“Binding” Up an Agreement in Copenhagen – some heated exchanges from Bonn

In the climate negotiations occurring in Bonn, Germany there is an emerging debate on the form of "commitment or action" developing countries will undertake (as the Economic Times in India points out).  This has been a long running debate in the international global warming negotiations, but it has gained more focus as the negotiating text (that I discussed in Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3) has included proposals where all countries undertake binding international actions.

As countries were doing the "first reading" -- going through the text to flag areas of disagreement or where they wanted to add text -- a number of developing countries raised serious concerns with these proposals for international "binding" commitments (I put "binding" in quotes as I'll discuss later how what this means in practice is complicated).

The proposals in the text are based upon the US and the Australian submissions (as I discussed in Part 2), which proposed slightly different ways to incorporate "binding" commitments. 

The US proposed that all countries (including developing ones) undertake emissions reduction actions and those actions are established in an Annex to the new international agreement reached in Copenhagen.  In addition, the US proposed that developing countries whose "national circumstances reflect greater responsibility or capability" would outline the date when a country would undertake an economy-wide absolute emission limit.  The actions in the Annex would then become internationally binding in some manner. 

Australia proposed that all countries would commit their actions to a Schedule (New Zealand is also intrigued by this approach).  This schedule would contain either a single set of actions at the time they were committed with the idea that more would be added over time or, when they were entered, countries would outline a series of actions that they would take over the near- to medium-term (e.g., sectoral intensity target in the near-term phasing into a an absolute sectoral limit and then an economy-wide limit).  The actions in the schedule would be internationally binding in some way.  This is similar to how the World Trade Organization actions are included.

A third, sort of a "middle-ground" approach, has been floated by South Korea (as articulated in this Associated Press story).  In this proposal, developing countries would:

  1. Undertake nationally binding actions to reduce their emissions (e.g., enforce sectoral intensity targets through their domestic law);
  2. Report those actions into an internationally approved registry that would be endorsed by the new international agreement; and
  3. Subject the reported actions to international verification (e.g., third party teams review them against reported information to see if they were achieved).

So you can see why this has some developing countries ruffled.  Binding commitments for developing countries has been an issue that has been pushed for a while, but has received strong resistance from the developing countries. 

But do these proposals offer some promise to finally "crack this nut"?  I think yes (although I'm getting mixed reactions from developing country negotiators that I'm speaking with) and here is why.

All three of the approaches don't envision international compliance penalties for not living up to the commitment.  Penalties for non-compliance have been a complicated issue internationally as it often boils down to "name and shame" -- that is publicly calling out the laggards and make them come into compliance because the world considers them a rogue (and most countries don't want to be rogues).  With a few exceptions, this is the framework that is used in the vast majority of international agreements as most don't have strong international sanction mechanisms.  See for example, the efforts to impose international sanctions on countries that don't live up to the requirements on nuclear weapons.  The trade agreements are one of the rare international agreements that have a strong international compliance mechanism that is automatic -- that doesn't require a group of countries to approve its use.

National sanction mechanisms are often used -- where one country imposes the sanction unilaterally on the other -- but these only work if either a large group of countries does the sanctions or if the country imposing the sanction has large influence in some manner over the other.

Most countries need "international recognition" for their actions.  While this didn't used to be true, I believe that most countries want the world to recognize that they are taking serious steps to address global warming.  With the attention on global warming and with world leaders now focused on it at almost every high-level engagement with each other, nobody wants to be the leader that says: "my country isn't doing anything to address our pollution".  There are still leaders and countries like that, but they are a shrinking bunch.

And with the growing political focus in countries, the fear of some sort of ramification for not taking action lingers over many world leaders.  If a country doesn't take action, what impact will that have on other issues that they want to pursue (e.g., trade)?

Financing support for developing countries will be tied to how much action is undertaken.  While some developing countries are asking for incentives that are provided no matter what they do to reduce emissions, I highly doubt any country will provide incentives that aren't somehow related to the actions that are taken.  "Payment for performance" -- i.e., your incentive is dependent on actually meeting your stated aim -- is an often discussed framework in the international negotiations these days.

And this is the framework that is included in the US climate bill that just passed out of the House Energy and Commerce committee.  Countries receiving incentives have to be undertaking national actions that seek to achieve "substantial" reductions.


So it will be essential to resolve whether developing countries have to undertake "binding commitments" (as the US and Australia have proposed) in the Copenhagen agreement or whether they undertake some other form of commitment that has a strong international verification system (as in the South Korean proposal).

As the Bruce Springsteen song says:

"The ties that bind.  Now you can't break the ties that bind"

Whether or not the world commits to a strong set of actions to start to solve global warming in Copenhagen will somewhat depend on how those "binding" differences are resolved.

The planet (and our future) doesn't care as long as countries are taking and living up to their commitments to solve global warming.