On the eve of COP19/CMP9

During the same two-day conference at London’s Chatham House where Executive Secretary Christiana Figueres outlined the UNFCCC’s goals for COP19/CMP9, U.S. Special Envoy for Climate Change Todd Stern did the same, summarizing the U.S. approach to negotiating a post-2020 agreement as “flexibility with strength.”  Reflecting on the ADP’s job at Warsaw, Stern observed that “to be ambitious, it must be inclusive and to be inclusive, it must be flexible.”

todd sternWhat would such a “supple” framework look like to the Obama Administration? First, it would not be based on internationally negotiated targets and timetables.  Instead, as the Copenhagen Accord heralded, state parties would make commitments according to national circumstances.  Second, it would ditch the Annex 1 and non-Annex 1 categories.  In doing so, the U.S. seeks to distinguish between developed countries’ historical responsibility for GHG emissions that caused global warming and the ongoing and increasing emissions by developing countries that continue it.  For example, it’s estimated that the cumulative emissions from developing countries will surpass that of developed countries by 2020, with China alone accounting for 22% of all GHG emissions today (versus 10% two decades ago, when the UNFCCC was signed).  Third, this “supple” framework would spur private investment that is leveraged, not supplanted, by public investment.

As Dan Bodansky has framed it, an international climate change pact turns on three pivot points:  china CCparticipation, stringency, and compliance. If mitigation commitments are too stringent, the global community risks creating barriers to treaty participation or compliance, thereby weakening an agreement’s impact by not regulating all major polluters.  But if these commitments are not strong enough, we may engender broad participation that doesn’t accomplish the mitigation goal.  Professor Bodansky highlights the tensions between a “top-down contractual approach,” as exemplified by the Kyoto Protocol’s internationally negotiated targets and timetables, and the “bottom up facilitative approach,” as typified by the Copenhagen Accord (which COP15 only “took note of” but COP16 adopted in the Cancun Agreements), in which individual state parties pledge individual targets and base years .  (I attended COP15 during my Fulbright year in Senegal and observed here on the COP’s outcome that reminded me of a PTO bake sale).

copenhagen accord mtgThis U.S. position has some inherent appeal.  It builds on internal domestic environmental law and policy, as well as the political will that put it in place.  Consequently, the potential for widespread participation is high. Likewise it leverages mechanisms tried out at the national level, like the EU’s carbon trading scheme (ETS), to build on one country’s or region’s experience and take it up and out internationally.  The U.S. position also permits a level of local differentiation that can better fit WG I’s predictions for widely varying impacts, and ostensibly gives inhabitants of those regions real control over it, which might increase compliance.

But there are also some real downsides.  First, letting parties pick their own base years makes it difficult to gauge mitigation achievements across a group of states, like industrialized countries.  How will approach keep the global temperature from exceeding the 2 degree limit?  Second, given the intense effort invested in international carbon accounting methods via the UNFCCC, leaving this important work to individual state standards could undermine data quality.  Third, this bottom up approach has already shown (in the second commitment period of the Kyoto Protocol) that it can lack ambition, with state mitigation targetsnational stade entering a race to the bottom.  (See also this newsflash post-Copenhagen.)  Since 2009, the climate divide appears to widen each year rather than narrow, and this approach reflects this trend.

As we’re poised here in Warsaw to begin the opening plenary sessions of the meeting tomorrow, the choices that confront the thousands of delegates from 195 countries are clear and complex.