The agreement-to-agree did three things. It established that a critical mass of developed and highly industrialized developing countries such as China agree that climate change is a significant problem, and that these countries need to reduce their emissions. It provided that countries will have to submit to a monitoring system. And it suggested that rich countries will have to make a payoff of some sort to poor countries. But it did not produce agreement on particular targets or amounts, let alone a treaty. Indeed, most of the world did not [corrected, 12/20] even formally sign onto the Copenhagen Accord, which contains these quasi-commitments. You can read the Copenhagen Accord here.
Why the failure? Here are some hypotheses:
1. We are far from global democracy: the only workable agreement is one that a small number of states, fewer than twenty probably, can negotiate. As the number of negotiators increases, the potential for holdout, bickering, and other transaction costs increases exponentially. After much wasted time, the major emitters appear to have agreed to go forward on their own, over the next months and years. It is fortunate that fewer than 20 countries account for nearly all carbon emissions, but this probably won’t be true farther in the future, which is an extremely serious problem.
2. The rich countries took too seriously the demands of the poor countries. The poor countries have always demanded money from rich countries—the “climate debt” is just the latest rationale. But the legacy-of-imperialism and globalization-causes-poverty arguments failed to move the rich countries, and the climate debt argument won’t as well. It is, first of all, a not very good argument, for reasons I have discussed elsewhere. Beyond that, the rich countries know that their citizens will not countenance a climate pact that requires the transfers of tens or hundreds of billions of dollars to poor countries. Foreign aid has never been popular; it has never been generous (most foreign aid payments are not motivated by altruism but by particular foreign policy goals). I suspect that the rich countries offered the money to try to avoid the political cost of failure at Copenhagen, but never intended to pay it. The poor countries understand this, which is why they refused to cooperate. (See Ken’s post for more.) In future, the rich countries will freeze out the poor countries in the negotiations, offering some token amount of money for technical assistance and adaptation. When the take-it-or-leave-it-ness of the deal becomes clear, poor countries will reluctantly sign on in order to get their scraps. This should have been anticipated; the political cost of failure at Copenhagen was the price to be paid for failing to be realistic about this problem.
3. The United States lacked credibility. The Senate has not passed a climate bill. Even if a bill does pass, the world understands that the American public has little enthusiasm for a climate treaty—a huge fraction of Americans do not even believe in anthropogenic climate change. Americans also hate foreign aid (which they stubbornly overestimate) and distrust international institutions—and a climate treaty will probably require a bunch of them. If the United States cannot credibly promise to reduce emissions by an adequate amount, then other countries have no reason to make politically costly commitments on their own side. President Obama’s personal commitment to climate mitigation cannot overcome this rational skepticism.
See also Ken’s recent post.