Lowered expectations or raised hope at Copenhagen?

By Josh Nelson

On Sunday Aaron Weiner took note of the downplayed expectations for next month’s COP15 climate talks in Copenhagen. The true goal of the talks, which was originally a legally-binding international climate treaty, will now be to reach a “less-specific political agreement.” The New York Times characterizes this shifting of expectations as punting the most difficult issues into the future. While some blamed the U.S. Congress’ inability to come to an agreement, others blamed the conflicting interests of rich and poor nations. On first glance one would assume that dramatically downplayed expectations ahead of a major summit represents a negative development. Indeed, as Michael Froman, deputy national security adviser for international economic affairs explains, “There was an assessment by the leaders that it is unrealistic to expect a full internationally, legally binding agreement could be negotiated between now and Copenhagen, which starts in 22 days.” But the shifted aims of the COP15 talks may not necessarily be a bad thing, as it may allow for some positive developments to come out of what was otherwise likely to be seen as a major failure. Denmark’s Prime Minister, Lars Lokke Rasmussen, took such an approach, saying in Singapore on Sunday, “We must in the coming weeks focus on what is possible and not let ourselves be distracted by what is not possible.” Grist’s David Roberts takes this view as well, arguing that this development is positive, as it will maintain momentum and prevent the talks from being viewed as a major failure. He writes, “If the world’s nations had headed into Copenhagen expecting a legally binding treaty complete with targets and timetables, the result would have been disappointment, acrimony, and worst of all, wasted time. By taking some of the pressure off Copenhagen, the two-steps agreement has avoided disaster and maintained momentum.” Others, including Joseph Romm of Climate Progress, were decidedly upbeat about the news:

The new plan for Copenhagen makes the prospects for a successful international deal far more likely — and at the same time increases the chance for Senate passage of the bipartisan climate and clean energy bill that Lindsey Graham (R-SC) and John Kerry (D-MA) and Sen Lieberman (I-CT) are negotiating with the White House.

Jim Tankersley at the L.A. Times explores a similar angle:

The House has already passed a climate bill. Scaled-back action in Copenhagen could help push a Senate bill over the top by securing pledges for emissions reductions from China and India, and thereby reassuring moderate Rust Belt Democrats. Moreover, by coming to some sort of agreement in Copenhagen, negotiators could continue building momentum toward a final agreement, rather than deflating the ongoing talks.

This makes a lot of sense to me. Despite the fact that the U.S. is responsible for an overwhelming majority of historical emissions, some United States Senators are concerned that passing legislation without commitments from China and India would amount to ‘exporting jobs overseas.’ While this is fundamentally a chicken and egg problem, in which an international agreement can’t go forward without progress in the United States, and the legislation in the United States is somewhat hamstrung by the lack of commitments from developing nations — the approach now being taken may just do the trick. Put another way, an agreement in Copenhagen to considerable emissions reductions on the part of developing nations like China and India, albeit nonbinding, may be exactly the nudge such Senators need to lend their support to a domestic bill. What do you think? Are the downplayed expectations heading into next month’s climate talks a positive or negative development?  

Josh Nelson is the publisher of EnviroKnow.com.


Image from Flickr, Oxfam