Beyond Copenhagen

Why Less May Be More in Global Climate Talks

Before last December's Copenhagen climate conference, expectations for an agreement went from sky high to rock bottom, eventually settling at some perplexing place in between. Last fall, I wrote in Foreign Affairs that the world should narrow its expectations for the conference and focus on three basic aims: setting a long-term global goal for emissions reductions; getting agreement on assistance to the poorest countries for adaptation to climate change; and establishing the foundations of a system for subjecting countries' domestic climate efforts to international monitoring, reporting, and verification.

If one uses this standard to judge Copenhagen, then the conference was a genuine, if limited and fragile, success. But the process that produced these achievements is broken. To fix it -- and to achieve real progress at the next climate summit, in Cancún, Mexico, at the end of the year -- countries should give up on the idea of a comprehensive and binding global deal in the near term and, at the same time, begin to look beyond the scope of the sprawling UN process.

In the accord that emerged in the final hours of the Copenhagen negotiations, participating countries agreed to a target of holding the rise of global temperatures to two degrees Celsius. Although a target for actual emissions cuts would, of course, have been more useful, this consensus does provide an important base on which to build future international efforts.

Countries pledged to devote $30 billion over the next three years to helping the world’s poorest countries deal with climate change. They also set a goal of raising $100 billion annually for climate assistance by 2020; that, however, is far more aspirational, and these funds would likely be tilted toward mitigation.

And all countries agreed to report their domestic emissions targets and mitigation actions in an international schedule, with each state’s efforts subject to review. This review process is to be defined, but if it involves analytical heft and mandatory cooperation, then such a system may provide the kind of verification that countries need in order to trust the process.

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