As Copenhagen talks near – what are the prospects for success?

For months, hopes that a climate treaty would be signed at the upcoming Copenhagen conference have been raised, then dashed, then raised again. Now, with prospects waning that a binding accord on reducing greenhouse gas emissions can be reached this year, ten environmental leaders and climate experts outline for Yale Environment 360 what they believe can still be accomplished at Copenhagen.

Reposted with permission from Yale360.

No one said Copenhagen was going to be easy. After all, at its heart, the climate summit is about persuading nearly 200 nations to use drastically less of the fossil fuels that power the global economy. But over the past year, particularly after the election of Barack Obama as president of the United States, hopes ran high that reaching a legally binding climate agreement in Copenhagen was possible.

Now, with climate legislation still pending before the U.S. Congress and major developing nations reluctant to agree to CO2 reductions while the world’s greatest cumulative emitter of greenhouse gases — the United States — makes no binding commitments, prospects for success in Copenhagen have dimmed.

Still, environmental leaders tell Yale Environment 360 that much can still be accomplished in Copenhagen to smooth the way for a binding climate treaty in 2010. Above all, most of them say, the world’s industrialized nations must lead the way by setting targets for significant reductions in CO2 emissions and by committing funds to help the world’s developing nations adapt to global warming and invest in renewable energy technologies.

These experts said that much hinges on the United States, and several expressed disappointment with the Obama administration and Congress for failing to set tough emissions reductions targets. Said Michael Brune, executive director of the Rainforest Action Network, “When did ‘Yes We Can!’ change to, ‘No, sorry, we couldn’t possibly.’”

Many of the environmentalists said the Copenhagen conference may ultimately be seen as a crucial step to a climate accord next year. As Fred Krupp, president of the Environmental Defense Fund, said, “The atmosphere doesn’t care about signing ceremonies. Whether we celebrate a success in 2010 or 2009, what matters is that what we celebrate is indeed a success.”

Here are their responses:

Eileen Claussen, President, The Pew Center on Global Climate Change

Two years ago in Bali, climate negotiators set an extremely ambitious goal for Copenhagen that quickly came to be viewed as a deadline for achieving a new, ratifiable global climate agreement. Striking such a deal is certainly in line with what the science says is urgently needed. But political realities, not the science, dominate global climate negotiations.

And the political reality is that many of the major players are not yet ready to sign a binding deal. Many — including the United States, China, and India — are making encouraging progress domestically. Yet there remain wide differences among parties on many of the core issues — the nature of the parties’ commitments, how they will be verified, how to generate new public and private financing, etc. So the objective in Copenhagen must be a strong interim agreement that captures what progress has been achieved and creates fresh momentum toward a full and final deal.

Two major components involve carbon cuts and money. On emissions, a probable Copenhagen deal includes pledges from developed countries to meet reduction targets and pledges from major developing countries (e.g. China, India, Brazil) to meet other mitigation actions, such as carbon intensity goals. On finance, developed countries would pledge near-term funding to help developing countries adapt to climate change and develop low-carbon strategies. It’s also imperative that Copenhagen produce a clear deadline for concluding a final legal agreement, with the December 2010 Mexico City climate summit providing a reasonable timeframe.

A Copenhagen deal should also go as far as possible in outlining the architecture of a legally binding treaty. This includes the nature of commitments for developed and major developing countries, how to verify that countries are complying with their commitments, and new financial mechanisms.

Achieving strong national pledges of action and making available some quick-start money to address immediate climate-related needs for developing countries will represent genuine progress and will help bridge the gap between developed and major developing countries. But to be a true success, Copenhagen must be a springboard toward a legally binding agreement in 2010.

Michael Brune, Executive Director, Rainforest Action Network

When did “Yes We Can!” change to “No, sorry, we couldn’t possibly…?”

At Rainforest Action Network, we believe that climate policy must pass a simple litmus test: Will the policy reduce emissions quickly and deeply enough to keep the world well below 2 degrees C of warming, the level that scientists tell us is key for avoiding dangerous climate change?

Unfortunately, the United States is putting forward a much lower bar in the UN negotiations: Global ambitions must match what’s “politically possible” in the United States. In practice, this means accepting 4 percent U.S. reductions below 1990 levels as called for in emerging Congressional climate legislation — despite the fact that scientists, and many other countries, are calling for 40 percent reductions in emissions from 1990 levels by 2020.

This low level of ambition has a direct link to the outsized influence of the U.S. fossil fuel lobby, notably the coal industry. Somewhere along the line, U.S. legislation intended to reduce the massive amounts of carbon we emit into the atmosphere turned into protections and huge giveaways for coal — one of the dirtiest fossil fuels and a leading U.S. contributor to global warming. It’s no wonder the rest of the world is becoming increasingly frustrated.

The science is clear. To solve climate change, we have to drastically reduce emissions, both from fossil fuels and from rainforest destruction. If the U.S. took leadership, pledged serious emissions reductions and put money on the table for developing countries to adapt to and mitigate the worst effects of climate change, ideas of what’s politically possible at Copenhagen would suddenly change.

The fate of the climate treaty is currently being held hostage to narrow U.S. demands. The U.S. can and should be a leader in the Copenhagen process. Instead of focusing on what we can’t do, it’s time for the Obama Administration to focus on what we must do.

Changhua Wu, Greater China Director, The Climate Group

A mixture of realism and pessimism currently dominates expectations of the Copenhagen climate change negotiations. The excitement generated by the agreements in Bali two years ago has largely dissipated. The global recession and an ongoing lack of trust between the major parties has meant that there are still important areas — not least mitigation and financing — where significant disagreements remain.

For developing countries, the lack of trust stems from the fact that, despite its oft-repeated promises, the industrialized world has done little to reduce its emissions or provide financial and technological support. In fact, the two greatest drivers of emissions reductions in the 20 years since climate negotiations began have not been meaningful climate policies but the collapse of the economies of central and eastern Europe in the 1990s and the more recent economic slowdown. The snail-like progress of domestic climate policy in the U.S., commitments by industrialized countries that fall short of the scientific imperative, and perceived reluctance to provide predictable long-term funding to developing countries only add to this distrust.

Industrialized countries recognize — albeit reluctantly in some cases — that their historical responsibility, greater per capita emissions, and economic capacity mean they must take the lead with deep emissions cuts. Still, developed countries argue that, without meaningful efforts by developing countries to slow and then cut their emissions, their own actions will be swamped by growth elsewhere. This is exacerbated by fears — often unfounded or exaggerated, but politically powerful nonetheless — over loss of competitiveness, jobs, and growth.

The sad thing about all of this, of course, is that, while countries try to pass the buck for action to each other, Copenhagen represents a golden opportunity to kick-start a new era of robust, sustainable, and low-carbon economic growth. There is plenty of research that shows how action to cut emissions can increase both GDP and employment. And it is clear that many developing countries have outdone their wealthier counterparts in understanding this: China, India, Brazil, South Africa, and Mexico, among others, have all committed to following a lower-carbon path, without waiting for a global agreement.

While the fully fledged, legally binding treaty that many had looked for now appears out of reach in 2009, a strong political agreement that lays strong foundations, sets a firm deadline for completing the details in early 2010, and sends a clear signal to business and the public is still possible and should not be missed. If industrialized countries are prepared to show the leadership that has hitherto been lacking, China and others from the developing world will surely follow suit.

Daniel Esty, Hillhouse Professor of Environmental Law and Policy, Yale University

Maurice Strong, the Canadian environmental champion and Secretary General of the 1992 Rio Earth Summit, used to say that when leaders from around the globe gather — as they will in Copenhagen next month — only two outcomes are possible: “success” and real success. Unfortunately, the December climate change negotiations look likely to be a mere “success,” and a modest one at that, largely because the United States is not in a position to lead.

Real progress toward a “beyond-Kyoto” international agreement cannot occur unless and until the United States develops a domestic greenhouse gas emissions control strategy. But Congressional approval of a U.S. climate change action plan depends on movement toward a more universal global emissions reduction program. No U.S. climate change legislation will ever be approved unless it is clear that major developing countries, most notably China and India, will take on mandatory emissions controls. And China and India will not commit to any such thing unless the United States has undertaken substantial obligations — not just to reduce U.S. emissions, but also to help the developing world meet the costs of emissions control efforts. Thus, the domestic political dialogue and the international negotiations must advance not just in parallel but in tandem.

Internationally, the key to progress is revitalization of the principle of “common but differentiated responsibility,” on which almost all past successful international environmental policy cooperation has been grounded. The idea of “common” responsibility means that every nation must be part of the solution. “Differentiated” responsibility means that what is expected in terms of policy and resource commitments will vary depending on a nation’s level of development. The United States, Europe, and other wealthy nations will need to make major cuts in greenhouse gas emissions in the coming years while the big emerging economies must agree to reduce the rate of growth in their emissions. For example, China, rather than having its emissions rise 40 to 50 percent in the next decade, might be asked to limit this growth to 20 to 25 percent.

Ultimately, real success on climate change requires U.S. leadership. If the past is any guide, global environmental cooperation depends on the United States not only shouldering its share of the costs of action but also guiding a worldwide policy response. Scientists tell us that the climate clock is ticking. We may have already passed the point where significant damage from global warming is unavoidable. To put it bluntly, the price for lost U.S. leadership at this moment is very high.

Frances Beinecke, President, The Natural Resources Defense Council

I have always viewed the Copenhagen talks as one stop on a long journey. The Singapore decision to adopt the “one agreement, two steps” approach doesn’t change that; it maintains the momentum as we head into the summit.

This new approach will clear the air and prevent finger-pointing about who is lagging behind. Instead, we can use the talks to map out real commitments that will get us to a binding agreement within the year.

Indeed, countries will now be required to solidify their individual pledges to reduce global warming pollution. This in turn could help push the U.S. Senate to pass its climate law, because once developing nations like China and India announce their emission reduction pledges it sends a clear signal that the United States will be alone if it doesn’t act.

The world is asking and still expecting the United States to take a position of leadership. As I explain in my new book, Clean Energy Common Sense, pointing America toward a cleaner, more sustainable energy future will not only generate economic growth here at home, it will also solidify our credibility on the international stage. Climate leadership starts in Washington, and it starts with Congress passing a clean energy and climate law.

In the meantime, Copenhagen has already accomplished something that had yet to be done. I find it hard to believe that such a diverse group of countries would have come forward with so many climate commitments if Copenhagen had not been looming on the horizon.

We must now start looking past that horizon. I believe the talks will result in a series of agreements or building blocks to an international, binding legal framework that must follow Copenhagen. In Beijing, President Obama said he hopes Copenhagen will generate “not a partial accord or a political declaration,” but something stronger and more firmly defined — an accord, he said, that “has immediate operational effect.”

The journey toward solving climate change continues.

Sunita Narain, Director, Center for Science and Environment, India

It seems highly unlikely that the world will embrace an ambitious, legally binding agreement at Copenhagen, one that would set ambitious emissions reduction targets for industrialized countries and allocate the funds and technology to help developing countries deal with climate change. In recent months, the U.S., Australia, and other countries have suggested moving away from the Kyoto Protocol, which sets binding emissions targets for industrialized countries, and instead have proposed an unacceptable alternative: that no distinction be made between developed and developing countries, and that all countries agree to meet non-binding emissions targets set by their own governments and legislatures.

For any climate treaty to be meaningful, it must distinguish between industrialized and developing countries. Take the U.S., which sadly still remains a climate renegade, even under its Nobel Peace Prize-winning president. This single country is responsible for 30 percent of the accumulated global stock of CO2 emissions in the atmosphere. Currently, the U.S., with 5 percent of the world’s people, is responsible for 18 percent of annual global emissions. Yet legislation before the U.S. Congress would only cut the country’s greenhouse gas emissions a few percent below 1990 levels by 2020 — this at a time when a global consensus has emerged that in order to avert a 2 degrees C rise in temperature, industrialized countries need to slash CO2 emissions at least 40 percent below 1990 levels by 2020. Such anemic commitments by the U.S. are criminal when you think of the impact of climate change on the world’s poor.

An agreement containing mere pledges by industrialized nations that they will comply with emissions targets set domestically is unacceptable. Any worthy agreement must make a clear distinction between historical polluters — those who are required to take action first because of their many decades of high emissions — and the rest of the world. An accord that does not address this fundamental disparity raises the issue of whether a bad deal in Copenhagen would be worse than no deal at all.

Fred Krupp, President, The Environmental Defense Fund

With the clock running down on hopes of reaching a binding legal agreement on global greenhouse gas reductions in Copenhagen, nations are refocusing on a political agreement that can extend the momentum and lay the foundation for a final deal in the following months. That would be a welcome step forward, but the building blocks must be solid.

First, if we are to win the battle against climate change, we need caps on the total tons global warming pollution of all the major emitting sectors in all the major emitting nations. If some nations aren’t ready today to agree to those caps, there has to be a clear path for getting them there.

Second, each nation has to account for its total global warming pollution. Otherwise we have no mechanism to measure progress toward the environmental goal.

Third, if we are to put all major economies on a level playing field, we need a compliance system that holds nations accountable for meeting their emissions reduction commitments — and strong incentives to uphold them.

My hope is that Copenhagen will produce agreement on these three key building blocks: caps, or pathways to caps, for all major economies; a common accounting system; and a compliance system that holds countries accountable for honoring commitments. Without them, we risk building a foundation that is fundamentally shaky, one that would fail to stop global warming and hamstring our efforts to do so.

If we lack time to build a solid foundation in Copenhagen, we would be wise to refocus on what we can do to extend the momentum into next year when we can put the right building blocks in place. The atmosphere doesn’t care about signing ceremonies. Whether we celebrate success in 2010 or 2009, what matters is that what we celebrate is indeed a success.

Angela Anderson, Program Director, U.S. Climate Action Network

What’s important to understand as the Copenhagen conference approaches is that the majority of the hard work of cooling the planet and heating up the global economy is well under way. Two years ago, delegates met in Bali to construct the basic architecture of a new climate treaty. They agreed to build a five-story treaty, the results of which are clearly visible. The dimensions of the technological changes necessary to completely alter how the world powers itself have come into clearer focus. The science of climate change is irrefutable. The costs of making the transition to a new epoch have been calculated. And there is general agreement that the wealthy nations that burned all that carbon-rich fuel have financial responsibilities to poorer countries that want to get cleaner and economically greener. Still, the limits that developed countries are willing to put on the carbon pollution that causes climate change are not sufficient.

Several large barriers to completing the treaty remain, including crucial commitments from the United States to limit carbon emissions and contribute financially to the clean energy economic transition. The question of how much of the remaining work will be finished in Copenhagen can now be answered: Almost all of it.

During the U.S.-China summit in Beijing, President Obama said, “Our aim is not a partial accord or a political declaration, but rather an accord that covers all of the issues in the negotiations, and one that has immediate operational effect.”

Just as in Stockholm in 1972, when global leaders first met to limit the harm caused by industrial pollution, and again in Rio in 1992 and in Kyoto in 1997, the UN conference in Copenhagen is a rare, turning-point moment for the world to carefully consider the ties between the environment and the economy, and act to solve the dire consequences of burning fossil fuels. The United States and 191 other nations have the chance to leave Copenhagen with a comprehensive, ambitious, and fair international agreement to solve climate change. Tens of thousands of citizens from around the world will be witness to their actions and will provide powerful testimonies back home about the success or failure of this moment.

Susanne Dröege, Senior Researcher, German Institute for International and Security Affairs (Head of Global Issues Division)

The parties at the Copenhagen conference have a whole range of issues on which agreement still could be reached — even without forging a legally binding contract. The focus of efforts clearly should be the commitment by industrialized countries to significantly reduce emissions. Only then can the major bottleneck be passed, which is based on developing countries’ demands that the historical emitters should move first. This needs to be part of a so-called political agreement.

The major trigger for making a political agreement work, though, is the “shaming game,” as there is currently a lack of consequences and sanctions for countries that fail to meet future emissions reduction targets. In order for international pressure to be brought to bear on major emitting nations, the political agreement needs to be accomplished with a high degree of public attention to what is being announced by world leaders. This applies also to the second big issue: financial commitments by the industrialized countries to help developing nations adapt to climate change and adopt renewable energy technologies. Because of the financial and economic crisis, industrialized nations have been reluctant to commit such funds. But the long-term challenges of helping poorer countries bear the burden of climate change demand early and strong commitments by industrialized countries.

Either way, since a potential new agreement hinges on domestic decisions made in the U.S., industrialized countries will have to support the U.S. in bringing their climate bill through the Senate. In particular, the EU’s experiences with emissions trading could help to further illustrate where gains and losses occur in individual sectors. More leverage could be created also by illustrating implications from climate change for U.S. national security. As emission reductions under the U.S. climate bill are too low by any standards for global climate protection, further encouragement of U.S. engagement is needed. This could be achieved by embedding climate policy in foreign relations, i.e., speeding up cooperation on clean energy.

Developing countries should also be ready to consider the benefits from a global arrangement. This includes the potential sale of carbon credits, or hosting future foreign participation in low-carbon investments, yielding huge mutual benefits. Moreover, a wider differentiation of the positions of developing countries is overdue, such as the distinction between major emerging nations — including China and India — from poorer developing nations. This would help encourage the application of common but differentiated responsibilities.

Chet Tchozewski, President, Global Greengrants Fund

It is important to recognize that the most troubling conundrum for climate negotiators and development economists is the fact that the only thing that has successfully limited greenhouse gas emissions is the global recession, which has reduced global carbon emissions — mostly in industrialized nations — by about three gigatons of atmospheric carbon. The Kyoto Protocol didn’t do that. Carbon trading didn’t do that. Mass consumption behavior did that.

Unfortunately, the “momentum of the status quo,” the nagging failure of the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, and the lack of political will continues to drive down expectation for success in Copenhagen. Nevertheless a lot has changed in the world since Kyoto, including the rise of political sophistication and economic power in the so-called BRIC countries — Brazil, Russia, India, and China. The nascent but growing influence of civil society in these rapidly developing countries could become the determining factor following Copenhagen, enabling the global grassroots environmental movement to force markets and governments to conform to emerging social norms to develop a new and equitable low-carbon economy globally.

One of the advances that must be made at Copenhagen — regardless of whether a global deal is reached — is the strengthening of a robust global advocacy network capable of fostering fundamental social change, as well as helping local communities adapt to global warming and make the transition to a low-carbon economy. To do this, organized philanthropy in the rich countries of the U.S. and the EU must realign resources to provide greater aid to grassroots groups in developing countries, where small grants can do the most good.

One goal of the Copenhagen conference is to establish sound mechanisms to advance so-called REDD programs — Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation. Under these REDD schemes, which pay communities and governments not to fell tropical forests for timber and agriculture, local forest communities must participate in decisions that affect their lands and their lives. One of the goals of our group, Global Greengrants Fund, in Copenhagen is to insure that the evolving REDD policies and financing include adequate consideration of the needs of the local communities in the Amazon basin, the Congo basin, and Indonesia that may be unwittingly adversely impacted by REDD programs.

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