From Copenhagen to Cancun – Learning Lessons for International Action on Global Warming & Moving to Action

In the lead-in to Copenhagen’s global warming summit last December a lot of the public statements and press coverage focused on whether or not Copenhagen would “seal the deal” and agree to a new international treaty to address global warming.  So this framed the expectation in the public sphere for what would be accomplished in Copenhagen.  This public framing was evident in the post-Copenhagen agreement press coverage (which was largely negative) even though in the lead-in to Copenhagen the expectations for the Summit were reduced to a “two-step” process – with Copenhagen producing a political agreement (the first step) and the second step (a new treaty) to come later.  So the “treaty” wasn’t agreed in Copenhagen but a political agreement (the Copenhagen Accord) was agreed, now what?  The first step of that post-Copenhagen process begins today here in Bonn, Germany (where I’ll be today and through the weekend).

As I’ve discussed before, over 110 countries have associated with the provisions in the Copenhagen Accord and 75 countries accounting for over 80% of the world’s emissions have committed to specific actions to reduce their global warming pollution.  These are critical building blocks for international efforts to address global warming.  We can’t address global warming if we don’t have countries taking actions at home to reduce their emissions and we can’t have an international agreement if countries don’t reinforce that they do indeed want to take cooperative action.

So what is the process going forward, the prospects for Cancun (this December), and the path to a strong international effort to address global warming?  Let’s remind ourselves of the famous quote: “those that don’t learn from history are doomed to repeat it”.  That is a good working theme for the post-Copenhagen process.  Whatever you think of the Copenhagen Accord – building block, success, failure, or question mark – if we don’t learn from Copenhagen then we won’t produce a different international outcome on global warming.  We will leave Cancun no different than we left Copenhagen.  The world, the fate of current and future generations, and all the solutions created by smart global warming policy that are being demanded by people throughout the world (creating clean energy jobs, reducing national security risks, and reducing pollution) depend on us learning from the history of Copenhagen.

So here are some lessons from Copenhagen (from my point of view).

Focus on actions and foundations, not “binding” or “treaty”.  So much of the public focus on Copenhagen was on whether or not we would agree to a new “binding treaty” that we lost focus on the outcome that we actually want – countries taking concrete steps to reduce their emissions, countries supporting developing countries in emissions reductions and adaptation, and creating reinforcing means to encourage countries to actually implement the actions that they committed to undertake.

We used to believe that countries would only take action at home to reduce their emissions, if there was an international agreement.  That is still true for some countries and does influence how much action countries take (e.g., will countries go to the upper end of their pledge), but it isn’t a completely true perspective anymore.  China isn’t waiting for an international agreement to begin to implement actions into their domestic political system (as my colleague has discussed here and here), South Korea has passed a law to implement its commitments (as I discussed here), Mexico is debating as we speak a parliamentary law which would implement specific domestic actions to reduce emissions (as I learned the other day from colleagues at the Mexican NGO CEMDA), India is implementing domestic policies to increase deployment of clean energy (as my colleague recently discussed) and the race for the clean energy future is occurring every day (as country’s are trying to be in a leadership position for the jobs, technology, and economic drivers of this century).  The international focus on this effort can reinforce, nudge, and support those domestically driven actions but without those domestic actions we wouldn’t be able to have an international agreement.  So the fact that these domestic actions are occurring without a “legally agreement” is encouraging and gives hope that we won’t sit and wait for another meeting or agreement before taking action.

Implement key building blocks necessary for international agreement – don’t skip past these key aspects to the “b” (binding) or “t” (treaty) words.  As I’ve discussed before (here, here, and here), Copenhagen achieved five important things.  It is critical that significant progress is made on these key pieces before Cancun:

1. Commitments to actions to reduce global warming pollution by all key countries.  75 countries, accounting for over 80% of the world’s emissions have committed to take action to reduce their emissions.  We should have a platform or process in Cancun for countries to discuss their progress to implement actions at home to meet these action commitments.  The US should have to say what it is doing at home towards its pledge, China and India should do the same, and so on.  This kind of transparency will be important to reinforce the domestic pressure from businesses, citizens, politicians, etc. to take action and will encourage countries to take concrete action in advance of Cancun (as no one will want to go before the world and say that they did nothing since Copenhagen).

2. Pledges to support near-term (through 2012) and longer-term financing to assist developing countries in deploying clean energy, reducing deforestation emissions, and adapting to the impacts of global warming.  Some progress has been made in countries outlining their “prompt start” commitments (through 2012), but there are still a number of unknowns (as the World Resources Institute documented).  And there is a significant unknown on the larger commitment to deliver $100 billion of public and private financing by 2020.  The High-Level Advisory Group is evaluating options to meet this commitment (as I discussed here), but there are troubling signs in key countries. 

Current trends in the US Senate debate on the climate and energy bill give me great concern that President Obama will be able to deliver on this commitment – a commitment that he personally drove home and a commitment that was central to getting the Copenhagen Accord agreed (as my colleague discussed this was a key part of a two step chess move to unlock the agreement).  So President Obama and his Administration have a personal investment to deliver on this financing commitment.  Not meeting this commitment will have a significant reputational impact on President Obama and the U.S., which will have implications for all things that the US tries to achieve internationally (and will make achieving an international agreement very challenging as a huge amount of trust will be eroded).

3. Deforestation emissions will be a core part of international efforts.  Key countries are meeting in a process created by the Norwegian and French governments to create a Global Partnership on REDD+ (reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation) as I discussed here.  This process won’t agree to new details on global efforts to address deforestation emissions but it will provide an important venue for better cooperation and transparency on the delivery of and actions supported by the prompt start funding for deforestation (the $4 billion through 2012 that has been committed to date).

The more specific detailed agreements on the international framework for deforestation reductions were very close to being agreed in Copenhagen, but were caught in the vacuum of “nothing can be agreed until everything is agreed”. So it will be critical to take those elements that were almost agreed and finalize them in Cancun, so more significant actions can be unleashed to reduce deforestation emissions.  It is also important that the underlying elements of this agreement are delivered as well, notably the finance piece which is also in trouble in the US climate bill debate (as I discussed here).  

4. Adaptation needs to be addressed in the most vulnerable countries.  We almost had agreement in Copenhagen on a number of the adaptation elements that are important to guide international efforts to support the most vulnerable countries in adapting to global warming.  For most developing countries, adaptation is the critical piece of the international agreement that they are watching.  So to build trust and create the space for these countries to put the necessary pressure on the major emitters to take action, the world needs to make serious progress on agreeing to how adaptation efforts will be supported in the most vulnerable developing countries.

5. Countries need to provide transparent, frequent, and credible information on their actions and progress towards those commitments, as well as to establish a clear process for international consultation on that information.  Getting agreement in Copenhagen was significantly influenced by getting agreement on the “transparency” provisions so fleshing out the details of these transparency guidelines in Cancun will be critical.  And these provisions are central to providing the necessary information to know whether or not we are solving this global challenge and whether countries are meeting their commitments.

From Copenhagen to Cancun – Progressing the building blocks of an international agreement.  By making progress on these individual pieces and agreeing to rules/guidelines for these at Cancun, countries will build trust and provide greater agreement on the substantive details which are essential for whatever international outcome we ultimately achieve.  That means agreeing to these pieces before agreeing the exact legal form that we are trying to achieve (i.e., “binding”, “treaty”, “agreement”).  And it means not skipping past these building blocks and heading straight to whether or not we are going to get an international agreement in a specific form.  We can’t have any agreement without having the right details underpinning it.

So as work begins here in Bonn, it will be essential to learn from the past and build a clear sense of what can and cannot be achieved in Cancun.  That means focusing on agreeing on and implementing a couple of tangible elements of the international effort – not trying to resolve all the details necessary for a final agreement.