The Copenhagen Climate Conference: Scoping and Prospects

The curtain has now lifted on the long-anticipated Copenhagen climate conference. While it was almost written off several months ago, recent and dramatic policy pronouncements by the U.S., India, and China have heightened expectations for the talks. Specifically, these countries have announced publicly their willingness to take quantitative targets at the Copenhagen meeting as part of an international burden allocation. While not sufficient to guarantee a “grand bargain” on emissions reductions commitments across countries, these shifts have nevertheless provided hope for such an agreement and have therefore imparted a genuinely unanticipated intensity to the negotiations.

These recent shifts have occurred against some larger tectonic movements in the climate policy world. Three factors in particular have contributed to expectations for a major new international agreement in the near future. First, there is a solidifying of opinion that the dangers posed by climate change are real and certain enough to justify action in the near term. Indeed, expectations about costly future climate impacts and concerns about near-term climate variability are now prevalent in public discussions in disparate world regions, including Australia, East Asia, South Asia, sub-Saharan Africa, the U.S., U.K., Netherlands, Spain, France, and many others. These regions are estimating potentially high adaptation costs, and many domestic constituencies have been concerned enough to lobby for greater international commitments. Second, there is a clear institutional deadline in that the Kyoto Protocol expires in 2012. The many existing mechanisms in Kyoto, such as the Clean Development Mechanism to allow for carbon reduction projects in developing countries, need a successor agreement to continue operations. Third, the major emitting countries are, after years of preparatory discussions, at last roughly harmonized in their commitment to climate policy, their vision of an international agreement that they can subscribe to, and their expectations for other countries’ commitments. The recent announcements by the U.S., China, and India on mutually acceptable quantitative targets, surprising as they were, were the culmination of this long process of refinement.

For the next two weeks, therefore, a vast collection of actors—up to 15,000 people in the Copenhagen meeting itself, with substantially more working in base offices and institutions—will be working feverishly to create agreements that cover many aspects of a coherent international climate policy. Such a policy, instead of being narrowly construed as a simple focus on mid-term emissions reductions commitments, is better understood as a suite of complementary approaches to setting global climate risk tolerance levels, establishing cooperative means to reduce the cost of mitigating those risks, and helping reduce the impacts of climate changes on vulnerable populations.

As such, Copenhagen is about far more than simply what targets the U.S. or China will accept. In brief, the outstanding issues for negotiation at Copenhagen include:

Global climate risk tolerance. Any target for global emissions reductions must necessarily be based in a collective judgment about what levels of climate change in the future would constitute an unacceptable risk. Such an exercise is no doubt subject to scientific uncertainties and must integrate disparate outcomes in terms such as human suffering and financial costs. It appears that the most likely approach will be to define a specific warming threshold (such as 2 degrees C) that will keep risks to human societies and ecosystems tolerable.

Global emissions trajectories. This global climate risk tolerance provides a basis for estimating how much we can emit. Basically, the risk tolerance, say 2 degrees, allows a calculation of the total quantity of greenhouse gases that could be emitted while keeping the probability of exceeding that threshold reasonably low. This allows a global emissions target to be set for the year 2050 or 2100. Based on a 2-degree target, global emissions would have to drop by about 50-70 percent from current levels.

Emissions Reduction Commitments. This dimension is the most contentious and the one that receives most of the attention. Once a 2050 global emissions level is set, individual countries can look toward pathways that can collectively lead to a global cut at the right level. The approach to commitments at Copenhagen will be tiered, with developed countries indicating an absolute target and the major emerging economies indicating their willingness to take a quantitative target that is linked to GDP—a so-called intensity target (emissions/GDP).  Also importantly, these aspirations will be proposed and agreed internationally but by mutual agreement any actions will be established, implemented, monitored and enforced via domestic legislation only. The EU is committed to cutting greenhouse gas emissions by 20 percent by 2020 and by up to 30 percent if other countries participate. The U.S. has indicated they will take a cut of approximately 17 percent from cutting below 2005 levels by 2020. Japan has promised a 25 percent reduction from 1990 levels. China pledged to reduce its carbon intensity per unit of GDP by 40-45 percent below by 2020, compared to 2005 levels. Following China’s initiative, India announced its aim to cut carbon intensity by 20-25 percent by 2020 compared with 2005 levels. Indonesia indicated it might take a quantitative target of 26 percent deviation from business-as-usual (BAU) by 2020.

Financial transfer for adaptation. There is widespread acknowledgment that better-off countries will need to commit substantial funds to help the poorest countries reduce their vulnerability to anticipated climate change. A figure of $100 billion per year that scales up to $150 billion per year by 2020 has been discussed recently as the most likely consensus figure; the EU recently agreed to this figure and has committed to paying its “fair share” of the total, conditional on other nations, and the U.S. has recently indicated support as well.

Technology development. In the long run, technological innovation is a key component of achieving the necessary emissions reductions. While technology was frequently framed in the past as an issue of “technological transfer,” this somewhat rigid (and problematic) donor-recipient model of technological development both vexes donors and underestimates the potentially vast contribution of entrepreneurial emerging economies like those of Brazil, India, and China. Institutions and funding to foster such technological development will be a key topic for the largest emitter bloc.

Reducing deforestation. Deforestation contributes from 20-25 percent of global annual greenhouse gas emissions, and for years a robust policy to provide financial incentives for reducing deforestation has been discussed. Since the Bali meeting of 2007, a set of provisions collectively termed “REDD” (Reducing deforestation and degradation) have been assembled and will likely be approved at Copenhagen. These elements are of particular importance to the participation of large tropical emitters such as Brazil and Indonesia.

Carbon markets in developing countries. One element that almost everybody can agree on is the need to introduce a price on the externality that is causing climate change—namely, the emissions of greenhouse gases. Such a price can be imposed in a number of ways, for example a tax or a “cap-and-trade” system like that currently operating in the EU and proposed for the U.S. Another type of approach to price greenhouse gases by issuing credits has been operating in developing countries since 2005. This system, called the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) was inaugurated under the Kyoto Protocol and has been highly successful at leveraging new technology investment in many developing economies (China, India, Brazil, and Mexico account for over 90 percent of reductions under CDM). But the CDM has some limitations that are well-known, and proposals to streamline the bureaucracy and allow credits to be awarded by sector, instead of by individual projects, are likely outcomes of the Copenhagen talks.

Finally, it is important to remember that this U.N. negotiating process, while perhaps the most visible, is far from the only forum through which countries can establish climate policy. The world remains a state-based collection of countries where domestic policy and actions are the basis for international cooperation. The U.S., for example, would require domestic implementing legislation for most climate commitments taken at Copenhagen.

The world and its major actors have never been more aligned behind a set of climate principles that could lead to an international agreement: the science is sound, and perceived as sound; the goals are clear; the mechanisms and necessary actions are understood; the allocation of burdens across countries is largely agreed; and the world is now focused on these two weeks of intense negotiation. While there are, no doubt, many potential obstacles remaining in specific details, the Copenhagen meeting will at the very least undoubtedly produce meaningful progress on a number of climate policy goals, and it may yet provide an additional surprise or two. And the possibility remains that the last-minute policy announcements by the major emitters may portend a bigger agreement than had been expected.