Scaling Back En Route to Copenhagen



About 53 days until COP15, and the word compromise is surfacing more and more in discussions around reaching an agreement in December. There is also worry that the U.S. will not have passed any sort of significant climate bill by then, thus hampering their ability to make any real CO2 emissions pledge.

In a joint report written by the Center for American Progress and the United Nations Foundation,  a more manageable set of expectations is recommended to make important strides for talks to move forward – and this includes shelving the idea that developed nations will commit to binding emission target reductions.

John Podesta of the Center for American Progress and Timothy Wirth of the United Nations foundation argue that too much emphasis has been placed on binding emission reduction targets, and that a more productive focus of a new climate change treaty should be based upon a “narrower range of achievable actions.”

Efficiency Is Key

Some of the strongest findings from the joint report are in energy efficiency. Their findings conclude that incremental increases in energy efficiency would not only help reach up to 75 percent of the needed reduction in greenhouse gases by 2020, but would also help pay for investments in renewable energy projects and forest conservation – two critical components of any future climate pact – and result in a net global savings.

Far From Easy

Although the gains in energy efficiency are significant, the report also recognizes that any new climate agreement must include the following elements:

1. Ambitious emissions reduction targets by developed countries.

2. Nationally appropriate mitigation actions by developing countries to advance low-carbon development.

3. New and additional financial assistance from developed countries to developing countries.

4. Mechanisms for technology cooperation with developing countries.

At the end of talks in Bangkok last week, it appeared that some forward progress was made on some of these issues, most notably finance, deforestation and technology cooperation, but obviously some of the most difficult issues remain. In keeping with the theme of avoiding an impasse, last month Australian officials also promoted a scaled back version of negotiations in Copenhagen, making sure to steer clear of a “make-or-break” scenario.

They claimed that giving developing countries like India and China more flexibility in lowering their emissions would encourage participation and avoid potential gridlock. The system Australian officials proposed would hope to be “less intimidating to new players” and would adapt to particular circumstances, avoiding a “one-size-fits-all” commitment structure.

Managing Expectations

If we get to that last point in Copenhagen and the wall is too high to scale, I fear we may not be able to reach it  -Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd

Similar sentiments were voiced by Indian Minister of State for Environment & Forests Jairam Ramesh following the climate talks in Bangkok. There was admittedly a “big gap in trust between developing and industrialised nations” following the talks, but in order to stay on track, all parties should avoid “exaggerated expectations” and focus on the key elements that they agree upon.

It’s a familiar dance. The developed countries say that any meaningful agreement must include the developing countries, and vice versa. So what if the US is unable to pass climate legislation before Copenhagen? Does that kill legitimate progress? Some argue that without the U.S. passing climate legislation at home, the outcome of any negotiations in Copenhagen will be incomplete at best.

There Is Hope

On Monday, after Senator Boxer met with UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, she made it clear that other countries shouldn’t be discouraged if the climate bill hasn’t been signed by December, and that it doesn’t preclude the US from adopting firm greenhouse gas reduction targets, adding “I don’t agree that the only way to judge if America is moving forward is passing and having it signed into law by Copenhagen.”

And what about India? Well, Minister Ramesh has pledged that India aims to serve as a “dealmaker” in Copenhagen, and outlined a plan titled “Nationally Accountable Mitigation Outcome” that will serve as India’s domestic commitment to addressing climate change.

Within this plan, they will show good faith in transparency and reporting, and he announced 6 national policies in various stages of implementation including fuel efficiency standards, building codes, reforestation, energy efficiency, renewable energy and clean coal technology.

This is a good thing. Unfortunately sides have been drawn, and strong leadership on climate change has been lacking for too long on both ends. Will some players get their wish and come away with a comprehensive replacement of the Kyoto Protocol? Or, will all players be bound to agree upon emission targets? Probably not – but hopefully the consensus now is that too many people have put in too much work to accept failure as an option.

Brian Thurston is a sustainability consultant working on research, strategy and policy development. Brian is interested in building awareness and unique relationships within and between corporate, government, and NGO partners. He holds a BA in Literature from University of Southern California, and a MS in Environmental Policy from The Johns Hopkins University.

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