BARCELONA -- The two men perhaps best qualified to judge have now openly declared that they do not expect next month’s Copenhagen climate summit to produce a legally binding agreement.
That is the sober assessment offered in separate briefings over the past couple of days by Yvo de Boer, executive secretary of the U.N. climate secretariat, and Michael Zammit Cutajar of Malta, who for the past year has chaired the negotiations leading up to Copenhagen. (There are two negotiating tracks: one under the Kyoto Protocol, the other under the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, which includes the United States. Zammit Cutajar chairs the latter.)
Both were speaking to NGOs tracking the final week of pre-Copenhagen talks underway here in Barcelona. And both cited similar reasons: a lack of time, and a lack of consensus among parties that a new legal instrument is necessary or desirable.
To those who believe nothing short of a final legal deal in Copenhagen is acceptable, their pronouncements are a betrayal. But to those of us who have previously offered similar assessments , the two men’s courageous candor injects a badly needed sense of realism into a process that has been plagued by – and could ultimately be doomed by – unreal expectations.
Neither de Boer nor Zammit Cutajar is calling for decisions to be put off. Both emphasized that they see Copenhagen as a critical moment when governments must seal the best deal they possibly can. In their estimation, that would be a political deal laying out government’s intentions and the elements of a new international climate architecture. It would be a prelude to – and emphatically not a substitute for – a legally binding agreement sometime in 2010.
Both envision a Copenhagen outcome comprised of a set of “decisions” by parties – well more than a political declaration or communiqué, but without the binding character of a treaty. De Boer believes the package should include a mandate to translate its content into a legally binding instrument; Zammit Cutajar agrees, but said he doesn’t yet see a consensus for that among parties.
De Boer’s more detailed vision includes a “functioning architecture” and annexes listing: individual emission targets for all developed countries; actions to be undertaken by major developing countries (quantifying how much they will reduce emissions below business as usual); individual contributions by developed countries of “prompt-start” (immediate) funding for developing countries; and a cost-sharing formula for future developed country financial contributions.
Though still short of legally binding, getting even this far is a monumental undertaking in the mere month remaining. Although other developed countries have put emission numbers on the table, the United States has not; none have tabled numbers on finance. And while developing countries are showing a greater willingness to act, none have shown a readiness to reflect their actions in a form that would ultimately translate into an international commitment.
In broad stroke, the proposals by de Boer and Zammit Cutajar correspond to the type of outcome  we recommended. They also echo the types of ideas now being floated by the Danish government, which will host the Copenhagen summit. One difference is that the Danes have taken to characterizing their preferred outcome as “politically binding,” a novel term that appears intended to convey more than is really there.
It’s understandable, now that the Danes have enticed a growing number of heads of state to attend, that they might be tempted to inflate the significance of whatever agreement is reached. Better, we think, to be realistic about the best that can be achieved and, when it’s achieved, to call it what it is. A binding agreement must remain the ultimate goal. A solid political agreement in Copenhagen would put that within reach.