Beginning the March to Copenhagen: Climate Negotiations Getting Serious

If you've read my previous posts, you'll know that the international global warming negotiations have already commenced (see here, here; and here).  But if last year was the "dry run", this year will be need to be the real thing.  While progress was made last year, it was stymied as the US Administration sitting across the negotiating table from other countries was never really serious about getting a strong agreement.  Of course, that has changed with President Obama signaling that he will move domestically to cap US global warming pollution and also help secure a strong international agreement to this global challenge.

So that is why I'm in Bonn, Germany right now.  For the next ten days, delegates will be engaged in the next round of climate negotiations (I'll be back in Bonn in early June for another negotiation session).  This will be the first negotiation session where the US will be led by a team that wants to address global warming (and more importantly a President and leaders in Congress that support that vision).

At some point during the reign of the previous Administration, other countries knew they weren't really serious so the developing countries stopped providing stronger signals of the action that they would take in the new agreement.  Some hints of progress emerged, but they were held back by this reality (as I discussed in my New Year's Resolution).

So what does a changed US dynamic mean?  What can we expect at this negotiation session?

The changed US dynamic, will have a very strong impact on these negotiations.  If anyone wants an example of how US leadership can change a complex international negotiation, all you have to do is look to the recent agreement to negotiate a treaty to address mercury pollution (as my colleague Susan Keane discussed).  For the previous 8 years the US didn't want an international mercury treaty and things didn't progress (to put it mildly).  But at the beginning of the last negotiation session, the Obama Administration signaled that they wanted a mercury treaty.  And after two weeks of hard negotiations, an agreement was reached to negotiate a mercury treaty.  Which is why many people, including the members of the US Climate Action Partnership have stressed that: "U.S. climate policy is an essential precondition for a full and effective international framework".

Of course, simply a change in US position won't break down all the impasses, but it sure can go a long way.  But this is a complicated negotiation with a lot of issues on the table, which is where we are at right now.  I still believe that there is a lot of convergence on the agreed structure (as I discussed here), but the clock is ticking as we are less than 8 months from Copenhagen.  As I said elsewhere: "it's a good start but there's still way too many options".  And we still need leadership from a lot of countries (e.g., the US by capping our global warming pollution).  We've been progressing in small steps, but now is the time for leaps and bounds.

Anybody that starts to dive into these negotiations can quickly get confused, but these negotiations boil down to four key things for the Copenhagen agreement:

  1. Strong leadership from developed countries with firm and aggressive emissions reduction caps in the near-term (e.g., 2020 and 2030) and strong signals that they will significantly reduce emissions in the medium-term (e.g., 2050). The Europeans have put forward their commitment (last December), but other countries will need to signal their commitment if we are going to have any chance of a strong agreement in Copenhagen. Most of this aspect hinges on when the US will cap its emissions and how deep those cuts will be in the near-term. Some hints will emerge on the US front this Tuesday as Chairman Waxman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee will put forward a discussion draft.
  2. Willingness of developing countries to undertake significant emissions reductions on their own and the structure and size of performance-based incentives from developed countries to encourage even greater developing country emissions reductions. These actions need to lead to a reduction in the growth of developing country emissions in the near-term (e.g., through 2020) and lay the foundation for even deeper cuts in the medium-term. This is an extremely complex part of the negotiations. How much do developing countries do on their own and how are the incentives designed to help encourage greater action by developing countries and create opportunities for expansion of green technology transfer to developing countries? This debate is a bit stuck at this point as both sides are waiting for the other side to move.
  3. Reversing the rate of deforestation. Since deforestation accounts for approximately 20% of global emissions, any serious effort to solve global warming needs to reverse this trend. Lots of difficult issues are involved in this effort, including how best to help developing countries get a reasonable handle on these emissions on their own (e.g., addressing forest governance and illegal logging) and how to create incentives to properly assist developing countries in going further in preserving their pristine forests.
  4. Supporting adaptation to the impacts of climate change in the most vulnerable countries. Many poor countries will be faced with serious impacts from the global warming that is built into the system. These impacts will set back their development, but also create potential "threat multipliers" as a number of military and national security experts are beginning to identify. So the international agreement will need to help these countries address the impacts of global warming and improve the resilience of these communities over time.

So, this negotiation session begins with a mix of optimism and pessimism.  Lots of signs of hope that haven't been evident in the international negotiations over the past 8 years, but a long ways to go before we'll have a strong agreement that puts the world on the path to solving global warming. 

At the end of these 10 days, the world will need to be two steps closer to a strong agreement and poised for big leaps in the coming months.  Stay-tuned as I'll be providing updates on those steps and leaps.