Good COP, Bad COP

“Trust but Verify”
by -- December 15th, 2009

A current stumbling block in the negotiations is whether or how to verify voluntary commitments from emerging developed economies. The issue explained …

One of the main stumbling blocks to the climate agreement at this moment is the issue of Measurement, Reporting, and Verification (MRV for climate policy wonks).  The issue is how to ensure that governments are actually living up to their agreements and whether the assurances are provided by each country itself or through monitoring by the rest of the world.   This becomes interesting when commitments are, in essence, voluntary, as they will be from much of the developing world.  If a country says it agrees to take action to reduce emissions – for instance, by investing in clean coal or renewable technologies, or reduce emissions from deforestation but does not commit to a specific emission reduction target – how can you be sure that they have lived up to this voluntary commitment?  This has interesting parallels to arms agreements and, where the term “trust but verify” originated in the waning days of the Cold War and US-Soviet relations.

The most specific and contentious example of this is with China, which comes into Copenhagen pledging to cut its emission intensity – the ratio of emissions to gross domestic product –  45 percent by 2020.    One issue is whether the pledge is a binding commitment that they are held accountable to meet. The other is that even if not a binding commitment, do other countries have the right to monitor and verify emissions to see whether the intensity target is being met.

For the U.S., this plays to domestic politics at home.  Some members of Congress who are on the fence about cap-and-trade state among their reasons that they don’t trust other countries will do what they say, which makes domestic action seem more unilateral.  An agreement in Copenhagen that does not allow for some sort of verification of actions that countries take, especially countries that are taking on voluntary rather than strictly binding commitments could undercut domestic support for U.S. and other developed country commitments.  In other words, “will it play in Peoria?”


  1. Prasad Kasibhatla
    Dec 15, 2009

    Al Gore just made an interesting point – Trust but Verify should apply to financial pledges made by developed countries as well.

    • Brian Murray
      Dec 15, 2009

      Prasad – I agree. The US-China standoff is just the most compelling example.

      • Jim S
        Dec 16, 2009

        I take this to be simply posturing by China so they can drop a demand near the end of the negotiations in exchange for something else. They obviously must know this is unacceptable to any serious agreement. I’m surprised, though, that the popular press hasn’t described it in this manner.


  2. Jim S
    Dec 16, 2009

    China’s stance
    I take this simply to be posturing by China — staking out a claim they can bargain away at the last moment in exchange for something they really care about. They obviously must realize this is unacceptable in any serious agreement.

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