Thursday, December 31, 2009

Copenhagen: One Big Step ..... Sideways

With all the ink (both literal and electronic) that has been spilled over the climate change negotiations in Copenhagen, it is stunning to me how little understanding there is of what happened there. Structurally, Copenhagen was supposed to be the next big step forward -- the place where the post-Kyoto Protocol would be agreed on. Thus, on one level, the widespread disappointment that emerged when this didn't happen is understandable. But to anyone who has followed the negotiations closely, it has been clear for years that Copenhagen wasn't going to deliver its promised result. So, while I'm not surprised by the general public reaction, I am both surprised and concerned at the lack of understanding among the 'experts'.

To understand the significance of what happened at Copenhagen one needs to stop thinking of the negotiations as a linear process and start focusing on the negotiating positions of the US and China -- the two largest contributors to global emissions, neither of which is bound by the provisions of the Kyoto Protocol. On December 17, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton outlined the details of a US proposal aimed at 'breaking the impasse' in the existing negotiations. That proposal had two key provisions: 1) support for an initiative to mobilize $100 billion per year by 2020 for developing countries to help them mitigate the impacts of climate change and 2) pressuring developing countries to agree to emissions cuts along with the industrialized world for the first time. The Chinese response is succinctly summarized in Mark Lynas' article "How do I know China wrecked the Copenhagen deal? I was in the room" which documents how "China wrecked the talks, intentionally humiliated Barack Obama, and insisted on an awful "deal" so western leaders would walk away carrying the blame."

In short, the negotiations broke down over a dispute between the two largest emitters on the nature of the path forward. But understanding that dispute requires a bit of history. The UN Framework Convention on Climate Change divides the nations of the world into two categories: developed countries (Annex I countries in Kyoto Protocol jargon) and developing countries. This division reflects a philosophy that emerged from a decade of discussion between the global North and global South which culminated in the Brundtland Report (Our Common Future). The Brundtland Report popularized the term 'sustainable development' as a mechanism for squaring the equity circle that divided the North and the South: development would still be possible, but that development must be sustainable. This, in practice, was interpreted as meaning that the developing world (which was already enjoying the benefits of development and was disproportionately responsible for the existence of global environmental problems) should go first in remediating those problems. This is the logic for the structure of the Kyoto Protocol. Developed countries (Annex I countries) were expected to commit to binding targets while the developing countries were not covered by the protocols and were not expected to make any emissions reductions prior to 2012 when Kyoto expired. While not part of the formal Kyoto agreement, the general expectation was that a) the Annex I countries would fulfill their commitment and b) the next major agreement (i.e., the Copenhagen agreement) would broaden the number of countries included in Annex I to include some of the developing countries that were not covered by Kyoto.

Viewed in the context of this history, the US proposal aimed to divide the developing world into two camps: a) China and other rapidly developing countries (who would be expected to commit to emissions cuts) and b) the rest of the developing world (which would receive a large amount of aid and not be expected to make emission cuts). The Chinese response was designed to maintain their status as a developing country not expected to make emissions reductions.

In both cases, these countries are responding to internal political pressures. The Obama administration knows that it has no chance of getting an international agreement ratified by the Senate unless it covers China. The politics of this have been clear for over a decade. In 1997, by a vote of 95 to 0, the Senate passed the Byrd-Hagel resolution, which stated that the Senate would not ratify Kyoto if developing countries were not required to participate on the same timetable. Thus, the Obama administration was attempting to divide and conquer the developing countries in a strategic move aimed at getting an agreement that could be ratified by the US Senate.

From the Chinese point of view, it is unreasonable to expect China and other developing nations to commit to emission reductions at this point when the US has not formally agreed to emissions reductions (i.e., to 'go first' as expected by the UNFCC process) and many of the Annex I signatories have failed to meet their Kyoto commitments. In contrast to some, however, I don't think the Chinese are global warming deniers. They are well aware of the climate change models and the significant implications they have for China -- particularly in relation to agriculture and the melting of the Himalayas. They are just bargaining hard -- primarily so they can continue to generate power by whatever means possible in order to maintain the economic growth that is necessary to stave off internal social unrest.

That, in a nutshell, is the problem: the two largest global emitters are not covered by the current agreement. The US wants the next agreement to cover both. China wants it to cover only the US. Copenhagen didn't make any appreciable progress towards resolving the problem. It did, however, bring a fundamental problem that has been hidden in the depths of negotiation out into the open. Unfortunately, comparatively few people seem to have noticed.

(Individuals interested in the Chinese government perspective on their role in the Copenhagen talks can get that information here.)

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