What progress was made

December 27, 2009

Heads of state and others tactfully pronounced the Copenhagen climate change summit last week ‘an important first step’ and ‘a constructive discussion.’  Indeed, most cast a dusting of shimmering snowflakes over two grueling weeks of “negotiation by exhaustion,” as one official put it.  The truth, of course, is that the Copenhagen Accord is no substitute for a real-deal treaty.  While the accord itself is painfully disappointing to many, crucial breakthroughs occurred during the climate change talks.  Insights were gained about the likely components and shape of a successful package.  World leaders were educated first hand about the history and key issues.  Along the way, the process revealed itself to be so flawed in many respects that no one can disagree that more nimble approach is now required.

If leaders waste no time to build upon the breakthroughs, personally engaging in bilateral talks, Copenhagen will be seen in hindsight as a “teachable” moment on the way to a true agreement.

The crucial breakthroughs began even before the curtains were raised when a number of countries made new pledges to limit their GHG emissions, including some that had never before done so like China, India, and Brazil.  While one might have hoped that these pledges were even more ambitious than they were, we can’t forget that these were initial negotiating positions.  So, we now know the bare minimum that these countries are willing to do, and we can assume that with a little give and take, they might do more.

Similarly, thanks to the leadership of the UK’s Ed Miliband, Europe took the crucial step of putting a material sum of money on the table to help less well off countries with their transition to a low-carbon economy and adaptation to climate changes already occurring.  By finally offering a specific, albeit initial, amount of “fast-start” funding, European countries formally acknowledged for the first time the fundamental need of all countries to develop their economies, with financial support for leapfrogging to cleaner technologies.  Oddly, however, they didn’t ask for much in return.  During the negotiations, other countries upped the total to nearly $30 billion for the initial tranche.  Another surprise was that Secretary Hillary Clinton agreed that by 2020, $100 billion would be needed annually for climate funds, but did not clarify how much the United States would contribute, a gigantic detail not lost on anyone.

All decided for the first time that global average temperatures should not increase above 2°C, which implies deep cuts in global emissions during the coming decades.  In fact, it is possible to derive an emissions budget for the world with this goal now specified. Highly vulnerable countries like the Maldives and Tuvalu advocated a 1.5°C limit instead, which stretched the imagination.

The most intriguing development was on the protections of forests, from which 20 percent of global CO2 emissions are emitted through deforestation.  Why now?  This agreement, known as “REDD+” was proposed originally by Costa Rica and Papua New Guinea.  Now that monitoring and verification technologies have improved enough so that conservation efforts can be assessed, Norway and the United States volunteered money to support it. Brazil’s President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silvas’ views evolved to the point where Brazil could accept compensation for forest protection, and the pieces fell into place.  Many details need to be worked out so that the program has integrity, but it was an unexpected and welcome step forward.  Sadly, the deal was scrapped when the broader package fell apart, but there is no reason why it cannot be quickly reconstituted.

Perhaps the best thing about Copenhagen is that world leaders became personally acquainted with the tough issues, directly and seriously negotiating for the first time.  It was idealistic to expect that they would be able to resolve their differences through a series of chaotic and ad hoc meetings at the 11th hour.   In his hours in the Bella Center, President Obama quickly identified the core elements of the package – emission reductions, financing, and verification.  He no doubt got an earful from his counterparts about the many American promises made and broken on the long road of climate diplomacy.  Obama returned the favor during his speech, lecturing about the need for transparency and verification. Because of Congressional constraints, however, President Obama didn’t have any leeway to actually negotiate on two of the three core elements of the package: emissions reductions and financing.  Other countries, especially China, knew his constraints perfectly well, and naturally they dug in on the third issue: monitoring and verification.

The contours of the eventual deal are now much more clear. Developing countries need to see that all industrialized countries, including the United States, will actually reduce their emissions.  Deeper cuts would be nice, but it’s likely that everyone would be relieved if they just got on with it.  Major developing country emitters need to commit to binding emissions limitations in exchange for financing.  Again, more stringent initial targets would be preferable, but that would require more financing. In exchange for the provision of financing for clean technology deployment, developing countries need to open their markets so all firms, including those from industrialized countries, can fairly compete for clean energy business in these markets.  Least developed countries need more aid for adaptation. Finally, all countries need to agree to a fair system of verification.

We need a leader to push forward at this point. Someone needs to shoulder responsibility for brokering a deal, starting tomorrow, to build on the momentum begun at COP15.  Brazil’s President Lula springs to mind because he is respected in the developing world, is a mediator, and cares about both environment and development.  Alternatively, President Calderon is hosting the next conference of parties and is not afraid to generate creative ideas such as the Green Fund.  Such mediators need to go from capital to capital for serious consultations.

Meanwhile, Premier Wen and President Obama need to directly talk again, and soon.  If the U.S. and China can break their impasse directly, it will be infinitely easier for the Congress to pass legislation and unlock the whole international process.  When the Senate does pass legislation, it must not only focus on reducing emissions, but also on how to contribute to the international climate funds.

If the core elements of the deal are agreed upon at the highest levels, it is conceivable that many of the unresolved details will be rapidly and agreeably ironed out at the next meeting of the climate convention in Mexico City.

Kelly Sims Gallagher is associate professor at Tufts University’s Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy and a senior research associate at Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs.

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