01 June, 2010

Climate Politics 2010: after Copenhagen

Sergio Abranches

We should not expect too much from the first climate talks after Copenhagen, now taking place in Bonn. There are still some political obstacles to tackle before we can get any real further progress.Copenhagen was marked by excessive expectations and curtailed by the plot of a small group of nations to impose an agreement they had previously negotiated behind the curtains. The inflation of expectations has led to an almost general disregard for what has been effectively gained in Copenhagen. It has also made invisible to many some of the virtues of the Copenhagen Accord. The whole story of the “Danish document” has generated a crisis of confidence since the beginning of the talks. The lack of trust among the parties has irremediably contaminated the climate for climate change negotiations.

Copenhagen was rescued from oblivion by the massive amount of nations associating themselves to its terms and filing their mitigation actions. The Accord seemed to have been abandoned as a failed attempt, since the COP15 plenary only took note of it. But it could no longer be ignored after 125 nations have associated to it and 75 have registered their national mitigation actions/targets. The Accord has become the most important official portfolio of national mitigation actions, covering around 80% of global carbon emissions.

Altogether the mitigation actions in this portfolio fall short of what is recommended by the best science available. They are, however, a political breakthrough, a turning point after more than a decade of deadlock. All the relevant countries that have systematically refused to internationally commit themselves to mitigation targets have registered their actions under the Copenhagen Accord. Particularly relevant was the decision by the USA, China, India and Brazil to register their national actions. They were the decisive players at the final moments leading to the Accord. In other words, the stronger veto players that have contributed to a long sequence of deadlocked talks have become the key leadership to close the deal. And let’s not forget, they are full members at the top of the global high-carbon club.

There were also a few setbacks after Copenhagen. First, until now President Obama has failed to obtain a climate change law from Congress. This means that  actions the U.S. has filed under the Copenhagen Accord lack a legal domestic foundation. Secondly, the Brazilian government is delaying the adoption of enabling legislation that would allow the Federal climate change law to be properly enforced. Brazilian actions registered under the Copenhagen Accord also lack the necessary legal domestic foundation to be actually implemented. The government is additionally delaying the country’s emissions report. Without an updated inventory of emissions it is almost impossible to design effective sectoral and corporate policies to reduce emissions. Thirdly, China an India keep making contradictory political statements regarding global climate negotiations. At times it seems they are proposing to throw the Copenhagen Accord into history’s wastebasket. At other times it seems they are willing to move ahead considering what has been decided in Copenhagen as a done deal. The bright side is that both countries have adopted several important policy steps that will enable them to meet the targets they’ve registered under the Accord, if not to go beyond them. Among the BASIC nations, Brazil is clearly the laggard.

There has also been some progress on specific issues after Copenhagen. A case in point is REDD. After the Oslo talks we may be just a few steps from closing a deal on its initial architecture. To have the deal done should be one of the priorities in Cancún. But make no mistake, under the Climate Convention, nothing is closed until everything is closed.

For this year’s climate talks to succeed two major steps should be taken. On the one side, developed countries should take action to start the fast-track finance flow they’ve approved in Copenhagen. This is a sine qua non to restore confidence among the partners of the Copenhagen Accord, as well as among the Parties to the Climate Convention. It goes far beyond the money issue. It is about doing what has been agreed upon without further ado.  A good opportunity to do that would be the G20 Summit in Toronto, at the end of this month.

On the other side, organized civil society and political environmental organizations should concentrate efforts to ensure progress on domestic grounds. The priority should be to try to speed up climate change legislation in the U.S. and Brazil. European civil society should make every effort to see that their respective countries give support to Connie Hedegaard’s proposal for an unilateral upgrading of the European Union emissions reduction target. Such a move would also very much help confidence building among the relevant parties to the climate talks.

These initiatives would make a relevant and sufficient agenda for 2010. The “post-Cancún” challenge would be to create the necessary and sufficient political and diplomatic conditions for a binding global climate change agreement, embracing the Copenhagen Accord and expanding upon it. This task depends on these incremental advancements in 2010.

To embrace the Copenhagen Accord would mean to incorporate into the LCA working group proposal its architecture of annexes containing the portfolio of national actions. The path inaugurated by the Copenhagen Accord, “from domestic grounds to the multilateral forum” is far more conducive to a global agreement than the traditional UN path “from the multilateral forum to domestic grounds”. In other words, the “bottom up” strategy of the Copenhagen Accord is better than the “unanimous assembly of nations” approach of the Climate Convention. The idea that the decision by unanimity in the plenary of the Convention is the most democratic way is plainly wrong. It is simply the best way to empower intransigent minor veto players to block any meaningful progress desired by a large majority.

The endeavor to progressively adjust the portfolio of national actions to the necessary scientific requirements will more likely be accomplished between 2012-2015. This is probably the most friendly way to go in the political field. The pending political requirement is the effective implementation of the Copenhagen decisions. What the governing leaders have agreed last December must hold, otherwise no deal will be trusted. Political decisions need some maturing time before they can be adjusted to scientific needs. To try to subordinate politics to science is a shortcut to failure. The greatest progress we’ve seen in Copenhagen was the transformation of deniers imposing cross-cutting vetoes, into negotiators proposing ways to get out of the deadlock. Important mature and emerging powers, such as the United States, China, India and Brazil, have moved from denial to agreement even if yet a reluctant, conditional agreement. It really doesn’t matter. The real progress was to stop saying only “nay” and to start saying a few decisive “yea”. This was the essential gain in Copenhagen. Now, this “yea” has to be translated into domestic legislation and policy. Laws have yet to be enforced, policies have to yield effective, measurable actions. Decisions made in Copenhagen should be implemented immediately. This is the case of the fast-track short-term finance agreed upon last December.

Only after going through these preliminary steps can we start thinking about improvements upon what was accomplished in Copenhagen, taking further action and committing to higher targets.

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