Analyzing the Scene at Copenhagen

Editor’s Note: This is a series of analysis and observations from the ground in Copenhagen. During the 15th annual climate change conference, Brookings expert Nathan Hultman tracks the negotiations, offering insight into the governance process.

The discussions in Copenhagen are only now starting to ramp up. On the second day of negotiations, the only major story emerging from the conference is that confidential draft text of a possible treaty proposed by the Danish delegation has leaked out to the media, and that some countries are unhappy with the proposal.

This 15th iteration of a long-running series of annual conferences started under the 1992 Framework Convention on Climate Change. While other negotiating forums have emerged in recent years, the U.N. negotiations on climate change have remained the primary venue through which the international community has voiced concerns, set expectations, and coordinated obligations for addressing, what has been regarded as, a challenging collective-action problem.

The first major agreement on climate change was drawn up at the Rio Convention on Environment and Development in 1992, and established a process for reporting and regular dialogue on climate science and policy questions; this agreement, called the Framework Convention on Climate Change (FCCC) has been ratified by almost all countries including the U.S. and all major emitters. The more controversial Kyoto Protocol (1997) grew out of the FCCC process and remains closely linked with its parent convention: for example, meetings of the Kyoto Protocol and FCCC are conducted simultaneously. Because the Kyoto Protocol places little obligation on developing countries, and even major emitters, other negotiating forums have been essential for coordinating action among smaller groups of key actors (e.g., the expanded G8+5, the OECD, the Major Economies Forum, the European Union, and other ad-hoc conglomerations). Nevertheless, despite the lackluster experience of the Kyoto Protocol, the process of broad international bargaining and compromise have remained inextricably linked to the U.N. climate meetings, and this approach has been reaffirmed recently by the key parties.

The conferences run for two weeks, and follow a predictable pattern. The first days are spent in opening ceremonies and opening plenaries at which initial positions can be asserted by any Party. Other, closed-door negotiations begin on specific texts that have been prepared in advance. The first week is spent setting forth positions and trying to get the draft texts in good order. As the first week draws to a close, the negotiating intensity picks up, since negotiators are aware that their ministers (or, for this meeting, heads of state) will start showing up about the middle of the second week. By the early part of the second week, points of disagreement often appear and occasionally resolution looks remote. At Copenhagen, draft texts are targeted to be finalized by the Wednesday of the second week (15 Dec), but it would not be surprising if these deadlines slipped by a day or two. The big focusing event is always the last day of the session, when the most important dignitaries are slated to speak. Kyoto for example was memorable for former Vice President Al Gore’s last-minute appearance, and for the lesser-known but nevertheless remarkable speech of Ambassador Neroni Slade of Samoa, representing the Association of Small Island States. This year, President Barack Obama headlines a deep speakers’ list with most heads of state of major countries slated to attend.

Against this backdrop, it is no surprise that there is a draft text circulating, nor is it unexpected that this draft text might be subject to some disagreement. The Danish text has attracted some attention because (1) it proposes to replace the Kyoto Protocol with a different treaty structure and (2) it suggests allocations of emissions cuts that are not as dramatic for developed countries as some actors hoped. Both of these elements are serious possibilities for an eventual agreement. The text has indeed exposed a rift that has to some extent always existed within the developing country bloc: the major emitters and industrialized countries on the one hand (Brazil, China); and the poorer and/or more vulnerable developing countries on the other. The so-called “G77 plus China” bloc was always a creaky coalition, and now that the prospect of compromise is in the air, this diverse set of interests has an imminent challenge in resolving its internal divisions. Nevertheless, these are likely to be ongoing points of negotiation and the mere existence of lack of consensus at this stage is only to be expected. The real disagreements are still to come.

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