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Five Stories to Watch

Author: Michael A. Levi, David M. Rubenstein Senior Fellow for Energy and the Environment and Director of the Maurice R. Greenberg Center for Geoeconomic Studies
December 4, 2009


It's been a roller-coaster ride to Copenhagen. Yet despite all the twists and turns of the last few months, the meeting's basic contours have long been pretty predictable. In the September/October issue of Foreign Affairs, I laid out a set of expectations and an agenda for the summit that are similar to where we seem to be heading, and explained why we could have real progress without a final deal. (There were many others signing a similar tune.) But there's still a lot of uncertainty about what might happen over the next two weeks. Here are five stories to watch:

1. What will the United States ultimately sign up to? The U.S. has been pilloried for the purported weakness of its proposed emissions target for 2020. But it has signaled willingness to include its targets for 2030 and 2050, which are far stronger, in a provisional deal. It needs to follow if it wants to stake a real claim to strong ambition. The U.S. would also prefer to commit to implementing its domestic legislation, with all its quirks, rather than to a simple economy-wide number. Most other countries hate that approach. The U.S. should stick to its guns on this one if it wants to keep Congress on track.

2. Will there be any flexibility in the Chinese position? China has proposed cutting its carbon intensity by 40-45% from 2005 to 2020, something that will probably already occur without any new policies. It will face requests to step up with additional measures, such as a pledge to implement actual policies that deliver on its current aspiration of generating 15% of its energy from renewable sources by 2020. It's not clear whether increased Chinese ambition is a make-or-break issue for the U.S. Congress, but it would certainly help. There may be wiggle room here on both sides.

3. Will the U.S. be pressured into making a large long-term commitment on finance? There are two money questions for Copenhagen. People are looking for $10 billion annually in assistance for the developing world by 2012, and the U.S. appears to be amenable, though it may not yet be possible to figure out how to divide the bill. Europe has also called for developed countries to pony up 22-50 billion euros of public money annually by 2020, and has signaled that it will put heavy pressure on the U.S. to agree. The U.S. share would be about $4-15 billion dollars each year. It will be extremely difficult, at best, to convince U.S. lawmakers to put up even the low end of that spectrum. It will be impossible if Congress thinks that Obama has preempted them by promising the money at Copenhagen. The U.S. will need to hold a tough line on this one, and will probably come under fire for it.

4. Will negotiators be able to agree on the contours of an approach for measurement, reporting, and verification (MRV) of emissions-cutting efforts? This sounds like dry stuff, but it's probably indispensable to Congressional acceptance of an international deal. The U.S. isn't going to trust Chinese or Indian promises to cut emissions; that's why U.S. negotiators have made transparency a centerpiece of their agenda. China and India, though, have strongly resisted calls for their actions to be subject to international transparency measures. This may be one of the biggest tinderboxes in the negotiations - which is why, if agreement can't be reached, diplomats may try to paper over it and keep the focus on the headline numbers. Still, MRV will need to be eventually resolved. Bonus challenge: the U.S., prickly about its sovereignty, may resist some strong transparency measures too.

5. How are the countries lining up? Not everything is about the negotiating text. The key countries' attitudes, and the shifting coalitions of climate diplomacy, say a lot about where we're heading. Does the U.S. have any friends in Copenhagen? Is Europe focused more on Washington or Beijing? Will China emphasize solidarity with poorer developing countries, or will it try to forge a constructive deal? Is New Delhi throwing its lot with the G-20, as a key Indian policymaker recent suggested might be wise (before he was savaged for it at home), or will it continue to stand with the G-77?


Michael A. Levi writes from the UN conference on climate change in Copenhagen.


This article appears in full on CFR.org by permission of its original publisher. It was originally available here.

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