THE AGREEMENT reached in Copenhagen late yesterday among several world leaders is better than a total collapse of the talks, but it still delays any binding international treaty on emission limits until after 2010. At a time when climate scientists are warning that ice caps are melting and sea levels are rising faster than previously expected, this postponement of solid international commitments bodes ill for the countries most vulnerable to global warming. It also deepens the difficulty of keeping the planet’s temperature increase from exceeding the danger threshold of 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit above the current average.
The challenge the world’s leaders faced in Copenhagen was to somehow find an equilibrium point for the great imbalances of global warming between the rich world and the poor world. The rich countries are responsible for most of the carbon dioxide that is already in the atmosphere, but it is developing countries that will be adding most to that heat-trapping blanket as they industrialize. Moreover, it is the developing world that will suffer most from the rising sea levels, floods, and droughts that climate change will cause.
Resolving these conflicting grievances and fears with one formula called for Solomonic leadership long before the world’s leaders gathered in Denmark. No one provided it. Instead, the agreement merely makes a loose commitment to future emissions cuts. It promises a fund to help developing countries confront climate change, but exact terms remain unclear.
The task would have been easier if the conference had been held in 2007, before the worldwide recession left the rich countries less able to provide an adequate fund to help developing countries adapt to changes in climate and reduce their own greenhouse emissions. Of course, in 2007 George W. Bush was still president of the United States, blocking any mandatory smokestack emission reductions by Congress, much less an international accord.
China, the world’s largest emitter of greenhouse gases, has at least agreed to slow the rate at which its emissions rise, but it continues to refuse to accept binding reductions and has been reluctant to permit independent monitoring of the measures it undertakes.
Obama administration officials call the agreement “meaningful’’ and “an important first step.’’ That is putting the best face on it. In Copenhagen, the world has collectively kicked global warming down the road.