Is there hope for Copenhagen?

Posted on November 16, 2009. Filed under: News | Tags: , , , , |

Copenhagen 2009The UN Climate Change Conference (COP-15), a huge milestone for international climate change policy, is fast approaching. But will this much anticipated conference yield any concrete results? The buzz this weekend suggested that it would not.

Recent statements by world leaders, including President Obama and Secretary of State Clinton, attempt to soften expectations for the outcome of the meeting, framing it is a “stepping stone” to an eventual agreement rather than the birthplace of a binding international framework to replace Kyoto.

By calling the meeting a “stepping stone”, Secretary Clinton falls in the camp that believes international climate change policy will be like international trade policy–evolving rounds of agreements and negotiations without a concrete endpoint. The contrast to this evolving framework is an international treaty, like the Montreal Protocol, which addressed ozone depleting substances and was negotiated in the late 1980s.

At a side meeting during the Asian Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Singapore this weekend, the Prime Minister of Denmark, Lars Lokke Rasmussen indicated that it was unrealistic to expect a legally binding agreement out of the impending summit and that perhaps a more feasible goal was a politically binding promise to establish a treaty at a later meeting. According to Rasmussen, this would be, “one agreement, two steps”

So what does this mean for climate change policy? Its certainly a dissapointment for many climate change activists that were hoping to get a solid committment from the meeting. But was this ever a realistic expectation? As Andrew Revkin puts it in NY Times DotEarth Blog,

“Finding a common framework for action acceptable to 200-plus countries with variegated vulnerabilities, fuel choices, political systems and histories of emissions remains a daunting task.”

Clearly, the fact that a global agreement on climate change is going to be very difficult to reach, is not news in any way. Still, over the last year, there were many positive signs that encouraged many that an agreement would be possible. First of all, the new American President cared about climate change and appointed Todd Stern, a seasoned and informed climate envoy to represent the country in negotiations. A year ago, it seemed as though the US was ready to take the lead in the international climate policy and make an agreement happen. And Europeans were starting not to see us only as SUV driving, air conditioning- loving, fast food eaters.

And now? The European climate negotiators once again see the US as the obstacle to any progress on climate change. As the chief Spanish negotiator commented,

“There’s a certain level of frustration in seeing that not all countries share (the) vision.”

Its a tough time for a climate change agreement. In the US, record unemployment rates, a flailing economy, and the struggle for health care reform are dominating the scene, not leaving much energy for climate change. And without the US, there is no prospect for a global agreement. Still, domestic climate change legislation has passed the house and has been introduced in the Senate, despite other legislative priorities.

So Copenhagen may not be the meeting where a binding international agreement is negotiated, but it could be a constructive part of a continuing effort to find a solution to climate change.

Don’t give up hope just yet.

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