The days grow short and with it the time left to lay a foundation that leads to an international climate treaty to which all nations – rich and poor, north and south – can agree.
As Copenhagen braces for an influx of delegates, press, policy experts, and leaders from all corners of the globe this December, many begin to brace for a new definition of what will constitute success at the COP15 climate talks. A definition based less on the “do-or-die” high expectations of a signed treaty by the end of the year and more on the reality of the work left to accomplish a deal and the time available to accomplish it.
It may be too much to hope that delegates negotiate a final resolution to the issues that carve a persistently wide gulf between developed and developing nations. Momentum for real progress has been slow going (though it’s building as a sense of urgency mounts).
Rich nations still squabble amongst themselves and developing nations aren’t too keen on forsaking their expanding fossil-fueled wealth, just when it really gets going–especially when nations already fat and happy on coal and oil seem unwilling to pull their own weight.
The situation isn’t likely to change much, at least not by December. Is COP15 therefore destined to fail? Not necessarily – even with the intractable issues before it.
Starting with consensus, working out the essentials
Many negotiators now express resignation to the unlikeliness of all 192 participating nations ironing out all the thorny details of a final agreement by the closing session on December 18th. They aim instead to begin from a “platform of consensus.” To what can all nations agree?
The cornerstone of any deal is acknowledgment of the need to cap and then reverse global greenhouse gas emissions, and the commitment to do something about it. On that rests all further negotiations. The hope is that from Copenhagen will emerge the framework for a real and workable treaty that can be finalized by next year.
“There isn’t sufficient time to get the whole thing done,” said Yvo de Boer, executive secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) , earlier this month. “But I hope it will go well beyond simply a declaration of principles. The form I would like it to take is the groundwork for a ratifiable agreement next year.”
Speaking of a need for “clarity” as the desired result from COP15, de Boer outlined four key areas that he hopes will yield agreement amongst the parties negotiating in Copenhagen:
- Reducing emissions – how much are developed nations willing to reduce greenhouse gas emissions?
- Limiting growth – how much are developing nations, such as India and China, willing to limit their high-speed growth of their greenhouse gas emissions?
- Financing – how will financial assistance be provided to developing nations to help them undertake their reductions targets and adapt to the impacts of climate change?
- Accounting – how will that money be managed?
“If Copenhagen can deliver on those four points I’d be happy,” said de Boer.
The big red, white and blue elephant in the room
Many officials involved in the negotiating process look warily toward the U.S. Congress as the Senate begins taking up in apparent earnest climate legislation. Legislators are now again focused on the issue (at least more than in recent weeks) after Senator Barbara Boxer, chairperson of the Energy and Public Works, released a full draft last Friday of the Kerry-Boxer Clean Energy Jobs and American Power Act. For many in the international community, as goes the United States Congress, so goes the hopes for any kind of success in Copenhagen – and that’s a frightening prospect.
Few believe that Congress will pass final legislation on any climate and energy bill before the end of the year, but as with COP15 in general, the hope is that Congress will have at least set a framework signaling what is acceptable at COP15. For de Boer, that is a key takeaway from the negotiating process leading to the expiring Kyoto Protocol (in 2012), from which it is hoped a treaty stemming from COP15 will replace.:
“My big lesson from the Kyoto era is that it’s really important that the government delegation that represents the United States is in close touch with the Senate, with the elected officials on what’s acceptable and what’s not,” says de Boer.
“I think that a major shortcoming of Kyoto was that the official delegation came back with a treaty they knew was never going to make it through the Senate. And this time I have the feeling that the communication is much stronger, that the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, through John Kerry, is really expressing strongly what they feel needs to be done in Copenhagen. My big lesson from the Kyoto era is that it’s really important that the government delegation that represents the United States is in close touch with the Senate, with the elected officials on what’s acceptable and what’s not. I think that a major shortcoming of Kyoto was that the official delegation came back with a treaty they knew was never going to make it through the Senate. And this time I have the feeling that the communication is much stronger, that the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, through John Kerry, is really expressing strongly what they feel needs to be done in Copenhagen.”
Measuring success in Copenhagen
Most acknowledge that a binding agreement to replace the Kyoto Protocol will not happen in Copenhagen. Expecting that it will is setting the entire process up to fail, and what is clear is that failure is not an option. How then do we measure success in Copenhagen?
As de Boer says, what is needed from COP15 is clarity. Clarity of understanding, purpose, and commitment. That kind of clarity doesn’t come from vague and ill-defined “declaration of principals,” but rather a foundation where all participating parties – even the United States, China, and India – can clearly see an acceptable path to final ratification by this time next year. Real progress, not signed treaties, is the key to success in Copenhagen.
Or maybe I’ve just got high hopes. We’ll find out come December.