Policy Update #1

The Road to Copenhagen

Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player

That struts and frets his hour upon the stage

And then is heard no more: it is a tale

….full of sound and fury,

Signifying nothing.

Macbeth, Act 5, Scene 5 

In recent weeks, readers of our Climate Change Policy & Practice Daily Feed will have noticed that an abundance of activities are taking place across the UN system and beyond. Many players are embarking on new initiatives or stepping up existing projects to address the climate change challenge. Meanwhile, government negotiators, UN officials and others are intensifying their diplomatic efforts as the countdown to Copenhagen continues. Almost every day brings news of bilateral consultations, policy announcements, regional talks, or plans for high-level events.

How does one make sense of all this activity? Is it merely Macbeth's “sound and fury, signifying nothing”? Or, do these many and varied efforts suggest instead that the steady stream of research making the case for urgent action is now being taken seriously?

One thing that is abundantly clear is that more individual stakeholders are taking climate change seriously. Our ongoing monitoring of UN activities, for instance, suggests a genuine commitment to change. Whether it is UNEP's announcement that its Climate Neutral Network has grown to 100 members, or new collaborative ventures from UNIDO, ILO, or any of the many other efforts reported by Climate Change Policy & Practice, it is apparent that the level of activity has ramped-up considerably in the past two years – even in the past weeks and months. The same is true of other stakeholders, whether individual governments or civil society actors. Collectively, these efforts from each player on the global stage do signify something. These are useful early steps in combating climate change.

What is equally clear to the experts, though, is that such individual efforts need to be supported and magnified by a multilateral framework. A problem of such magnitude needs a global response. This response will require the support of all governments and key stakeholders. It will need to be sufficiently ambitious to actually combat global climate change.

The Road to Copenhagen

The clock is now ticking towards the December 2009 deadline set in Bali a little over a year ago for agreeing on a global framework. With just 10 months left before delegates gather in Copenhagen, where does the process stand?

The last major round of UN climate talks took place in December 2008, in Poznań, Poland. For those hoping for significant progress, the timing for these meetings was far from ideal. For a start, while US President Obama had been elected one month before the meeting, he had not yet taken the oath of office, let alone identified the policy directions that US negotiators would take under his Administration. Furthermore, the global financial turmoil had raised concerns that fewer resources and attention would be dedicated to the fight against climate change.

Nonetheless, Poznań did at least begin the process of developing texts that could form the basis for negotiations this year. It also secured an agreement on the dates, goals and broad agendas for a series of official meetings to be held during the course of 2009.The first of these key milestones will be reached on 29 March, when a two-week round of talks opens in Bonn, Germany – the home of the UNFCCC Secretariat.

Progress since Poznań

However, the process mapped out in Poznań is not waiting on the Bonn talks to kick-start this year's work. Already, a number of submissions have been received on key issues facing negotiators in 2009, including parties' views on the fulfillment of the Bali Action Plan and the components of an agreement in Copenhagen. The submissions to date suggest a consensus around the need for strong action while also reflecting some of the “hot points” that are likely to challenge diplomats throughout the process. For instance, Saudi Arabia's submission warns against trying to differentiate between different developing countries in terms of their actions or involvement. It also rejects any sectoral approach to targets. Furthermore, it warns that “attempts by developed countries to amend the UNFCCC to impose new obligations on developing countries to undertake mitigation commitments are counter-productive and will only delay the achievement of a positive outcome by the end of 2009.” Such submissions provide a reminder of just how challenging it will be to accommodate the different aims and opinions of parties in a final deal.

UN Leadership

A great deal of activity has been taking place beyond the formal UNFCCC process. Within the UN, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has been making headlines with his active efforts to galvanize governments to find a solution in Copenhagen. The Secretary-General plans to push for progress at a G-20 event in early April, and has announced a high-level meeting in September. In late February, he called on South Africa to take a leadership role on climate change. This proposal was perceived in some circles as a reflection of South Africa's efforts to play a constructive role in the Group of 77. The Secretary-General has also highlighted the need to recognize wider African concerns in any agreement. Meanwhile, senior UN officials, such as UNFCCC head Yvo de Boer and UNEP chief Achim Steiner, have also been actively urging a strong result in Copenhagen.

Many governments have also held regional and bilateral discussions. For instance, politicians and high-level officials from the European Community, Denmark and other EU member States have met recently with officials from India, Bangladesh, Canada and China.

US Momentum

However, it is the new US Administration that has attracted the most attention in the past few weeks. In her recent trip to China, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton raised climate change as a key issue. Both US and Chinese officials have hinted that climate change and clean energy could be used to bring these two major nations together. The issue offers the potential for genuine collaboration and some much-needed diplomatic warmth. In addition, the fact that the new President's first trip outside the country resulted in a pledge to work with Canada on a “Clean Energy Dialogue” also appears indicative of the new Administration's priorities.

Back in Washington DC, President Obama's proposed budget offers further food for thought. A comprehensive, domestic cap-and-trade system and significant increases in spending on clean energy were two notable features of the plan. Furthermore, the budget includes a goal of cutting carbon dioxide emissions 14% by 2020 compared with 2005 levels, and 83% by 2050.

Domestic Politics

This flurry of recent activity and announcements is significant. In particular, the new US Administration's plan will likely reverberate throughout the UNFCCC process. The 14% target by 2020 represents a significant shift from the Bush Administration's policies, while the 2050 target has been welcomed by many in the environmental community.

However, some critics are already expressing concern that the 2020 target does not match the scientific evidence on the level of commitment needed to meet even a target of 450 ppm (carbon dioxide equivalent) in the atmosphere. The IPCC's Fourth Assessment Report indicates that a 25-40% reduction by 2020, compared with 1990 levels, would be needed by industrialized countries to meet a target of 450 ppm. Given that US emissions jumped over 16% between 1990 and 2005, the new Administration's target would actually imply a small increase in emissions by 2020 compared with 1990, and not the 25-40% cut that mainstream scientists feel is needed. Some developing countries have argued in the past that such cuts are an essential sign of leadership from the North if they are to expect the South to engage in a future agreement. According to our sources, civil society is already struggling with how to respond to what most welcome as a very positive move that still does not go far enough in responding to the scientific case for urgent action.

Some pragmatists also worry that these major policy changes may not find sufficient political support in the US legislative branch on Capitol Hill. While environmentalists may argue that they do not go far enough, many US politicians may conclude that they go too far. Given that two-thirds of the US Senate must support an international treaty if it is to be ratified, insiders suggest that this could be a “hard sell,” particularly among some Republican constituencies. Like it or not, domestic politics are critical to international treaty making.

Signifying Nothing? 

In reviewing recent events, it is apparent that there has been some critical forward momentum and signs of commitment to bringing Copenhagen to a successful conclusion. At this point, though, it is still unclear whether the “sound and fury” of recent activities will translate into a significant outcome in December. Whether all the talk from these various players on the global stage ultimately signifies something, or nothing, remains to be seen.

In the coming months, we will continue our daily coverage of relevant international climate change activities through Climate Change Policy & Practice, and this column will be published twice monthly. In the next article in late March, I'll be reviewing the expectations for the focus of discussions at the Bonn talks, which begin on 29 March.