The Copenhagen Incarnation of Trust but Verify

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.

While there have as yet been no dramatic walkouts at the negotiations today, there is a growing and palpable sense of nervousness as the clock continues to tick toward the session’s conclusion on Friday. As had been anticipated, reasonable progress has been made on some of climate policy elements such as Reducing Emissions from Deforestation in Developing Countries (REDD), technology transfer and Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) reform. Yet the cause for optimism before the conference began—discussions of targets by the United States, China and India—has been eclipsed by some longstanding and real differences on how to monitor and verify these targets. In the terminology of the conference, these provisions are called MRV, for monitoring, reporting and verification, and they have the potential to derail a grand compromise on targets even if the target numbers are all acceptable to the major emitting parties.

MRV might seem like a small and easily manageable detail much less important than overall emissions targets, but it sits precisely at the nexus of a new and possibly innovative approach to international climate policy. This approach recognizes that the Kyoto Protocol had serious practical limitations. But it also seeks to retain some of the positive elements in that oft-maligned treaty: namely, that managing a massive global challenge like climate change does require close coordination, goal-setting and trust-building among the global community of nations.

The new approach sought at Copenhagen would retain this important dialogue on long-term goals, near-term targets and allocation of emissions burdens equitably across all countries, but instead of simply asserting “binding” commitments, it allows Parties to endorse a domestic target for themselves but with explicit understanding that these targets will be implemented domestically via their own legislative systems. It therefore gives up on trying to enforce international compliance via penalties, and seeks instead to build strong enough consensus on the targets to make one country’s promise is seen as a good-faith target that will in fact be subject to a set of national policies. A good example would be that of the United States, which has stated its willingness to take on a target that is in line with the major bills currently before Congress. Similarly, India and China are able to commit to a target that would be a direct outcome of their own aggressive domestic policies on renewable energy and energy efficiency.

So here we have the 21st century echo of a Cold War negotiation process. While the analogy is not completely general, arms reduction negotiations had one similar aim of seeking to encourage mutual action toward reduction of something threatening. Of course, we are now talking about 192 nations reducing emissions, not two nations reducing nuclear warheads. As such, there are many other factors that complicate the comparison. Nevertheless, one principle was central to building cooperation between the cold war parties, a principle that cannot be far from the minds of current U.S. negotiators: Trust but Verify.

So the vision is there, and agreement on targets seems within reach, but MRV has proven a sticking point. On the one hand, the United States argues by analogy to the cold war: in a collective action problem, they believe that strong and internationally accepted protocols for monitoring and verifying countries’ commitments is an essential part of a sound, long-term and effective regime. It is also likely an important concession for them to sell any agreement to a U.S. domestic audience. On the other hand, China and India have argued strongly (and also publicly for many months) that such monitoring is an infringement on sovereignty and also an insult to their regulatory systems, which they argue are sufficient and accountable to their own citizens. For their domestic audiences, MRV could be a difficult provision that recalls an unequal dynamic that they would like to leave in the past.

In the end, there should be a compromise possible on monitoring and verification. But the big mistake here would be like that committed yesterday, when the sensitivities of the African delegation were brushed aside summarily, and negotiations subsequently ground to a halt for several hours. Ignoring the central importance of MRV to both sides (Untied States and China/India) would be a mistake that would easily derail these negotiations. Solving this problem now, however, would allow for a new and possible more productive approach to international climate policy: domestic commitments, initiated and executed domestically, but focused and harmonized at the international level.