Crunch-Time in Copenhagen
December 15, 2009
The international community is more than halfway through the final negotiating period to reach a climate change deal in Copenhagen. Despite the optimistic turn of events in the weeks leading up to the negotiations which brought new pledges from several countries including the United States, China, India, Brazil, and others, the potential for a political agreement envisioned by the so-called Danish Plan has run into some significant snags. At this point the success of the Copenhagen conference hinges upon an agreement between the United States and China to forge a new pathway forward for future negotiations and the ability of both countries to convince the rest of the world to follow suit. As the negotiations move into the high-level engagement stage and heads of state begin to arrive, the pressure is on to get a deal done in the next couple days.
The Danish Proposal
Several weeks before the start of the 15th Conference of Parties meeting in Copenhagen the Danish Prime Minister proposed a framework for an interim agreement in Copenhagen to take the place of a fully negotiated internationally binding treaty (the original goal of the meeting). The Danish Proposal suggested an agreement that would:
- Encompass all areas of the negotiations (shared vision, mitigation, adaption, finance, technology, and capacity building)
- Include commitments of developed countries to reductions and of developing countries to actions
- Provide for immediate action in all areas (mitigation, adaptation, and finance) along with up-front finance to support early adaptation, mitigation, capacity building, and technology cooperation
- Set a path to limit global warming to a maximum of 2 degrees Celsius
- Maintain already agreed upon legal instruments and principles (i.e. not preempt Kyoto Protocol mechanisms and include core principles like “common but differentiated standards”)
- Agreement will be politically binding (not a legally binding treaty)
- Agreement will be supported by country annexes outlining actions by each country—these actions will be subject to a transparent system of monitoring, reporting, and verification
- Agreement will also include progress and decisions made in areas like an adaptation framework, technology mechanisms, and others
- Set a date certain by which a full agreement will be negotiated
In the wake of the proposal the United States and China agreed in a joint communiqué to work towards this framework and each country followed this commitment with individual pledges of emission reduction targets (in the case of the U.S.) and goals (in the case of China) that went a step further than previous commitments. These gestures, along with pledges from several other notable developing countries, served to provide a great deal of momentum and more hopeful outlook for what had looked like a gloomy outcome just weeks earlier.
Bridging the Expectations Gap
Just days into the negotiations in Copenhagen this relative optimism was challenged as certain developing country blocs showed few signs of moving closer to a realistic starting point for negotiations. Both developed and developing countries, in general, agree that the ambition of the pledges offered by both sides fail to meet expectations set for the conference. The G77 and China have chosen to focus the blame for this squarely on the United States. The United States and several other developed countries, while not overly impressed with pledges put forth by China and India, are more concerned with getting developing countries to pledge their targets in the context of an international agreement and commit to some sort of monitoring and verification. Early on, a draft text of an agreement worked out by a smaller set of countries was leaked to the press and broader negotiating community. The release of this text set off a firestorm of accusations from developing countries that an elite group of countries were trying to push through a document that undermined the core interests of the developing community. In truth, the draft text was shared with a number of developing countries and the so-called “leak” was an effort to derail the negotiations. Then again this week, a group of African countries walked out on the negotiations over their concerns that the conference leaders were trying to ignore the key issues they wished to discuss (namely developed country commitments under the Kyoto Protocol). While the issue was resolved and talks eventually resumed, these controversies have heightened tensions between major factions within the developed and developing countries and accentuated the gap between the two blocs desires for a final agreement, including the mechanism for distributing and overall level of financing, the legal nature and form of the agreement, and developing and developed country commitments.
At some point the developing world’s insistence on reparations for historical emissions, rejection of the notion that major developing countries must reduce emissions, and continued insistence on financing devoid of transparency and accountability must come to an end. It appears that some developing countries are more willing than others to move on these points but the basic bloc of opposition has not. For many of the most vulnerable and lesser developed countries some of this steadfast positioning makes sense as they face an existential crisis that requires them to receive a disproportionate share of attention, support, and financing. This group would be much better off negotiating on the basis of their current capacity to cope with adaptation to climate impacts than some historical debt which is owed to them. For those countries in the developing world that want to see a deal done in Copenhagen, now is the time to find compromise.
The Ball in China’s Court
The biggest question is whether or not China will agree to commit their domestic emissions reduction actions into an agreement in way that gives the international community some assurance that the largest source of global emissions today and the largest source of future emissions will take part in the fight to reduce emissions and stabilize the atmosphere. Without this pledge there is very little point in negotiating a treaty at all. Many climate watchers suspected that China had agreed to do this when the United States agreed to put its own targets on the table (something it was loath to do without Congressional action to pass climate legislation). It now appears that China is not willing to make this commitment – perhaps in defense of other major developing countries that would then be compelled to make a similar commitment (China views itself as part of the developing country bloc and seems reluctant to break ranks until the needs of other developing countries are satisfied) and perhaps for its own internal reasons. The Chinese, in turn, want the United States to put more aggressive emissions reduction targets on the table – something even President Obama can’t promise to deliver with any certainty. The one area where the United States could possibly pledge more than they have already indicated is in financing for developing country action. The United States is not inclined to finance the actions of major developing countries but will finance actions to reduce emissions or adapt to climate impacts by lesser developed countries. The United States could increase the level of funding put forward for near-term financing but is again constrained by Congress in terms of the overall level of financing out to 2020 (this number also depends on the outcome of congressional negotiations on climate legislation).
Thus the real breakthrough to be had in these negotiations is for President Obama to pledge to work harder to drive Congress towards a more aggressive outcome in its climate deliberations (the best he can do at this point) and for China to agree to reduce emissions in a way that give the rest of the world confidence in their actions. The best way to bring about this compromise is to build a broad coalition of support among developing countries, thus clearing the way for China to soften its stance. The argument to build this coalition should be based on the fact that major developing countries have to take emissions reduction actions or there is no hope of reaching any meaningful climate goals. As for raising the ambition of the emissions reductions from developed countries, developing countries can still keep the pressure up in the weeks and months after Copenhagen as the U.S. target (not to mention the Canadian and Australian targets among others) will still be in play and the ability of those countries (especially the United States) to increase those targets in the next week would be meaningless gestures without a guarantee that they can deliver on those targets. The review mechanism proposed in the draft negotiating text provides an opportunity for developed countries to increase their level of ambition just a few short years after the new agreement would come into force. Make no mistake, many developed countries including the United States can and should be very mindful of taking more ambitious action after domestic climate policies are in place and the ease or difficulty of reaching targets can be assessed more clearly.
Once this is decided then all other aspects of the negotiations are much easier to resolve (or find temporary agreement and seek full resolution in the coming months). If this is achieved then a future treaty is possible, if not, the road ahead is far more uncertain and less likely to meet the ambitious reduction targets required in time to make a difference. Either way, there will be fallout from the negotiations from those who feel like, once again, the global power centers railroaded them into an agreement that suited the needs of the “haves” rather than the political wishes of the “have nots.” Behind all that rhetoric, however, is the reality that much of the work being done in the negotiations will benefit these less developed countries that are most in need of financing, technology, capacity building, and coordinated assistance. That level of support hangs in the balance this week – and countries who seek to stymie the negotiations for the unattainable put those achievements at grave risk.