Whenever the UN climate change negotiations convene these days, as they will again later this month in Bangkok, an oversized digital timer glares at delegates from the front of the hall, methodically counting down the days, hours, minutes, even seconds until the upcoming climate conference in Copenhagen. (The online version at the website of the UN climate secretariat  reads at this writing 81:13:02:28.)
This staged countdown is a stark, if superfluous, reminder of the expectations looming for Copenhagen, arguably the most pivotal moment in climate diplomacy since Kyoto 12 years ago. With the dangers of global warming more clear and present today than any had foreseen then, countless are not only eager but desperate for Copenhagen to deliver what Kyoto did not – an effective global response.
But with the days quickly ticking away, it is becoming clearer to all that the time is too short. A blitz of high-level diplomacy might yet conjure a miracle, but less than three months out, the odds of a final, ratifiable deal by the time the clock hits zero appear virtually nil.
But this disappointment need not be seen as a disaster, particularly as the odds of a final deal were never strong. Indeed, Copenhagen still presents the best opportunity ever to advance the global climate effort. And we all have a stake in its success.
What would constitute success? In our view, governments will have made extraordinary progress if they can agree in Copenhagen on the basic architecture of a post-2012 climate framework. The aim should be a strong interim agreement outlining a new international legal structure – the types of obligations to be taken, by whom, how they will be verified, etc. – so that countries can then move on to negotiating specific commitments in a final, ratifiable agreement.
More in a moment on just what a good Copenhagen agreement  needs to contain. But it’s worth expanding a bit first on why an interim agreement would in fact be such a major accomplishment.
At the end of the day, what we need is a treaty – a new legal instrument establishing clear, verifiable international commitments by all of the world’s major economies. We need this because countries will deliver their strongest possible efforts only if they’re confident that their major counterparts and competitors are as well, and this confidence is best instilled and maintained through mutual and verifiable commitments.
To be credible and effective, these treaty commitments need to be specific and binding. The reality, though, is that many of the major players won’t be ready by Copenhagen to sign on to such commitments, starting with the United States. Even if the Senate produces a climate bill by then, which looks less and less likely, we won’t have final legislation, making it very tough for the administration to commit to specific emission cuts. And without that, other countries won’t be prepared to commit either.
But the administration is in a position to negotiate the broad framework, and a solid agreement on that would be an enormous step forward. A good interim agreement can put some of the toughest issues behind us and create a positive momentum going forward. Rather than a grand culmination, Copenhagen would be a powerful springboard toward a final deal.
A good Copenhagen agreement must do a number of things: It must outline a new legal framework for verifiable mitigation commitments by all major economies, including economy-wide emission reduction targets for developed countries and a broader range of policy commitments for major developing countries. It must establish the nature and scale of support that will go to developing countries to reduce emissions and adapt to climate change. It must include a clear mandate to conclude a final agreement by a date certain. And it must set an ambitious level of effort – a global goal of cutting emissions at least 50 percent by 2050; an aggregate 2020 target for developed countries; and a collective peaking year for developing countries.
No doubt, anything short of a full and final agreement will still strike some as a woeful failure. But given how complex the issues are, and how far apart countries remain, achieving even a provisional agreement of this kind in the short time left is a huge challenge.
A series of high-level talks over the coming days, all outside the formal UN negotiating process, present some important opportunities to narrow the gaps.
On Thursday and Friday, leaders’ representatives gather in Washington for the latest session of the U.S.-led Major Economies Forum. Ministers from key countries meet the next two days outside New York in an informal dialogue led by Danish Environment Minister Connie Hedegaard, who will preside in Copenhagen. Then, President Obama and scores of other heads of state gather at the United Nations on the 22nd for a climate summit called by Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.
And two days later, when the G-20 leaders gather in Pittsburgh, they will take up the issue of climate finance, probably the most critical stumbling block right now on the way to Copenhagen. Without a breakthrough on that front, the odds of even an interim deal may be slim.
They won’t need a timer to know the pressure is on.
Elliot Diringer is Vice President, International Strategies