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Showdown Among the Leaders at Copenhagen

SOURCE: AP/Susan Walsh

President Barack Obama speaks at the morning plenary session of the United Nations Climate Change Conference at the Bella Center in Copenhagen, Denmark on December 18, 2009. Obama said in the session that we can either “embrace this accord, take a substantial step forward, and continue to refine it and build upon its foundation,” or “choose delay, falling back into the same divisions that have stood in the way of action for years.”

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Today over a hundred world leaders gather in Copenhagen to try to bring an agreement home at the end of a two-week conference on climate change. The stakes could not be higher. Two years ago at the U.N. climate summit in Bali, Indonesia the Bush administration joined the rest of the world in setting a deadline for deciding on how to take the Kyoto Protocol—the world’s only international agreement on carbon pollution that requires mandatory emissions cuts by some signatories—beyond the end of its first commitment period in 2012.

While the Bush administration then proceeded to do little or nothing to advance a successful treaty outcome in Copenhagen through their last year in power, the Obama administration has been steadily trying to make progress on a slate of domestic policies that would both be good for the country and good for an international agreement. At the time of this writing, however, it is still unclear if an agreement will emerge before we all go home or whether this meeting will leave us once again in the quagmire of the divide between developed and developing countries, which has plagued this process since the beginning.

In the run up to this meeting most observers doubted that it could produce a fully final and ratifiable agreement to either replace or extend the protocol. Last month it was looking like the best that could be accomplished would be some resolution on the architecture of a future treaty and perhaps some agreements on specific sectors like forestry and technology transfer.

This expectation, however, suddenly changed this past month when Danish Prime Minister Lars Rasmussen began proposing an alternative framework for moving forward. Copenhagen should not focus on finishing a final treaty that could be taken home for ratification but instead should focus on the first of a two-step process.

According to Rasmussen, we should focus Copenhagen on getting an “interim” or “political agreement” that would lay out a temporary but basic architecture for moving forward with emissions reductions, agreements on forestry, adaptation, financing, and everything else needed in a final treaty. Then, by a deadline to be determined at this meeting, a new agreement would be finalized to replace it, preferably prior to the next U.N. climate summit scheduled in Mexico City in February 2010.

Rasmussen’s core reason for suggesting this alternative was simply the lack of progress in the official U.N. negotiations, which had been going on since last spring where all 192 parties to the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change were trying to hammer out a new agreement or set of agreements for the Copenhagen meeting.

Rasmussen saw no chance that there would be a breakthrough in those sessions. The discussion focused on either expanding the Kyoto Protocol, or KP, though the Ad-hoc Working Group on the Kyoto Protocol, or AWG-KP, beyond 2012—an unsatisfactory option for the United States and other developed countries—or creating a new treaty out of the parallel Ad-hoc Working Group on Long Term Cooperative Action, or LCA, which was an unsatisfactory option for many developing countries as represented in the “Group of 77.”

So Rasmussen proposed setting those differences aside and moving forward. It was Rasmussen’s prerogative to do this as the leader of the host country of the meeting, a reserve authority for meeting hosts that has been used in the 15 years of this process to try to move along the often bogged-down negotiation sessions.

The question on everyone’s mind after this idea was floated was whether this proposal would be acceptable to the United States and China, the two countries responsible for the bulk of the world’s emissions and the two countries who had to reach an agreement to get anything productive out of Copenhagen.

The first indication this strategy might work was when President Barack Obama and other leaders at the Asia Pacific Conference for Economic Cooperation, or APEC, last November in Singapore positively reviewed a presentation by Rasmussen in a dramatic last-minute breakfast meeting arranged by the leaders of Australia and Mexico. When Obama went from there to the Beijing summit with President Hu Jintao immediately after, he publicly embraced this proposal through an announcement by his Special Deputy for International Economic Affairs Michael Froman, and publicly stated that he was prepared to accept the two-step process and make whatever came from this agreement “immediately implementable.”

President Hu, standing by, saw the whole thing and was there from the beginning of this idea to turn Copenhagen into the beginning of a process that could possibly result a final treaty in 2010.

The importance of this interim agreement needs to be emphasized. Before accepting this idea the United States had not put a critical 2020 midterm emissions target on the table at any of the negotiations because the president did not want to get ahead of the congressional process that was working on these targets in the House and Senate. After the two-step process idea was accepted the United States announced a 2020 emissions target.

Previously, the United States had also not mentioned any commitment to financing assistance for developing countries—a critically important issue for getting developing countries to eventually accept binding emissions cuts. After embracing Rasmussen’s plan the United States announced a commitment to quickstart funding in the short term during the assumed duration of the interim treaty.

And perhaps most critically, though we will know more tonight and tomorrow, after accepting this proposal the president decided not only to go to the Copenhagen summit but to go at the right time: At the end of the meeting when he would join other world leaders and hammer out the details of a deal personally in the absence of progress.

Starting last week, however, but mostly in the last few days, it looked like this interim agreement was dead. At the beginning of last week Chinese negotiators—who clearly knew about the possibility of this agreement from both the APEC meeting and Beijing summit—began decrying the idea as a surprise worked out behind closed doors. These protests over the Danish text continued into Wednesday of this week when Rasmussen assumed the role of president of the meeting—as is customary in advance of the arrival of other global leaders—with an entire morning of negotiating wasted with speeches from the floor from the Chinese and other parties that the Danish text (there were actually several versions of it) had been “parachuted” into the meeting.

After those events several parties in the know assured me that the Danish compromise was dead and that, at best, the meeting might go back to discussing the LCA text as a possible but very improbable move forward.

I think part of the Chinese objections to the Danish compromise was Kabuki theatre, just part of the atmospherics that commonly plague these meetings where parties rarely talk directly to each other but negotiate in large blocks. By and large China negotiates with the G-77.

But part of the source of the objections by the Chinese and other parties was their insistence that no future agreement can ever replace the KP after 2012, and no additional agreement, such as the LCA treaty text, could ever be added to it in some kind of linked fashion. The parties most insistent on this were those who cried the most that they would never give up the KP with its foundational mandate that developing countries will not sign on to mandatory emission reductions.

This best explanations that have been floated for why the Chinese and other parties claimed that they had never seen the Danish interim text, when in fact they had, is that a reading of it emerged from one of the various versions that it presumes its successor final treaty in step two will link the KP and some other treaty. The idea is that we’ll move forward with both the KP and a new treaty for new parties not now part of the KP—like the United States—and they will be linked in some fashion so that, for example, an emission abatement ambition in one triggers an emission abatement ambition in another. The presumption of such linking in the Danish interim proposal became the last nail in the coffin of this agreement, and—importantly for a successful outcome—the destruction of the very basis for President Obama’s decision to come to Copenhagen.

Last night, however, things turned around dramatically. As all of the leaders arrived, sessions were held late into the night and early into the morning, which effectively revived the once-dead Danish compromise interim treaty. But as President Obama met with more than two dozen world leaders this morning to finally get agreement on this treaty in advance of the opening full session, and the speeches by select leaders, things apparently fell apart.

First, several observers in the room confirmed that shortly before the start of the session President Sarkozy of France emerged expressing outrage at the lack of cooperation from developing countries. Then as leader after leader addressed the assembled hall, it was clear that there was no agreement on the Danish proposal or anything else. From the remarks of the Japanese prime minister we know that the failure this morning was over getting the interim political agreement locked in. And President Obama and other leaders laid down the gauntlet that success will only come with a decision on whether to accept the Danish proposal in open debate on the floor. The public stage of that debate will start tonight or tomorrow morning. It can be watched here.

If this meeting falls apart and we get no interim agreement then I will blame the process, not the parties. The key issue here seems to be whether we will ever either leave the Kyoto Protocol behind or add an agreement to it which accepts the necessity of binding emissions cuts from the major emitters in the developing world.

We must bring the developing countries into the fold of the community of nations that accepts binding cuts because we cannot get to the goal of the IPCC recommendation of cutting global emissions in half by 2050 only through the binding commitments of developed countries. Obama and the other leaders of the industrialized states have embraced this goal, along with the mandate that these parties cut their emissions 80 percent by 2050 to meet it.

They have also accepted that whatever we do, our goal must be stop temperature rise at least by 2 degrees Celsius over preindustrial levels. But if only developed countries make their 80 percent cuts in their own emissions we will not hit the global goal of cutting all emissions 50 percent by 2050. We need the participation of the six major emitters in the developing world—China, India, Indonesia, Brazil, South Africa, and Mexico—and we need them to think about peaking their emissions soon—not before us but not that far after, either.

Moving beyond the old division enshrined at Kyoto of dividing the world between the obligations of developed and developing countries is the key problem for moving forward by tomorrow, but it is by no means the only problem to getting an agreement. Evidence comes from draft text of the Danish proposal—which is changing right now—where one of the first cuts was the language in the agreement that preserved the work of both treaty tracks and might presume that both treaty tracks continue.

But President Obama crystalized the key problem in the plenary this morning, saying that we can either “embrace this accord, take a substantial step forward, and continue to refine it and build upon its foundation,” or “choose delay, falling back into the same divisions that have stood in the way of action for years,” locking in “the same stale arguments month after month, year after year—all while the danger of climate change grows until it is irreversible.”

As someone who agreed with the original structure of the KP that put the burden of mandatory emissions cuts first on developed countries, I still defend the idea that developed countries had to take the initial stab at reducing emissions given our historical responsibility for putting the tons of carbon in the atmosphere that are causing this problem today. This was also necessary given the critical development goals of developing countries who needed to lift their people out of poverty. It was a sound principle of global justice.

But the need to move forward beyond the KP, or including the KP and some other agreement that would get binding emissions cuts from the largest economies in the developing world, is no longer a political position. It is the only answer that coheres with the fundamental physics and mathematics of the issue.

The odd thing about this process is that while the official U.N. talks have mired in worthless bickering, the alternative forums such as the G-20 and the Major Economies Forum—bringing together the 17 largest emitters in the world monthly since last April—have produced ample bilateral and mulilateral success stories of the past year. That is where the central mandate of the Bali Action Plan—that developing countries will eventually take on measurable, reportable, and verifiable targets in exchange for assistance with technology and finance—has advanced.

If the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change is a forum where it’s procedural arcane can never get an agreement on stopping carbon pollution, then we need to move those discussions elsewhere to a forum where the largest emitters can actually talk to each other, soberly and rationally, face to face, without the theatrics that have come to dominate the U.N. process. Those are also meetings that are free from the historical burden of being based on a hard distinction between developed and developing countries when what we need is a process focused on the distinction between major carbon polluters and everyone else.

So, what will happen tonight and most likely in an emergency session tomorrow? Intense negotiations hopefully resulting in a new agreement. But if this does not happen we need to rethink whether this U.N. framework needs to be replaced with something that can actually yield the results our world so desperately needs.

Andrew Light is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress.

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