Can a Deal Be Reached at Copenhagen?

by Myron Ebell on October 16, 2009

in Blog

The Carnegie Endowment for International Peace held a useful discussion on “Can a Deal Be Reached at Copenhagen?” in Washington on Wednesday. Carnegie’s President, Jessica Mathews, moderated the panel, and the discussants were: Margot Wallstrom, Vice President of the European Commission and former Commissioner for the Environment; Eileen Claussen, President of the Pew Center on Global Climate Change and former Assistant Secretary of State in charge of negotiating the Kyoto Protocol; and Mohamed El-Ashry, Senior Fellow of the United Nations Foundation and former Chairman of the Global Environment Facility.

Mathews began by saying that since it now seemed highly unlikely that the fifteenth Conference of the Parties to the U. N. Framework Convention on Climate Change (to be held in Copenhagen in December) would reach a deal on a new agreement to succeed the Kyoto Protocol, the question that they should discuss was what can we still hope to get out of Copenhagen. Margot Wallstrom disagreed. She said that she still believes Copenhagen will succeed because we cannot afford to fail. The new treaty must include broad mandatory cuts in emissions and a financing mechanism by which rich countries would pay poor countries to cut their emissions. Wallstrom later said that President Obama must go to Copenhagen and that many world leaders needed to go and “must tie themselves to the mast”. By attending, heads of state would not be able to accept failure as the outcome.

Eileen Claussen was astute, candid, and realistic. She said that there were three main obstacles to a new treaty going into the recent negotiations in Bangkok and that a fourth major obstacle had arisen at Bangkok. First, President Obama cannot say what the U. S. is committed to until, at a minimum, the Senate passes a bill. Claussen thinks that Waxman-Markey is a good bill even though flawed, but that what the Senate might produce was still in doubt. The Environment and Public Works Committee would undoubtedly pass out the Kerry-Boxer bill, but the committee membership’s was not representative of the Senate as a whole. She later added that by her count, there were forty definite Democratic votes for Kerry-Boxer, three and three-quarters Republican votes as a result of Senator Lindsey Graham’s (R-SC) op-ed with Senator John Kerry (which remark drew a laugh, but which she didn’t explain). Although support from a number of additional Democrats was likely, Claussen said that legislation could not pass without more Republican votes. And she added that no energy-rationing bill would get the sixty votes required without a significant nuclear component.

The second obstacle according to Claussen is that the developing countries won’t commit to anything until they know what commitments the U. S. will make. Third, the question of the financing mechanism by which rich countries would pay for emissions reductions in poor countries was entirely unresolved. The fourth obstacle that had arisen in Bangkok was procedural, but very serious, according to Claussen. The problem is whether the new treaty continues the Kyoto Protocol or dumps Kyoto and starts afresh. Given all these issues to be resolved, Claussen concluded that the best that could be hoped for in Copenhagen was a strong statement that they would conclude a new treaty in the near future—say by next summer.

Mohamed El-Ashry said that the negotiators in Copenhagen needed to go back to the Bali Action Plan and achieve step one in that plan. This would mean agreeing on the immediate steps that were necessary to meet the 2020 target for emissions reductions. These would include energy efficiency measures, more renewable energy, and forest sequestration. According to a report by McKinsey and Company, these measures combined could achieve 75% of the reductions necessary by 2020 at a net economic benefit of $14 billion. Achieving step one would build confidence, which would help negotiators in future years to achieve step two—binding emissions targets.

There were a number of interesting questions from the audience and several quite revealing answers from the panelists. Quite a bit of discussion swirled around the topic of who would be to blame if Copenhagen failed. Claussen replied to one question that she was trying hard to think of some way that the COP can end up not blaming the U. S. for everything. Wallstrom observed that expectations were running high in the European Union that a deal would be reached and added that she couldn’t guarantee that the European Union wouldn’t blame the U. S. if Copenhagen failed. (This is odd given the fact that George W. Bush is no longer President.)

In reply to a question about what lessons for the future could be learned from the failure of the Kyoto Protocol in the Senate, Claussen said that she feared that not much had been learned, but what the Obama Administration took away from it was that the Senate must go first before the U. S. makes definite international commitments. Wallstrom replied to a question about whether policies already in place would be dropped if Copenhagen failed by saying that the European Union would not abandon any of its climate policies because they gave the EU a competitive advantage. They make the EU less dependent on Russia, create lots of green jobs, and save money through greater energy efficiency. That of course is the EU’s line, but I think the scary thing is that Wallstrom actually believes it.

Mikey October 16, 2009 at 5:40 pm

Given that the US would have to borrow the money to give to the poor countries, doesn't that make us by default a poor country? So the question at Copenhagen is how much does the US get to play the game?

Canada Guy October 19, 2009 at 4:48 am

The conference in Copenhagen is likely to be a very important one historically. This might well be our last chance to turn things around.

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