Look Under the Hood of the Climate Negotiations (Getting the Copenhagen Agreement Running)

Climate negotiations are like a car with dents and rattlesThe two-week global warming negotiations in Bangkok, Thailand are just wrapping up. There are five key elements to the Copenhagen Agreement (as I’ve discussed on a number of occasions):

  1. Strong leadership from developed countries with firm and aggressive emissions reductions targets 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).
  2. Willingness of developing countries to undertake significant emissions reductions on their own that tangibly reduce the growth of their emissions in the near-term (e.g., to 2020) and lay the foundation for even deeper cuts in the medium-term.
  3. Turning the corner on efforts to combat global deforestation
  4. Properly designed and performance-based incentives from developed countries to encourage even greater developing country emissions reductions.
  5. Support for adaptation to the impacts of climate change in the least vulnerable countries

Those five elements are the tires, the engine, the axle, and the frame. The car won’t get you from point A to point B if all of those aren’t working. The ride is smoother if they are all working together in a coordinated way and are well-tuned, but it can still get you from point A to B without being fine tuned. And it would make your trip a little nicer if the interior was in good condition and you wouldn’t look like an outcast if your car had a good paint job. The exterior and interior aren’t necessary to get you from point A to B, but they make the ride a little nicer. (Sorry for the car metaphors, but think of the Copenhagen Agreement as a plug-in hybrid and you’ll follow my analogy for this post.)

So how does the “Copenhagen Car” (i.e., the Copenhagen Agreement) look after this two week negotiation session? Is it running on fumes, running but with some rattles, or looking all nice and shiny?

It is running, but it has a number of rattles and dents. I’m still convinced that they can be tuned to make the car operate better but you can’t hide the fact that there are rattles and the car looks a little dinged up. But when you actually look at the parts they are actually all in the car.

So let’s look at the parts of the car (what is there to make it run).

Developed country targets:
Almost all developed countries have put forward more aggressive targets as a part of their commitment to continue to lead (as I discussed ). Recently the new Japanese government increased their target proposal and this had a positive impact on the negotiations in Bangkok. And just yesterday, the Government of Norway increased their target to 40% below 1990 levels in 2020 if there is an international agreement — making them the country with the deepest target. This also gave a little last minute boost to the climate negotiations in Copenhagen. The largest unknown on this part of the car is the US Senate — as I’ll discuss under the rattle portion.

Developing country emissions reductions:
All the major emerging economies have provided a strong hint of the types of actions that they’ll undertake to curb their global warming pollution (as I’ve discussed here). And during the Bangkok negotiations it became clear that the government of Indonesia had proposed to curb their global emissions, largely through deforestation reduction efforts.

As an aside I ran into a friend in the South Korean government and he was with his colleague from the South Korean President’s office that is in charge of determining the final target that the government will commit to (as I discussed here). My friend jokingly told me to tell his colleague what number I wanted — of course I told him the most aggressive target was the best. Even though he was joking, the fact that they are so close to taking on such a target is a pretty impressive shift from just a few years ago.

Efforts to support developing countries in taking further steps – the incentives & investments part of the equation:
Largely unnoticed, the US government took some steps forward by submitting a finance proposal. It made some significant moves in between the developing country negotiation position and that of the other developed countries. There are a lot more details that need to be fleshed out on this proposal but it provided a positive push to establish a credible and robust financing framework. A framework that will meet the needs of developing countries, ensure that developed countries have trust in the system so they’ll financially support it in a meaningful way, and ensure that every dollar of investment is achieving the greatest reduction in global warming pollution and improvement in the ability for countries to adapt to climate change. And they made a small but positive proposal on technology which would help developing countries better access and deploy clean energy. More will be needed on the technology front as this is a small step forward, but a positive one nonetheless.

Many of us and the developing countries had been advocating that the US provide more clarity on the technology and finance piece of the Copenhagen so this is a welcome step forward. Now we’ll just need to fill those frameworks with more detail and the financial support to make them truly effective. But the finance is shaping up to be an end game portion of the agreement (after the Senate has given the US negotiators the tools that were in the House climate bill as I discussed here).

And just the other day there was another high-powered group calling for the US to support efforts for developing countries to cut there global warming pollution from deforestation (as you can see here). So there is some very positive momentum behind our efforts to address deforestation and to provide the necessary investment.

Now lets look at the rattles and dents in the “car”.

Lack of US Senate action:
Achieving strong commitments in Copenhagen requires leadership from the US by capping its global warming pollution. For eight long and painful years the international process waited for the US to lead. Now is the time! That action alone will have a large impact on reducing the rattles in the “car”. The process took the next step forward with the release of the “clean energy jobs bill” released last week (as we discussed ).

US Proposal for Monitoring, Reporting, and Verification:
Despite the “heat” surrounding the US proposal on monitoring, reporting, and verification there are elements of it that will legitimately improve the actual environmental outcome of the international agreement (as I discussed here). Ensuring that this leads to a strong international agreement that provides robust assurance that a country will live up to their objectives will require filling in some more detail on the undefined portions over the next couple of months. And there are a lot of rattles around this proposal so the US will have to readjust their strategy just a bit. But remember this is a negotiation so some of the public reaction is also posturing.

There is a lot more explaining on the implications of this proposal and acceptance of what it means for the international agreement. The rhetoric around the implications is pretty strong at this stage, so let’s hope both sides move a bit more.

Negotiation, negotiation, negotiation:
This is probably the biggest rattle.As I mentioned the other day, this is first and foremost a negotiation. Granted it is the most important negotiation that any country has undertaken as the impacts of global warming will impact us in profound ways. The atmosphere in the formal portions of the negotiations is tense with any small misstep making other countries take two steps back. That dynamic can change quickly and it must!


Tuning the car and taking out the dents can still be accomplished in order to secure a strong international agreement to address global warming. The parts of the car are there. Some are lying on the ground and need to be secured into place with “the right bolt”. Others are there, but they need a little tightening and grease. And it definitely needs a new paint job afterwards.

One important thing needs to be done by all leaders around the world…look in “your driveway” and decide if you like how your car is running and how it looks. What is it that you are offering as a part of the effort to get a strong global agreement? And then ask yourself, are you going to be the mechanic and find the ways to tune the car? Are you going to find the tools to fix it? They are in your hands and as we found out from the IEA this week, the benefits of taking action far outweigh the costs of action so this is one repair that will pay for itself.

World leaders you decide what road we head on from here. But remember it isn’t just your car that you are responsible for. You are also responsible for the future of your country, your children’s children, and so many other things that we all care deeply about.

There are a lot of people around the world that will support you if you get this car running properly!

Jake Schmidt is the International Policy Director for the Natural Resources Defense Council, read his blog at NRDC’s Switchboard

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