World Leaders Punt on Climate Pact

| Mon Nov. 16, 2009 11:43 AM EST

With negotiators set to meet in Copenhagen in less than a month and an agreement still far from reach, world leaders agreed on Sunday to delay a final deal on a climate pact until 2010. So what does that mean for the ultimate chances of a global treaty—and of climate legislation in the US?

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Instead of attempting to hammer out a final pact, negotiators will seek a "politically binding" agreement—one that will likely lay out broad principles rather than concrete specifics.

The delay, announced at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Singapore, does buy more time for the Senate to pass a climate bill. By the time negotiators sit down to discuss a binding agreement sometime next year, the US could have a solid commitment to offer in the form of climate legislation—which would in turn improve the chances of getting other countries to sign on to a global treaty. 

But there's also the risk that without a firm deadline, both the Senate process and international negotiations will stall in the doldrums. Copenhagen was a major deadline, with a lot of momentum built up around it globally. It'll be hard to drum up quite as much enthusiasm for future negotiating events. 

So what can we expect in Copenhagen? There are some major questions that can and should be agreed on at the meeting. They include an emissions reduction target for 2020, and a concrete dollar figure for a fund to help the developing world reduce its emissions and cope with the effects of climate change. Perhaps most important, there needs to be an agreement on the new deadline for a treaty. Negotiators will likely aim to have the treaty ready by the next major United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change meeting in June. But even that's not a certainty: Yvo de Boer, executive secretary of the UNFCCC, said negotiators will need to make "a series of clear decisions" if they're to have a binding treaty in six months.

What the US says at Copenhagen will also be important. Sens. John Kerry, Joe Lieberman and Lindsey Graham are crafting a framework for legislation that can get 60 votes. If, as Kerry has indicated, they manage to figure out their outline before the summit starts, they could at least send US negotiators into the conference with a plan that the Senate could be expected to approve.

This is probably the best chance the administration has of avoiding the "Kyoto box"—where negotiators sign on to a treaty that the Senate won't support, said Tim Wirth, the former US senator and Kyoto treaty negotiator, and current president of the United Nations Foundation. "With lots of consultation with Congress, negotiators could say that we can do in the neighborhood of 20 percent cuts based on the 2005 base," Wirth said. "You [can] have some fudge language in there, that this is the direction we're going. We're not going to lock ourselves in but this is where we're headed right now."