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Expectations for Copenhagen: Whether Optimistic, Pessimistic, or Realistic, World Leaders are Endorsing Several Visions PDF Print E-mail
International Negotiations
Written by Kenneth Markowitz   
Tuesday, 01 December 2009 00:00

After international negotiators met in Barcelona at the beginning of November, predictions on the likely outcomes—or lack thereof—from December’s Copenhagen conference have popped up everywhere. In the immediate aftermath of the Barcelona meetings, the consensus amongst those in the United States and the West more broadly was that Copenhagen was headed for failure—at least insomuch as a legally binding treaty like the Kyoto Protocol is off the table.

Since then, the situation has only become more muddled. Evidence abounds for those looking either to take a more optimistic view of the upcoming meeting, or those looking to bolster the more pessimistic outlook.  In recent days, the optimists may be gaining more evidence. President Obama’s recent trip to China birthed several positive announcements with regard to the two country’s climate action, including from a joint statement released at the end of these bilateral meetings which noted that

The United States and China, consistent with their national circumstances, resolve to take significant mitigation actions and recognize the important role that their countries play in promoting a sustainable outcome that will strengthen the world’s ability to combat climate change.  The two sides resolve to stand behind these commitments.

In the past few days, both countries have backed up that statement, by announcing that they will come to Copenhagen with hard commitments to emissions reductions; the U.S. “in the range of 17%” while Chinese have pledged to reduce the carbon intensity of their economy by 40-45%. Just pledging commitments of any kind is a significant step for Copenhagen; it was disputes over commitments like these that derailed the Barcelona talks.

The nature of these commitments, however, may give the pessimists some ammunition—President Obama’s commitment is still tied to action in the Congress, where any outcome is far from certain. In any case, a reduction of 17% is much less than many developing countries were calling for, and much less than the IPCC suggested cuts of 25-40% by 2020. For China, some experts have noted that currently enacted policies ought to fully cover China’s commitment, meaning that the Chinese have essentially pledged themselves to “business as usual” emissions.

The pessimists can also point to the outcome of a hastily convened meeting between Danish Prime Minister Lars Lokke Rasmussen and leaders of Pacific Rim nations. Describing that meeting, US Deputy National Security Adviser Mike Froman said, "There was an assessment by the leaders that it was unrealistic to expect a full, internationally legally-binding agreement to be negotiated between now and when Copenhagen starts in 22 days." Should an agreement like this actually come out of Copenhagen, it might give the U.S. Congress a chance to pass binding climate legislation; it might be possible that a 2010 meeting in Mexico City would become the new goal date for a binding international treaty.

For some, any lowering of expectations for December undermines all hope of success, because it takes the pressure off of international negotiators; the Kyoto Protocol, after all, came about as the result of 11th hour actions, similar to the commitments now coming from the U.S. and China. It is possible as that the situation is not as dire as it seemed the first week of November, and that the two negotiators with the most power might be committed to an ambitious meeting after all. And so, it remains possible that December could still hold some surprises for all prognosticators of international climate policy.