It has been a month since the UN summit in Copenhagen ended amidst discord and uncertainty about the state of global climate policy. The dust has settled somewhat and we’ve had some time to reflect. So where do we stand at the beginning of 2010?
For the two years leading up to Copenhagen, the expectation was that the meeting would culminate with a solid framework for a new climate treaty based on the latest scientific evidence and poised to reform the shortcomings of the Kyoto Protocol.
Instead, the meeting ended with little substantive progress and a vague, last-minute, face-saving political document (the “Copenhagen Accord“) on which key countries appear to be relying for action in the coming year.
The Accord asks countries to submit their voluntary emissions reduction targets for the year 2020 by 31 January. Unlike the Kyoto Protocol which only called on developed countries to reduce their emissions, the Copenhagen commitment will include reductions from “business as usual” by key developing countries.
On the issue of insuring that countries stick to their commitments and engage in measurable and verifiable reductions, the accord asks countries to develop domestic procedures, eschewing an international standard.
The accord also discusses a financial mechanism by which the rich countries responsible for atmospheric greenhouse gas buildup can help poorer countries meet the immediate challenges they face in adapting to a changing planet.
While the accord is commendable to the extent that it gets countries–including the emerging economies of India, China, and Brazil–to offer mid-term emissions reduction targets, its voluntary, non-binding nature makes the entire enterprise quite precarious.
Thus, as we move forward in 2010, there will be some key things on which to focus to see if adequate global solutions to the climate problem can be developed.
First, it will be key to see which countries formally sign on to the Copenhagen Accord, if they sign on by the 31 January deadline, and the nature of their commitments. On Wednesday, UN climate chief, Yvo De Boer called the 31st a “soft deadline,” suggesting that some of the countries which pushed for the accord may not even be willing to meet this modest provision. Last week in a speech in Washington, US negotiator Jonathan Pershing said countries were working on their commitments, including the US; but he gave no indication as to whether the US will meet the deadline.
Much of the holdup in the US brings us to the second key process to watch out for in 2010: the climate bill in Congress. The Obama Administration has used the need to get a comprehensive climate bill through Congress as an excuse for its coyness in its failure to agree to bold emissions reductions targets. The logic on the surface made sense: Kyoto has been ineffective because of US lack of participation and the lack of participation was due to Congressional rejection of the Clinton Administration’s targets which were presented to the international community without Congressional approval.
Obama’s representatives have said that they want to be able to stand by any numbers they put on the negotiating table. However, at this point, passing ANY significant legislation through the US Senate is looking to be difficult. Although Obama’s Democratic party has majorities in both houses of Congress, they don’t appear willing to exert any political muscle on potentially controversial legislation. As I write this, the future of the year-long effort at health care reform appears in doubt solely because the Democrats lost one seat from their Senate majority.
If the Democrats aren’t willing to push through their health care bill, there is even less hope for climate legislation given the fact that there are key Democrats who are not excited about reducing emissions. I’m not sure where this leaves us on the international side of the negotiations; but where ever it is, it is not a good place.
Thirdly, over the next few months we will begin to see where the UNFCCC fits into this uncertain environment. In last week’s speech, Pershing was quite dismissive of the UN process. He seemed to push the idea that the “major economies forum” might be where the action is in getting things done. On the one hand this makes sense, given that we need key developing countries to make reductions from business-as-usual to stay within the global warming limits that the science demands. However, the major economies forum leaves many important constituencies out of the process. Small island nations, poor African nations, indigenous peoples, NGOs, and global civil society have no seat at this exclusive table–while the UNFCCC, with all its flaws, does offer a modicum of accessibility.
In his news conference yesterday, UN climate chief Yvo de Boer looked positively exhausted. While he did his best to put a positive spin on the Copenhagen Accord, it was not convincing. In the immediate weeks prior to Copenhagen, people were hoping at the very least that a specific timetable for a binding agreement would come out of the talks. What actually emerged was a political agreement with a loose time line and voluntary targets.
Many of the key players behind the Copenhagen Accord–including President Obama–have said they view the accord as a step towards an agreement. But the question that needs to be answered is what kind and size of step?
There are many other loose ends stemming from Copenhagen that need to be scrutinized–the whole financing scheme, for example. But for now, these are just a few things we’ll be keeping our eye on over the next few months.