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Jan 28

After I wrote my earlier post on countries that submitted their emissions targets under the Copenhagen Accord, I visited the tally sheet maintained by the US Climate Action Network and noticed that they had a copy of the official US letter.

Dated today, the letter commits the US to a 17% reduction in greenhouse gases from 2005 levels by 2020 “in conformity with anticipated US energy and climate legislation, recognizing that the final target will be reported to the Secretariat in light of enacted legislation.”

There was also no mention of the Copenhagen Accord fitting into a legal process or treaty-building exercise.

The letter does say that the US expects other countries to meet the 31 January deadline for reporting their emissions under the Accord, contradicting Yvo de Boer’s description of Sunday as a “soft ” deadline.

The US response is not a surprise.  The Obama Administration gives itself an “out” if Congress fails to pass legislation or passes a climate bill with a weaker target.

Failure to mention steps beyond the Accord suggests to me that the US is not enthusiastic about the viability of the UN process.  But the reiteration of the 31 January deadline means that the US doesn’t want other countries to delay and that they want to be able to point to positive steps towards addressing global climate change.

Like I said, none of this is surprising; but it shows us how the battle lines are beginning to solidify and what to expect in the way of points of contention as international negotiations continue over the next few months.

On the domestic front, assuming that major emitters (especially India and China) meet the deadline for reporting their targets under the Accord, the Obama Administration will surely use this progress to pressure the Senate into passing an energy bill.

Although Obama didn’t utter the words “cap and trade” during his state of the union speech last night, he did hit the “clean energy/jobs” angle pretty heavy.  Large emitter endorsement of the Accord will likely help the Administration in moving climate and energy legislation.

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Jan 28

With Sunday’s deadline fast approaching for countries to officially offer their emissions reductions targets under the Copenhagen Accord, we are starting to get a glimpse into how the parties to the UN climate convention are interpreting the rather vague document.

The Accord was a deal brokered in the final minutes of last month’s Copenhagen conference by the leaders of the major emitters.  It was nearly derailed in the formal session at Copenhagen.  The compromise which was hashed out at that session was not a full-fledged endorsement, but merely a reflection that the Copenhagen Accord was “noted” by signatories to the UN climate treaty.

I won’t get into the arcana of UN climate decision-making, but the significance of “noting” the decision has been unclear.  Is it a “legal” document?  Are countries under some obligation to meet its dictates?

Underscoring the uncertainty of the document, the head of the UN climate secretariat, Yvo de Boer, had to send out a letter to parties stressing that the Copenhagen Accord does “not have any legal standing in the UNFCCC process.”

Therefore, it will be interesting to see how countries themselves interpret the Accord in order to get a sense for its significance.

Meeting the Sunday deadline for submitting emissions reductions targets to the UN is one way to gauge the seriousness of countries.  Last week, de Boer called the 31 Jan. deadline “soft,” raising concern that it will be ignored.

As far as I can tell, the major emitters (aside from South Korea) have not yet presented their commitments to the UN.

What is interesting though, is that some of the smaller countries–e.g. Marshall Islands, Singapore, Samoa, Bangladesh –are insisting that the Copenhagen Accord be a step on the path towards a legally binding treaty.  We are seeing this in their pre-Jaunuary 31 communications.

Even a major emitter like the United States ostensibly wants a legally binding treaty.  But how this plays out within the context of the existing UN framework is extremely uncertain.

One thing that has never been resolved–although it was supposed to have been dealt with in Copenhagen–is the future of the Kyoto Protocol.  Fast-growing developing countries like  China and India have been reluctant to give up on Kyoto since its architecture does not obligate them to reduce emissions.

The key advantage of the Copenhagen Accord is that it does ask these emergent economies to plan for some commitment to reductions from business-as-usual levels.   Earlier this week the BASIC countries (Brazil, South Africa, India & China) released a statement indicating that they want the Kyoto discussions to continue, while simultaneously expressing their interest in signing on to the Copenhagen Accord.

At some point a different architecture is going to have to be developed.  Kyoto is binding (for those who have ratified it) but ineffective.  Copenhagen is voluntary, but it is still too early to judge its effectiveness.  Thus, these early communications from countries could be key in determining the ultimate efficacy of the Copenhagen Accord.

If we see a large number of smaller, developing countries highlighting in their communications that the Copenhagen Accord is part of a process leading to a legally-binding treaty, one way of interpreting it would be that these countries are seeking to maintain the Kyoto architecture since Kyoto is the main legal expression currently in force.

It will be interesting to see how some of the larger emitters respond.  For instance, it is not clear whether South Korea mentioned anything about their commitments being part of the effort to forge a treaty.

If you get key countries like the US, Mexico, Indonesia, the EU, Japan, excluding mention of a treaty in their communications, it may not bode well for the UN negotiations later this year in Mexico.

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