Climate Cop-out at Copenhagen?

| Fri Aug. 14, 2009 4:00 PM EDT

Foreign Affairs journal has a piece in its upcoming September/October issue on the crucial Copenhagen climate-treaty negotiations in early December. The story's thrust: Keep your expectations very, very low.

Here's part of the journal's summary of the to-be-released story, penned by Michael A. Levi, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and director of CFR's Program on Energy Security and Climate Change:

"Government officials and activists should fundamentally rethink their strategy and expectations" for the December climate conference in Copenhagen, argues Michael A. Levi, senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. According to Levi, the odds of signing a comprehensive treaty in December are "vanishingly small." With this in mind, rather than aim for a broad global treaty, negotiators should reinforce existing national policies and seek "international cooperation focused on specific opportunities to cut emissions" in rich nations and the developing world. Levi urges officials to view the conference as a chance to build efforts to cut emissions from the ground up, and try to "reinforce developed countries’ emissions cuts and link developing countries’ actions ... to objectives in other areas—such as economic growth, security, and air quality—that leaders of those countries already care about."

Oy. If this summary is representative of Levi's entire story, it's about as bleak a prediction of what purpose Copenhagen will serve as you'll find from a respected organization like CFR and from someone with Levi's presumed stature. Fair to say, plenty others, myself included, disagree with Levi's argument—which, from this summary, doesn't advocate much that would change the status quo. Even if a "comprehensive treaty" isn't completed in December, that doesn't rule out some kind of treaty framework—a far better option than Levi's call to "build efforts to cut emissions from the ground up, and try to 'reinforce developed countries’ emissions cuts and link developing countries' actions ... to objectives in other areas—such as economic growth, security, and air quality—that leaders of those countries already care about.'"

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The whole purpose of the Copenhagen conference, and the multiple lead-up conferences in places like Poznan, Poland, Bonn, Germany, and Bali, Indonesia, was to set the stage for a new treaty to replace the aging, weak Kyoto Protocol. One flaw I see with Levi's apparent argument—and again, only a summary of Levi's article is available right now, so any judgments of his argument are based on that summary alone—is that he seems to cast Copenhagen in an all-or-nothing light: Either a "broad global treaty" will come out of Copenhagen, or nothing even resembling a treaty will. Which is a bit off. Remember, it took five different conferences over five years to iron out the final details and mechanisms for Kyoto after the treaty's main framework was agreed upon in 1997 in Japan. 

The same could apply for Copenhagen. Andrew Light, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress who specializes in climate and energy issues, recently described to me this kind of scenario, saying he could see Copenhagen's negotiations result in "an architecture for a new treaty without numbers." The best-case scenario would be a treaty that sets firm mid-term and long-term emissions reductions targets for participating countries coming out of Copenhagen. But, as Light told me, if those emissions targets aren't settled in December, that doesn't mean a treaty is totally ruled out.

For years scientists and journalists and experts alike have reported the need for stronger, more ambitious emissions reduction targets to prevent large-scale, likely catastrophic damage to the planet and its people—and the idea that a treaty to replace Kyoto is the best way to do that. With Kyoto set to expire in 2012, that leaves only three years after Copenhagen to finalize details and put a rigorous treaty into place by Kyoto's expiration date. Realistically, trying to hash out an international climate treaty after Copenhagen isn't going to happen in time for the 2012 deadline—hence the reason Copenhagen was pegged a such momentous conference. Coming out from Copenhagen, either a strong treaty or something laying the groundwork for a Kyoto replacement, is needed.

There will be plenty more cold-feet arguments like Levi's between now and December doubting whether Copenhagen will produce a treaty framework. Many will likely highlight the role of India and other developing nations in the negotiations, and their potential to stymie attempts to reach a global consensus. But others like Light—who told me he thinks at least a treaty framework will be achieved, though it may take a last-ditch emergency session to do so—are more optimistic about the possibilities in December. Given the rapidly growing signs of what unchecked climate change will do the planet, we should all be rooting for a Kyoto replacement to come out of negotiations.