Today, the 15th Conference of the Parties (COP) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) opens in Copenhagen. I will be a credentialed observer from non-governmental academic and research organizations including the Center for Law, Environment, Adaptation, and Resources (CLEAR) at the University of North Carolina School of Law and the Global Energy Management Institute at the University of Houston’s Bauer College of Business.
We have heard a lot in the news about the Copenhagen climate change conference, which has served as a backdrop for discussions about climate change science, international relations, the Obama administration and the US-Chinese relationship. In this blog, I have focused on some of the developments of the US domestic agenda on climate change going in to the international discussions. The most recent action has been President Obama’s decision to attend the final days of the conference, raising hope for a more successful international agreement.
Now that the stage is set for the conference, what will happen, and how do we judge the results? First, the conference is a huge undertaking that is less predictable than might seem at first blush. Officials of the 192 parties to the UNFCCC (the US is represented by the state department and various lawmakers will also attend) will meet in 2 groups, including the official Conference of the Parties and an implementation group. Additionally, the credentialed side organizations, along with the countries themselves, will be putting on almost 300 official side meetings and presentations. While the conventional wisdom is that any real progress must be made before the conference, this is not necessarily true. Though the diplomats and other negotiators would like to have all substantive decisions settled, some real progress can occur at the meeting itself. In fact, the whole point of bringing together 5,000 government agents with 15,000 experts, business persons, and environmentalists, is to allow knowledge and agreement to flow between countries and the public and private sectors to facilitate the best possible outcome.
So what does a successful outcome look like? In my opinion, we want to see an agreement on targets for reduction, a commitment for reduction from the largest entities (with differences expected between the type and intensity of cuts between the developed and the developing world), and a way for those responsible for climate change so far (i.e. the developed countries) to genuinely assist the locations that will be harmed.
What should the observer look for to show progress on these fronts? Following are several markers that readers can look for to get an inside track on progress:
1) Do the parties reach agreement quickly on a target for limiting average temperature increases and associated emissions?
All of the developed countries have already agreed to an average temperature increase maximum of 2 degrees Celsius (3.8 Degrees Fahrenheit). While several groups, like 350.org and many of the island nations would like to see a lower target, it seems almost universally accepted that even this target will be very difficult to meet. Look for the formalization of this goal as the first important step moving forward.
2) Will there be agreement on developed and developing country targets?
This is the Holy Grail in terms of agreement, and this seems to have the most dispute currently. The fact that President Obama will attend with over 80 other world leaders on the last two days indicate that there is some hope for an announcement of targets and agreement on paths forward for the developed and developing world, even if there is not as yet a formal new protocol. Look for dramatic conciliatory approaches from the EU and the US (perhaps from US senators or high level administration officials) on ensuring comprehensive climate change bills along with financial assistance, along with responses from China and India agreeing for tighter targets than previously announced.
3) Do the LDCs (lesser developing countries), led by an African bloc, stay engaged in the process?
In the lead-up to Copenhagen, many LDCs expressed displeasure with slow progress on climate change adaptation funding and the lack of big commitments for greenhouse gas reductions from the developed world, particularly the United States. President Obama’s pledge for a definite US reduction (though less than desired by these groups) is some progress. As long as you see these countries engaged, even if they protest or threaten a walkout, things are moving forward. A real walk-out or complete disengagement will obviously be a bad sign.
Substantively, the biggest problem in reaching agreement on adaptation funding is not the amount of money transferred for assistance (though that is what most of the press will look for), but how this money will be distributed and used. Many people, including mitigation policy skeptic Bjorn Lomborg, have suggested that much of the developing world could use money for development rather than climate change adaptation projects. In one sense, he is right, as many of the world’s poorest countries are in desperate need of assistance to develop infrastructure and markets. But of course, not assisting with climate change adaptation or mitigation doesn’t mean more help or funding will suddenly start flowing to these countries for other needs. Yet it is important to be aware of the limitations of merely transferring money that may not provide real help to those in need.
In the last year, a broader understanding has occurred of the need for adaptation help to be useful and related to other needs in the developing world, such as jobs programs and health projects. Many of the most important side meetings will be devoted to brainstorming about how to do this effectively. I will be looking for novel proposals and acceptance of effective methods to help and transfer funds more than an accounting of the funds themselves.
4) Does the approach to using offsets in a greenhouse gas market move in the direction of ensuring legitimate reductions, and include the developing world and the world’s poor in the plan?
There are many criticisms of offset programs, but those who support the use of a carbon market recognize the need for a viable offset program to help markets function effectively, and to spur new technologies to reduce emissions from currently unregulated sectors. But offsets must be genuine, i.e.verifiable and additional, without causing an increase in greenhouse gas emissions elsewhere.
On this front, an examination of the multiplicity of official side events addressing these issues is encouraging. Many of the scheduled presentations such as “Making it real-ensuring offset quality” and “Emission reduction potential from agriculture under CDM, EPA, and other offset programs” reflect a keen understanding of the complexities and nuances of offsets and how they fit in to any trading system to control greenhouse gases.
There are also substantial meetings devoted to the complexities of accomplishing, measuring and monitoring Reducing Forestry Damage and Degradation (REDD) in the developing world. Additionally, there is growing attention paid to how forestry and other offset programs should be examined for other impacts and how they could be accomplished while providing additional benefits (see point #1 above). Look for a formalized alteration of the CDM with some of these ideas as progress.
This is what I will be looking for from Copenhagen, but in preparation for attendance and studying what will be presented, I have already seen trends in the amount and complexity of the programs and talks on offsets that bode well for the future. The mere fact that the business sector is increasing its understanding of how the market could work (under the watchful eye of the environmentalists) is truly an important step forward. Even if negotiations break down completely at the official level, the system agreements and understandings at the business and grassroots level will make their way into greenhouse gas trading systems that already exist and will continue (as in the EU and perhaps in the US), and this will put increasing pressure on all countries to do more and to meet similar standards to have access to the future worldwide trading system that will include these constraints. This increasing harmonization and push from business interests will be a major part of moving forward. I will be reporting on this as well as “official” results.
Look for one more blog as things get going and then daily blogs starting the final week (December 13-19). As always, I welcome your responses and comments.
 The best possible outcome assumes the recognition that climate change is caused by human actions in diverse locations that can have negative worldwide effects. As I have stated when the blog began, I personally believe the scientific studies I have seen linking climate change to an increase in greenhouse gases. The recently released e-mails, dubbed “climate-gate,” do not change my opinion. I have always acknowledged that there are some uncertainties about how much and when, and the proper solution, so these e-mails did not alter my conclusions.