While open and transparent decision making at Copenhagen will be crucial to lay the foundations for a binding international agreement, breakthroughs in the negotiations will depend on the wrangling that occurs away from the public gaze.
Before we look at the main wheelers and dealers, it’s worth examining why it is so important that a deal is struck in Copenhagen. With many countries taking strong action at home via domestic emissions policies, does it really matter if no binding international obligations emerge from this round of negotiations?
The answer is yes — for two reasons.
Firstly, most countries inevitably look for safety in numbers when crafting climate change policies. While a few may be prepared to go it alone, most will only be prepared to take strong action if they see comparable efforts being made in other countries; particularly major trading partners.
It is true that over the last few years both the US and China — along with a large number of other developed and developing countries — have announced domestic plans to cut greenhouse gas emissions. However, these announcements have been made on the assumption that a stronger global agreement will be in place for the post-2012 period. If no such agreement is forthcoming, the level of domestic ambition will be substantially less.
Australia is a case in point, with the Rudd Government pledging to cut emissions by only 5 per cent in the absence of a strong global deal — but up to 25 per cent if such a deal is reached.
The second reason why a binding international agreement is important is that it provides countries with some assurance that other countries will actually make good on their promises. Commitments made at the domestic level can be relatively easily revoked with changes of government. On the other hand, international obligations are fixed and can only be amended with the consent of all other parties to the agreement.
Obviously, countries can choose to ignore their international obligations. This is where strong verification and compliance provisions are important. But, even without such measures in place, international obligations still exert a powerful influence on state behaviour. If they didn’t, why would countries routinely fight tooth and nail to ensure their national interests are protected when negotiating new international laws?
Despite some high profile and persistent breaches, the classic adage of international law remains true: "Most countries abide by most international laws most of the time."
So, who are likely to be the deal makers and breakers in Copenhagen? And what role might Australia play behind the scenes?
Obviously the US-China dynamic will be critical. Together, these two countries account for around 40 per cent of global emissions and will be at the forefront of future efforts to avoid dangerous climate change. An international agreement that does not include strong commitments from both of these countries will be doomed to failure.
The US has made it clear that it will not sign on to an international agreement unless it also includes binding commitments for China and other rapidly industrialising nations. The reality of domestic US politics is that ratification of any agreement will be at the mercy of a hostile Congress easily spooked by perceptions — well founded or not — that China is not doing its bit to cut global emissions. The Obama Administration is keenly aware of this and is not prepared to return to Washington from Copenhagen with an agreement that will suffer the same fate at the Kyoto Protocol, which was signed by the Clinton administration, but effectively vetoed by Congress.
Demands for stronger commitments from China also reflect the practical reality that we cannot solve the climate crisis unless major developing countries curb their rapidly growing emissions. Industrialised countries have got us into this mess and must take the lead to reduce emissions — but this alone will not be enough to avoid dangerous climate change.
For its part, China is opposed to binding international obligations. Instead it has outlined a raft of domestic abatement initiatives and has promised to unveil a domestic emissions intensity target at or before Copenhagen.
What can be done to secure a deal between these two superpowers in Copenhagen? Any US-China negotiations will be highly complex and involve strategic interests unrelated to climate change like trade and geopolitical interests.
However, three key elements will be at the heart of any successful deal.
First, both countries need to put their mitigation commitments on the table. It would be fascinating to be a fly on the wall when this first exchange takes place. You can be sure that when the talks open, both the US and China will have done their numbers and know precisely what they want from each other — and what they are prepared to pay in return. The US will need to take on a binding economy-wide target to reduce emissions, while for China it could be something less stringent, but of comparable effort, like renewable energy and energy efficiency targets.
The second element of a successful deal will be for the US to demonstrate how it will provide the technical and financial support to help China meet its commitments. China, along with all developing countries, has made it clear that financing and technology constraints must be addressed before they will enter into a new agreement. For China, with its massive sovereign wealth funds, providing access to the latest low-emissions technology — including renewable energy and energy efficiency technology — is likely to be particularly important as this is where it continues to lag behind the US.
Third, provided the technology and finance package is sufficient, China has to agree to take on mitigation commitments that are binding under international law.
Bilateral meetings between the US and China have been underway since the early days of the Obama Administration but there have been few outwards signs of progress on any of these three key issues.
Both Prime Minister Rudd and the Climate Change Minister Penny Wong are acutely aware of the need to build a negotiating bridge between China and the US. And both are keen for Australia to facilitate that agreement.
As the developed country most exposed to climate change (particularly droughts, bushfires and other extreme weather events), Australia’s national interests clearly lie in a strong and urgent global effort to reduce emissions.
During a recent visit to the US, Wong unveiled a blueprint for a post-2012 agreement that she believes will satisfy the needs of all nations. In essence, Wong’s plan — which has actually been available publicly on her department’s website since March — would involve all countries adopting legally binding "national schedules", outlining specific mitigation commitments that they will be obliged to implement.
Under Australia’s proposal, each country will have a schedule for mitigation commitments which, combined, will reflect a spectrum of global effort. As with the Kyoto Protocol, wealthier nations (including the US and Australia) will have binding economy-wide targets, while developing countries will commit to other nationally appropriate policy measures, such as renewable energy and energy efficiency targets.
While not officially framed as such, Australia’s proposal is clearly aimed at securing a deal between the US and China. It is also very much concerned with Australia’s national interests.
The status quo of international climate negotiations — where progress is slow and the level of ambition for carbon pollution reduction targets is low — is not going to result in a deal that is in Australia’s national interest. The Australian Government knows this and sees the schedules as a way forward. So far, however, Australia’s proposal is missing two critical features: finance and compliance.
It doesn’t matter how sensible Australia’s proposal may appear, it will only advance if it is linked to credible pollution reduction targets from developed countried and a viable proposal on how they will provide developing countries with the financial support they need to tackle climate change.
Developing countries, including major emitters like China, India, Brazil and South Africa, have consistently stated that they will only sign up to an international agreement if it includes significantly scaled-up financial support. To date Australia has remained largely silent on this matter, offering no explanation of where the money might come from or how much is needed to avoid dangerous climate change.
Compliance is also crucial. Australia’s schedule proposal will involve countries taking on commitments that will be binding under international law — but this will mean little in the absence of verification and compliance provisions. As a middle power, it is in Australia’s interests that the international agreement includes provisions to ensure countries live up to their promises.
The compliance provisions in the international agreement will, however, have to strike a balance between ensuring obligations are met and encouraging countries to come on board with ambitious commitments in the first place.
International rules and procedures to promote compliance should aim to facilitate action in countries, with punitive measures a last resort. This will include peer review, where countries must open their books to verification by other parties. Ultimately if a country fails to fully comply then it should face consequences, like having to take on stronger targets in subsequent years, or, in the case on developing countries, being excluded from accessing financial support or carbon markets.
Other developed countries will also play important roles behind the scenes, including Japan, Russia and the members of the European Union (EU). These states are all major sources of emissions and must play a central role in efforts to avoid dangerous climate change. After the US, they also control a large share of the world’s public and private wealth, which will need to be unlocked to support clean energy investments in developing countries. Both the US and China — as well as Australia — will want to see stronger commitments from these countries before a final global deal can be struck.
The EU has long been a leader on climate policy and is likely play a positive role in Copenhagen. Recent developments in Japan — including its target announcement — suggest that it too will not block progress.
Russia, as always, remains a wild card and could yet disrupt negotiations in December. Russia received a sweet deal under the Kyoto Protocol, because its target was easily met and exceeded through the closure of heavily polluting and uncompetitive Soviet era factories. These factories would have closed irrespective of the Kyoto Protocol, which meant the Russian Government had to do little to fulfil its international obligations. While other countries are unlikely to let Russia get away with this again, they will also be wary of upsetting a country that likes to throw its weight around on the international stage.
Just as interesting will be the role of the developing country groupings, including the Group of 77.
Established in 1964 during UN Trade and Development Conference, the Group of 77 has evolved into a formidable negotiating block; not only in the climate change field, but also in trade and other international negotiations. Its greatest challenge in Copenhagen, however, will be maintaining a united front on the key issues.
The dynamics within the G77 will have important implications in the negotiation. If the group’s members cannot reach consensus behind closed doors then it will not be able to negotiate as a single force. This will significantly undermine its influence on the negotiations. This may make it easier for a deal to be made between the larger developing country emitters (such as China, India, Brazil and South Africa) and the developed world. However, it may also harden other developing countries’ resistance to such a deal — which could complicate the negotiations further.
China and India are key members of the G77. China’s position within the G77 is likely to be most influenced by its talks with the US. India too will be influenced by its bilateral negotiations with developed countries (including the US), but so far it is sending mixed signals on its preparedness to negotiate and compromise.
It’s unclear what alliances will emerge within the G77 in Copenhagen — but let’s hope the more progressive players like South Africa and the small island states from the Caribbean and Pacific are not held back by hardliners lead by Saudi Arabia (which appears more interested in protecting its income stream from oil sales).
What role can we expect to see Australia play in bringing the developing world to the table? Building from its efforts with the US and China, you can be sure that Australia’s climate diplomats will be pushing hard behind the scenes with other developing country players. Ultimately, however, these efforts will be hamstrung by the Australian Government’s continued silence on how they plan to generate and deliver the financial assistance required to enable developing countries to play their part in a new global agreement.
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