Water and the Copenhagen Accord

As has become understood over the past several years, water resources are likely to be dramatically affected by climate change, and water projects themselves often contribute to climate change through emission of greenhouse gases, especially based on their energy demands. Water managers have become interested in climate change from both sides of the issue and have legitimately asked for a seat at the discussion table.

Following closure of the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen on 18 December 2009, the question can fairly be asked, what might the Copenhagen Accord mean for water law and policy? At first glance, the frustrated answer might be nothing, since the accord does not contain the word water even once (about which some observers are quite critical), but in fact several conclusions may be derived that will affect water resources.

First, the accord recognizes the “scientific view that the increase in global temperature should be below 2 degrees Celsius.” Thus, through at least 2015 when the next assessment will occur, the international community has accepted an increase of 2 degrees Celsius rather than 1.5 degrees or lower increases advocated by some nations and scientists. For purposes of water resources planning, this establishes the minimum increase for which adaptation and mitigation may be necessary. Water planners should treat 2 degrees as a minimum rather than a maximum due to the altogether-too-plausible chance of failure to meet that goal, given the lack of substantial required actions that would be likely to hold temperatures below that increase.

Second, the accord defers all emissions targets to the national level, with developed nations expected to each provide their base year and emissions reduction goal for 2020 to the United Nations by 31 January 2010. The accord does not establish a single global goal for emissions reductions, or even a consistent base year or goal across similarly situated groups of nations. The emissions reduction burdens to be felt by new water projects – especially those with large energy demands, such as desalination plants or long-distance water conveyance – will depend on national goals and implementing schemes.

Third, additional financing may be made available for water projects in the developing world, particularly the least developed nations, small island developing states and Africa, which are specifically called out for assistance. The accord provides for funding from developed to developing nations of $30 billion in 2010-2012, with a goal of jointly raising $100 billion per year by 2020. Since one of the most impacted areas of the ecosphere from climate change is likely to be water, there should be substantial funds available for water development projects, which would be a major change from current conditions in the developing world.

Lastly, at least some financing of water projects under the accord is likely to involve private investment. The accord expressly states that “funding will come from a wide variety of sources, public and private, bilateral and multilateral, including alternative sources of finance.” While the specifics of private financing have not been determined, there is at least a general intention at this point to encourage such investment, and implementation of the accord may create opportunities for the private water sector.

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