COP15 debrief: U.N. says world leaders rolled up their sleeves

Lawyers will be debating for months and weeks what exactly was achieved at the Copenhagen climate summit. Which key goals, pledges and targets were, or were not, firmly nailed down – and what work remains to be finished in 2010.

But U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki Moon gave a sweeping summary of events on Saturday that made you stop, rub your bleary eyes and marvel at what just happened. Nearly 120 world leaders gathered here in the last 48 hours to discuss how they can work together to stop global warming. And despite deep divisions and conflicting interests, they refused to walk away from the table and instead hashed out an outline for advancing next year.

Here’s what Ban said:

“Bringing all the leaders to the table paid off. The Copenhagen accord may not be everything everyone hoped, but this is an essential beginning. We now have a foundation for the first truly global agreement that will limit and reduce greenhouse gas emissions.”

In case anyone in Copenhagen thought global agreements come easily, U.N. Assistant Secretary General for Policy Planning Robert Orr was there to remind us:

“The process you just witnessed, one reason it was a wild roller coaster ride is that it was truly unprecedented. This was the most genuine negotiation I’ve ever seen between leaders – and I’ve worked at the U.N. a long time — usually it’s something pre-cooked.

Orr said he never saw so many world leaders roll up their sleeves and get down to caucusing and negotiating at all levels, especially in the face of uncertain outcomes. In plenary remarks Friday, Brazil’s President Lula said it reminded him what it felt like to be a labor leader.

But will it be enough? President Obama and others have already said the Copenhagen accord is a first step and there’s a lot more to be done to reach the kind of legally binding treaty we need. The accord’s critical contribution may turn out to be the fact that it drew world leaders into the process and got us all moving forward together in the right direction.

Some sleep-deprived delegates and observers in Copenhagen expressed frustration that more wasn’t achieved. But Mr. Orr was optimistic the Copenhagen accord could draw countries in and kick-start a virtuous circle:

“The key is to get the machinery going. This will create a dynamic in countries, marketplaces and innovation systems… it’s not inconceivable that with the dynamics in the marketplace and technologies unleashed by this you could outperform targets.”

“The instinct is to be conservative at first, and not over-pledge, but they’re getting into the game of setting targets and surpassing them. It was a common refrain in negotiations that countries said they could progressively outperform targets.”

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