Whither Copenhagen?

When Barack Obama and his counterparts arrived in Copenhagen, they each found a surprise – line diplomats had not been able to set the table effectively for their interaction.  Whereas Presidents often arrive at such international gatherings with the expectation that they will say grace over the offerings prepared by their negotiators and perhaps decide one or at most two key issues, world leaders at Copenhagen found a bare table with the waiters and kitchen staff locked in arguments. 

This certainly was an unusual international scene, one where world leaders themselves actually negotiated the words of the accord.  The heart of what they achieved was to build trust, both in the broadest sense of the word and in the narrower sense of an agreement that identifies the road to a transparent system designed to ensure that each country keeps the promises it makes.   

Several questions are paramount in assessing the spare Copenhagen Accord that emerged from those crucial discussions among world leaders.

What was really accomplished?  What does the Copenhagen Accord mean for the future?  How will it affect the critical US Senate debate on climate legislation?  What led to the sad state of the negotiations the world leaders found when they arrived?   And what lessons can we draw that can avert the need for a similar rescue effort by world leaders in Mexico City next November?

While the view that the Copenhagen Accord has fallen far short of expectations is the conventional wisdom in the media, I would argue that in fact this Accord is an important accomplishment.  It has addressed the three key elements of the global deal:  1) reduction commitments by all the major emitters; 2) a commitment by developed nations to help developing nations to finance adaptation, capacity building,  technological innovation and reductions in carbon emissions and deforestation; and 3) an international system to ensure transparency of country performance.  The national reduction targets announced by every major nation before Copenhagen will be enshrined in the final Accord.  While these announcements were seen as a potential springboard to more far-reaching and specific agreements on the underlying policy architecture, that failed to materialize.  The Copenhagen Accord nonetheless marks what President Obama called “a breakthrough.” 

Key developing countries like China, Brazil and Mexico have been quietly assembling an impressive record of carbon and deforestation reductions that will equal if not exceed by 2010 the aggregate reductions promised by the EU and the US.  Their announcements here and the targets they will inscribe in the Accord build on those efforts and finally put to rest the myth that developing countries are not doing anything.  They also make clear that the Copenhagen Accord is not the Kyoto Protocol – it will require both developing and developed countries to reduce their emissions.   

On finance, the stunning announcement by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on Thursday that the US would carry its share of the $100 billion annual package of financing in 2020 fell flat with most developing countries, a commentary on the difficulty of communicating to developing countries the full political reality of the US climate debate and the larger economic context.   US negotiators felt they had spent their “silver bullet,” without moving the negotiations forward, creating a heightened need for President Obama and other heads of state to intervene.

Many developing country delegates had come to expect that the G-77’s demands for a commitment of 1% of developed country GDP—for climate assistance annually would eventually be agreed to, a never-never land dream, one unfortunately stoked by many NGOs who hoped to land the annual $100 billion commitment by asking for much more.  Too bad that before Copenhagen developing country delegates couldn’t have heard the commentary by Senator John Kyl (R-AZ) who told ABC News on Sunday that “neither the President nor the Secretary of State can go to Copenhagen and make (such) commitments” . . . “there is not the support right now for that (in the Senate)” or seen the recent US polling that found that 57% of American citizens opposed providing aid to developing countries for climate change.

Beyond the big three elements of the package, the Accord incorporated key principles that negotiators had worked tirelessly on since Bali including reducing deforestation and preparing vulnerable countries to adapt to  the already unavoidable effects of climate change.  Final agreement is within reach on cooperative efforts to reduce deforestation which is responsible for nearly 20% of global carbon emissions, and it is heartening that world leaders themselves underlined the importance of halting deforestation.  

So what does the Copenhagen Accord mean for the U.S. climate debate?  It tackles head-on the two most pressing issues, action by the key developing countries and international transparency to ensure all national promises are kept.  It keeps the “ball in play” for the Senate and lays the groundwork for the all-important assurances that our competitors in India and China will not gain market advantages in key competitive industrial sectors as a result of passage of US climate legislation.  In fact, provisions in both the House and Senate bills provide insurance in the form of 100% free permits to US industries in those competitive sectors for emissions in the period until 2025, the period when China, India and the other major emerging economies will build on the actions they are already taking in these sectors.  And nothing in the Copenhagen Accord will restrict our ability to use border tax adjustments as a further protection should those actions not be taken by one or another of the key developing countries.  After all, 6 to 8 large developing economies are responsible for the lion’s share of emissions in the key internationally competitive sectors like steel, cement and aluminum so their action will be sufficient to avoid competitive problems for our country.

In the aftermath of Copenhagen, much has been made of the fact that the negotiators only “took note” of the Accord in final action on Saturday.  Hence the argument goes:  little has been accomplished in the arcane world of UNFCCC negotiations.  But I think this “inside-baseball” analysis misses the big picture.  On Friday, more than 25 heads of state had negotiated the first drafts of the Copenhagen Accord.  On Friday evening, President Obama and the leaders of Brazil, China, India and South Africa resolved the final key sticking points in that document. I think the proverbial take-home message is that these five countries and their larger set of counterparts committed to stand by that Accord.  I was told by one developing country minister present at the meeting of the five that a spirit of “bonhomie” pervaded the scene as the final negotiations moved toward agreement.  But that was not expected at the initial moment of truth when the President knocked on the door unannounced and asked politely if he could join the meeting.  None of the four was quite sure what to say at first or who was empowered to respond, looked at each other for a moment and then invited him in. 

My sense is that this meeting will likely take on a certain magical status, much like the moment at 4 am in Kyoto when then committee-of-the-whole chair Raoul Estrada of Argentina, by dint of sheer personal magnetism and negotiation savoir faire, pushed the Kyoto Protocol through to agreement.  And this Accord, no matter how it is finally handled in the UNFCCC process, will become the important first agreed-on architectural sketch for the building that will eventually be erected to solve the climate problem. 

 So how did we get to the situation on Friday where the world leaders had to set their own table?  One of the developing country ambassadors who has seen many negotiations over finance in a variety of treaties warned me weeks ago in Bangkok that the success of such negotiations depends fundamentally on the personalities of key players and on building trust. He was concerned whether that trust could be built in Copenhagen.  While no Raoul Estrada was on the scene, Danish Environment Minister Connie Hedegard made a valiant effort with shuttle diplomacy, travelling worldwide for two years to visit environment ministers and decision-makers before the conference to build some of that trust.

A senior European negotiator and a veteran of Kyoto had a different warning a month ago.  For the first time, he said, we have a set of countries who do not want any agreement and instead see this as an ideal opportunity to press their larger geopolitical anti-capitalism views.  In a negotiation as tricky as this one with consensus required to move forward, he feared such players could sow the seeds of discord both within G-77 and in the negotiating rooms, thereby undermining the process.  He was prescient.  Outlier countries led by Venezuela were highly effective in stalling talks and fueling distrust. 

Meanwhile, the unfortunate decision of Danish Prime Minister Rasmussen to personally take charge of the negotiations in the final days exacerbated the problems.  Not having built the relationships and trust necessary to carry such a high stakes negotiation to the finish line, he faced likely defeat.  Ironically, the Danish Prime Minister was rescued by a most unlikely source.  Ambassador Lumumba Stanislaus Di-Aping of Sudan, the spokesman for the G-77, appeared to go beyond his mandate on several occasions to undermine progress in the days leading up to the world leaders’ segment of the process.  In the final hours, his  comparison of developed country positions on climate to a “second holocaust” for Africa so “over the top” that he seemed to alienate many of his G-77 colleagues, outraged developed parties, and caused an eloquent and widespread show of support for the Accord from a wide array of Parties.  The final “taking note” compromise patched over a near-black eye for the UNFCCC process, and created space for the Accord negotiated by the world leaders to survive.

But the breakdown in the days leading up to the dramatic agreement on Friday cannot be explained solely by personalities and tactical errors.  It also goes to the enormity of the challenge, the size of the financial and human stakes that climate change encompasses, and the near-impossibility of solving all these questions through a consensus-based negotiation among 193 countries.  The question is:  can we add a complementary process that can narrow the issues that the larger UNFCCC process must resolve?  Admittedly clumsy attempts by the Danish presidency to draft a president’s text were rejected repeatedly by G-77 negotiators.  And efforts like the Major Economies Forum spearheaded by the US got active participation from developing countries only on condition that everything must be brought back to the UNFCCC process.  Clearly, jettisoning the UN process is not a real option.  The UN process and the public and media pressure that surrounded it helped the Danes and others to encourage the set of far-reaching announcements by every major emitting country, and a democratic multilateral process has a high ethical and equity value in assuring the most threatened and poorest countries have a voice in their future. 

Yet it is clear that more of the same cannot lead to success at Mexico City.  So representatives of those world leaders who rescued this process over the weekend will need to work with UN leaders to find a complementary process where more of the issues can be narrowed.  We know the bulk of the emissions come from the 20 largest countries.  We know the bulk of the finance will also come from them.  Each of those leaders standing side by side to jointly step up further, in the process assuring each other that no one will seek narrow economic advantage, is the central path to success.  Finding a way to blend this into the UN process is the challenge for 2010.

Two weeks ago we seemed poised for that to happen, but the negotiations sadly ran off course.  The leadership on the final night did not create a space to give regional groups of countries time to get comfortable with the Copenhagen Accord.  Next time we need a process where the 20 key countries bring a more detailed package based on the Copenhagen Accord forward and give the other nations a full chance to understand and participate in it.  Many key elements do not have to be in the UN official accord – there can be multilateral agreements among the 20 parties – things like a common set of rules for emissions trading and for offsets that all the countries with trading systems will observe, an agreement on what transparency really means.  Then the UN can provide the common standards and guideline to implement those standards.

To coin a final metaphor, this process is like turning a huge ship around.  The Copenhagen Accord turns that ship around and gets all the big players on board as passengers – now we need to bring all the others in their smaller boats on board and then the ship can pick up needed speed to solve this long term planetary challenge.

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