Good COP, Bad COP

The Copenhagen Endgame: Crossing the T’s
by -- December 18th, 2009

The t’s have nearly been crossed …

It’s down to the final few hours to try to get some sort of climate agreement at COP15. Negotiations have been tortuously slow over the last two weeks, and have often verged on the edge of breaking down completely. Nevertheless, my prediction is that sometime within the next 24 hours, all countries will sign on to a ‘deal’. And that this deal, as discussed by Tim Profeta earlier this week , will be anchored on three T’s – Targets, Treasure, and Trust; somewhat unexpectedly, a fourth T (Technology ) does not seem to have been front and center in the COP15 discussions.

Here’s my take on each of them, with a final word on another ‘T’ that I believe we should start paying attention to sooner rather than later:


While there continues to be rumblings at the edges with regards to the stringency of the near term climate and GHG emission targets that have been put forward (spurred most recently by a leaked UN assessment of their inadequacy in meeting a 2oC climate goal), this issue seems to be essentially settled. The current proposals are essentially unchanged from a couple of weeks ago.  The US is putting forward a target of a 17% reduction (relative to 2005) in GHG emissions by 2020. While neither the other rich countries nor the developing world are thrilled with this target, there is a recognition that the US administration cannot get too far ahead of the US Congress. Other major Annex I countries that have ratified the Kyoto Protocol will be covered under the second phase of this agreement (after apparently losing a protracted battle to move to a new agreement that covers all countries) – the only remaining question seems to be whether they will be willing to take on reductions at the higher end of their proposed commitments. As for India and China, it looks like the GHG emission intensity targets that they have put forward (40-45% and 20-25% reductions in 2020 relative to 2005, for China and India, respectively) will be enough to satisfy the developed countries for now – this despite the fact that it is generally believed that both these countries will achieve or even significantly exceed these targets with policies that are already in place.

My take is that these near-term targets are probably not optimum from a climate perspective. But it is important to recognize that the 2020 target, in and of itself, is not a good measure of whether we will exceed the 2oC climate target – a lot will depend on what happens beyond 2020.  Furthermore, the allowable emissions budget between now and the middle of the century is uncertain – depending critically on how much uncertainty in achieving the climate goal we are willing to live with for now.  My thinking therefore is that the current proposals represent a reasonable start – with the understanding that they must be subject to constant and rigorous reassessment in the coming years as our scientific understanding of the climate systems continues to evolve.


Coming into Copenhagen, this issue had all the hallmarks of being a deal breaker. The developing world had put forward demands that they be sufficiently compensated for damages caused by climate change driven by GHG emissions from the industrialized world over the last couple of centuries, and there were also demands for funds for mitigation and adaptation efforts – in monetary terms, amounts as high as a few hundred billion dollars a year were being demanded. The counter offer by rich countries was of the order of tens of billions of dollars a year, and it appeared that this was a chasm that could not be bridged. But the picture has changed dramatically over the last couple of days, culminating in the announcement by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton yesterday that the US would work to support a fast start fund of the order of about $10 bn a year and work to mobilize funds of approximately $100 bn a year by 2020.

My take is that this issue seems to have been put to rest in the context of the COP discussions – but it likely to be a very contentious issue in the coming years. There will be questions related to whether the funds are new monies or simply a repackaging of current foreign aid monies. And even if the funds are indeed new monies,  questions will arise as to what can be counted (for example, can the flow of funds  to the developing world for offset projects in the developed world be counted?),  how the funds will be generated (for example, what portion of the funds will flow from public coffers and will there be broad domestic support for this in the developed world?), and how the new monies will be distributed (for example, will China and India get a significant share or will the funds be almost exclusively for the least developed and most vulnerable countries)?

Trust (a.k.a. Transparency)

The ‘trust’ issue has turned into the core issue of these negotiations. From the very start, the COP15 talks have been bedeviled by a lack of trust between the Danish presidency of the Conference and developing countries in matters as fundamental as what draft texts form the basis of negotiations. There has also been a breakdown of trust between the UN and civil society as a whole – owing to the UN’s poor organization of COP15, civil society has by and large been excluded from the deliberations. But in the specific context of a COP agreement, the trust issue that has emerged paramount relates to monitoring compliance with GHG emission reduction commitments. At the start of the COP meeting, this was often referred to as MRV (Monitoring, Reporting, and Verification). And it has been the Verification aspect that has been causing the most heartburn – the specter of foreign inspectors poking around to see if countries were living up to their commitments being understandably cast as an infringement of national sovereignty. But in the last few days, there has been a subtle but important move away from the ‘Verification’ term. The word of the day now is ‘Transparency’ – essentially, requiring nations to make data on GHG emissions, and methodologies used to generate the data, transparent in some manner so that they can be subject to independent checks.

My take is that this is an important evolution, and one that is essential to achieving an agreement. The last piece of the puzzle that remains is coming up with an acceptable definition of what ‘Transparency’ would mean operationally. My feeling is that this will be hammered out in the next few hours. And time will tell whether the process works – as we get increasingly high quality measurements of the state of the environment, we will be able to rigorously assess the fidelity of the transparent process.

The Fourth T

Finally, a quick word on a fourth T – Ten; as in, where will we be ten years from today? Even if we achieve the goals discussed above, we will confront the more daunting task of sharply reducing global emissions in the 2020s. This is when the US has proposed to make the most dramatic cuts. Will there be political will to go forward with these reductions? It is also when per-capita GHG emissions in China will equal those in the developed world. Will this mean that the term ‘differentiated’ will no longer apply to China? Hopefully, we can start these discussions now and not wake up on Friday, December 20, 2019, and realize that we have just a few hours left to hammer out the next big global climate agreement.

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