Wednesday 06 Oct 2021 | 20:54 | SYDNEY
Wednesday 06 Oct 2021 | 20:54 | SYDNEY

Copenhagen: Not a treaty, but a conversation

18 December 2009 13:24

Fergus Green is the co-author of Comprehending Copenhagen: A Guide to the International Climate Change Negotiations. He is in Copenhagen working with Project Survival Pacific.

As the Copenhagen conference heads into its final days, the mood remains rather gloomy.

A comprehensive treaty is well beyond reach. Even if a treaty were concluded tomorrow that incorporated the most ambitious pledges on the table, it would be staggeringly inadequate to the task of reducing emissions sufficiently to avert catastrophic climate change. And even if the numbers did add up to a scientifically credible mitigation effort, serious concerns about the viable implementation of commitments under the current 'targets-and-timetables' approach would continue to cast a dark shadow over the international climate regime. When compared with the scale and urgency of the task and when considered in isolation, the Copenhagen outcome could only be seen as a failure.

Why, then, does Copenhagen matter? I am convinced that the best answer to this question lies not in any emissions reduction target or financial mechanism contained in the ultimate accord, but in the signals a deal will send to the world about the commitment of the international community to cooperate in a global effort to reduce emissions.

I want to suggest, therefore, that instead of viewing Copenhagen as the be-all-and-end-all for global climate policy, we should reconceptualise the significance of the conference in the following terms: as one line in an ongoing conversation between governments, markets and ordinary citizens; a conversation that should generate an intensification of concrete actions by each of these groups to reduce emissions.

Most importantly, Copenhagen is an influential line in a conversation between the emerging economies and the US Congress. On the sidelines of the climate talks on Wednesday, US Senator John Kerry gave the most eloquent defence of the Copenhagen process along these lines that I’ve heard yet.

A key architect of the comprehensive climate change bill before the Senate and a champion of ambitious climate policy, Kerry 'gets' the science, policy and politics of climate change better than just about anyone. With refreshing candour, Kerry outlined the inadequacy of current emissions reduction pledges – including those of the US – in light of the latest science, but highlighted the importance of taking the initial steps in the right direction.

Kerry listed some of the impressive achievements of the Obama Administration, from the largest investment in clean energy in US history ($80 billion of stimulus money), to raising fuel efficiency standards on US vehicles, to unprecedented clean technology partnerships with developing countries. This concerted combination of domestic and international engagement on climate change and clean energy has unquestionably brought the developed and developing worlds closer to a comprehensive climate change agreement than ever before.

But legislators in the US Senate are yet to agree on cap-and-trade legislation that would give other countries the confidence that the US will reduce its emissions by any specific amount, and this is a major constraint on the Copenhagen negotiations. But far from using Congressional politicking as an excuse for international inaction, Kerry was insistent that the Senate's deliberations 'can be enormously assisted by what happens here' in Copenhagen.

The critical element of a deal that would assist Congressional deliberations, according to Kerry, is an agreement from the major developing country emitters that they will formalise their domestic mitigation commitments into an international treaty and subject them to international monitoring, reporting and verification (I consider these issues in more detail here). 'Shared responsibility must include an obligation to share information about each country's good faith efforts to keep its commitments', according to Kerry. 'People need to trust the process, and that trust is built through transparency.'

Kerry's speech is not, however, a one-way demand for concessions by developing countries. He argued persuasively in favour of a large US financial commitment to assist developing countries reduce emissions and adapt to climate change (a key developing country priority), recognising America's historical contribution to climate change and extolling the creative ways in which finance could be raised to supplement public transfers.

In a telling revelation of the US negotiating strategy, Kerry said that the US should be prepared to provide more funding 'as other countries clarify their own efforts for transparency and mitigation'. This strategy was confirmed on Thursday by Secretary of State Clinton, who said the US would be prepared to contribute towards a global finance package of US$100 billion annually by 2020 'in the context of a strong accord in which all major economies stand behind meaningful mitigation actions and provide full transparency as to their implementation'.

With a political accord in Copenhagen that incorporates transparent commitments from developing countries, Kerry insists that the Congress 'will pass' a comprehensive energy and climate package next year that will reduce US emissions by putting a price on carbon – most likely in the US spring. This optimism is not blind faith, but a product of the bipartisan bridges Kerry has been building in the Senate in his bid to pass the legislation.

If Congress passes its climate bill as Kerry predicts, the international community could have the subsequent word in the conversation soon thereafter. Kerry wants to 'come back together next year to transform the Copenhagen political agreement into a binding international treaty.' In Kerry's view, a new deadline should not be a distant one: 'I believe an early summer date of June or July 2010 is realistic and necessary'.

Much will be said on the weekend about the success or otherwise of the Copenhagen outcome. Politicians will mostly hail it as a success, civil society will mostly condemn it as a failure. I'll be measuring its success at least partly against the blueprint laid out in Kerry's speech. The question I'll be asking is not 'will Copenhagen solve the climate crisis?', but rather 'will Copenhagen improve the climate conversation?'

Photo by the author.