weeks, the 15th United Nations Climate Conference concluded on December 19th with a joint statement of intention that is not legally binding but nonetheless addresses the major global climate change issues and establishes a framework for future negotiations. The agreement was negotiated by five key nations – the United States, China, India, Brazil and South Africa – and then approved by the vast majority of the 193 nations that participated in the conference.
President Obama, who personally negotiated the terms of the final agreement, called it “an unprecedented breakthrough” while acknowledging that it is only a “modest step” in the right direction.
The agreement sets up a flow of financing for poor countries to adapt to climate change, with the U.S. pledging to pay its share towards increasing this fund to $100 billion a year by 2020. The agreement also provides a system for major carbon-emitting nations to monitor and report their progress towards meeting national pollution reduction goals, an issue that had been a major sticking point with China.
On the other hand, the agreement contains no firm medium or long term targets for each nation’s greenhouse gas emissions reductions. Moreover, the overall goal of limiting global temperature increase to two degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, which would require deep cuts in climate-altering emissions, would not, according to the nations most vulnerable to the physical effects of climate change, be sufficient to ensure their survival. And, scientists warned that even if the nations of the world achieved this collective goal it would still not be enough to reliably avert the risks of disruptive changes in rainfall and drought, ecosystems and polar ice cover from global warming.
As for the future of global climate change negotiations and agreements, the next UN conference will take place in Mexico City in November 2010, approximately one year from now. However, the joint statement of intention that concluded the Copenhagen conference did not include a commitment to reach a binding legal agreement by the Mexico City conference, as many had hoped it would. There are also strong signs that given the unwieldy nature of trying to include 193 nations in the negotiations, future climate change agreements may be negotiated by the roughly 30 countries responsible for 90 percent of the world’s carbon emissions outside of the UN process.
Whether the commitments President Obama made in Copenhagen will be kept hinges on Congressional action later this spring. As we have just seen with the national health care debate, if the Republicans in the Senate remain unified in opposition, and all signs are that they will, passing such legislation will be very difficult. In addition, regulating carbon emissions has sharply different regional impacts, complicating the political process. In spite of these obstacles, Sen. Kerry, the Senate’s leader on climate change issues, predicts spring passage of the necessary legislation, which has already passed in the House.
Climate change and policies to combat it are subjects that have not yet appeared on the radar screens of low-income people and their advocates. It is essential that this hands-off attitude change very quickly since Congress has already started to make momentous decisions that will dramatically affect low-income people and communities for decades to come. Look for our upcoming blog regarding work at the Congressional level and how you can get more involved.