Monday, Dec. 07, 2009

5 Things to Watch for at the Copenhagen Climate-Change Conference

Tens of thousands of diplomats, activists, journalists, businesspeople, celebrities and assorted green hangers-on have descended on the Danish capital of Copenhagen for the U.N.'s annual climate-change summit starting on Monday. Officially, the meeting is known as the 15th Conference of the Parties — in reference to the parties to the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) — but it might be more accurately called the Last Chance.

To advocates of action on global warming, the Copenhagen summit represents the last, best chance to slow and eventually reverse the growth in greenhouse-gas emissions before climate change begins to spin out of control. To skeptics of climate change, many of whom will attend the conference, Copenhagen is the last defense of another kind — against the growing global momentum to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions, an undertaking they think could cripple the international economy. Either way, it is likely to be the most important international environmental conference in history, its importance bolstered by President Barack Obama's decision to appear at the end of the summit (initially he had planned to arrive at the start), when the most significant discussions occur and a deal might actually be made.

Although the early and most optimistic expectations for the conference have been blunted, negotiators still have an extraordinary job ahead. They will pore over the endless footnotes and parentheticals of U.N. documents in order to work toward a new global treaty, for which they are expected to generate a framework. "Copenhagen is already a turning point in the international response to climate change," said UNFCCC chair Yvo de Boer on Dec. 6. Over the next 12 days of negotiations, here are the top five matters to watch for:

1. Will the U.S. lead? The U.S. delegation to climate summits under former President George W. Bush played the spoiler. Not only were American diplomats generally opposed to building a global consensus on reducing carbon emissions, they actively seemed to enjoy gumming up the works, walking out in the middle of negotiations during the Montreal summit in 2005, for instance, and nearly torpedoing the entire process two years ago in Bali.

Under Obama, however, we can expect the U.S. delegation, led by top climate envoy Todd Stern, to play a positive role in the talks. That's key — the fact that the U.S. wouldn't play in the past meant that negotiations could rarely move forward, and that there was little leverage for putting pressure on major developing nations like China and India to cut emissions. This year, Obama himself will attend the Copenhagen talks on Dec. 18, the final day of the summit, and he will bring tentative emissions-reduction targets for the U.S. — about a 17% cut in 2005-level emissions by 2020. "What's significant from our perspective is, after eight years of [the U.S.] not doing anything, President Obama in a year has really tried to move things in the opposite direction," said Democratic Senator John Kerry, who heads the Senate's Foreign Relations Committee.

Nevertheless, Obama's negotiating team will be somewhat hamstrung, because the Senate still has to approve any climate treaty, whether it is signed at the summit or afterward. The range of emissions cuts that Obama will bring to Copenhagen is based on the cap-and-trade bills that have been approved by the House of Representatives, but the Senate may not vote on the bill until the spring. That means any progress made in Copenhagen will be provisional — if the Senate votes down carbon caps next year, things could fall apart.

Even so, the emissions cuts the U.S. is willing to agree to are still far short of what the European Union is promising, and far less than what developing nations are demanding. "Overall the level of ambition is too low," says Alden Meyer, director of strategy and policy at the Union of Concerned Scientists. "That leaves us with low expectations for the summit."

2. Will China and India follow? Historically, the U.S. may be the world's biggest carbon emitter — responsible for more than a quarter of the man-made CO2 in the atmosphere — but developing nations led by China and India will be responsible for the majority of future emissions. At the same time, those nations still have low per capita emissions, and under the Kyoto Protocol, they haven't been required to take any verifiable actions to control emissions. Until recently, they haven't shown much interest in doing so, but that may now be changing.

China recently announced that Premier Wen Jiabao would attend the Copenhagen summit, and that he would bring a Chinese promise to reduce carbon intensity — essentially a measure of energy efficiency — at least 40% by 2020. Shortly afterward, India followed up with its own pledge to cut carbon intensity 20% to 25% by 2020. "If India wants to lead the developing nations, we have to offer something," said Jairam Ramesh, India's Environment Minister, in a speech to lawmakers on Dec. 3. "India stands for a comprehensive, equitable agreement."

Sounds pretty good. But as Michael Levi, a climate-change expert for the Council on Foreign Relations, was quick to point out, both China and India will almost certainly improve their carbon intensity as they continue to develop, so their new pledges may hardly be better than business as usual. More worrying, both countries are resisting making their domestic pledges measurable and verifiable under an international treaty — unless they receive more climate aid. In other words, the rest of the world would need to take Beijing and New Delhi's word for it — something Washington is dead set against. Expect sharp negotiation on this point.

3. The two-step tango. Back in 2007 on the sunny Indonesian island of Bali, negotiators worked out the "Bali road map," a series of steps toward a successor to the Kyoto Protocol that would guarantee a new global climate treaty by the 2009 conference in Copenhagen. Well, road map or not, the international community got a bit delayed — in part due to the fact that Obama has had less than a year to turn around U.S. climate policy — and no one expects an actual treaty to be negotiated and signed in Copenhagen.

Instead we may have what Danish Prime Minister Lars Lokke Rasmussen has called the "two-step approach." In the first step, world leaders would converge on a "political agreement" in Copenhagen that would emphasize the importance of fighting climate change and perhaps set out global temperature targets for the future. Work would also be done to form as much of the legal architecture of a deal as possible — such as agreements on deforestation, on financial aid for adaptation, perhaps on target levels. Afterward, major countries like the U.S., Australia and Canada would have time to pass domestic carbon caps at home. In the second step, at a later meeting — either a special summit or next year's COP in Mexico City in December — the numbers could be dropped into a treaty and quickly signed. In this way, "Copenhagen can be a resounding success," said de Boer before the conference began.

But if Copenhagen really only produces another dry political statement about the need to deal with climate change, well, that's already been done. And a lot can go wrong between the first step and the second step. The U.S. Senate could refuse to support domestic carbon caps, which might scuttle the entire treaty process; or other skeptical countries, such as Russia or Saudi Arabia, could likewise throw a wrench in the process. But most importantly, after the summit, momentum could dissipate. The Copenhagen meeting represents a rare, fleeting moment when the entire world will be focused on climate change. "Will you lose the potential will to negotiate a legally binding treaty after the spotlight is off Copenhagen and the ministers and heads of state go home?" asks Meyer.

4. Seeing REDD on deforestation. The loss of tropical forests plays a major role in climate change, contributing about 15% of global greenhouse gases, according to the most recent estimate. But deforestation has an environmental impact that goes beyond climate change — tropical forests are home to a wealth of diverse species, and when the trees are lost, wildlife follows.

Slowing the rate of deforestation has a double benefit, but currently there's no mechanism for developing countries to earn carbon funding by keeping their trees. That could change in Copenhagen with the inclusion of REDD — Reduced Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation. The plan would allow tropical nations like Brazil and Indonesia to earn carbon credits by pledging to keep their forests standing — just as developing nations can already earn carbon money by switching to renewable power or cleaning up a polluting factory. "There is an enormous opportunity to be seized here," says Duncan Marsh, director of international climate policy at the Nature Conservancy.

What makes forestry proponents so optimistic is that REDD, much more so than any other part of a potential climate deal, has broad support from both developed and developing countries. Major developing powers, including Brazil and Indonesia, once suspicious that REDD would require them to surrender sovereignty over their forests, are now eager to be involved. At the same time, developed countries see avoided deforestation as a cheap and easy way to offset their own emissions — the cap-and-trade bill approved by the U.S. House in June includes specific provisions for REDD offsets. "REDD really could be one of the success stories out of Copenhagen," says Marsh.

5. Financing adaptation. Combating climate change isn't just about reducing carbon emissions. Global warming is coming even if we do act fast, and developing nations will bear the brunt of the impact. That's why another leg in the global treaty will address funding to help developing nations adapt to climate change — whether that means the building of seawalls, aid for agriculture during increasing droughts or the ability to better respond to natural disasters. "We need clarity on long-term finance for developing countries," says de Boer.

For a long time, no one could agree on how much money would need to be spent. The White House has said that the Copenhagen accord should be able to mobilize at least $10 billion a year to support adaptation and mitigation in developing nations, while British Prime Minister Gordon Brown has said he expects developed countries to ultimately spend up to $100 billion a year for adaptation. The White House is now saying there is an "emerging consensus" on the $10 billion–per-year figure, at least by 2012, but it isn't clear how or who would distribute the money. Developed countries generally prefer the World Bank or another existing institution to handle it, while many developing countries want an entirely new body. "Will aid for developing countries be part of overall development aid, or in a legally binding treaty or some other basket?" says Meyer. No one knows yet.

As the talks begin in Copenhagen, there's reason for climate-change advocates to feel optimistic — for the first time world leaders will be sitting down to focus solely on global warming — and reasons to worry that everything will collapse. The one thing we know is that this summit will help decide whether the world takes on climate change, or continues risking business as usual. "This is our last chance to avoid a dangerous 2°C of warming," says Dan Lashof, the director of the Natural Resource Defense Council's Climate Center. One way or another, now is the time to act.