Delivering More Than Promises

This post first appeared in  POLITICO: The Arena - Expert Insights, Live from Copenhagen

Amid the distracting dramas of purloined emails and secret texts, it’s easy to lose sight that Copenhagen has already proven a catalytic event.  Every major power arrives here with its own explicit pledge to curb emissions.  That these promises will be delivered in most cases by heads of state reflects an absolutely unprecedented level of political will.

It’s also easy to lose sight of precisely what more we need from this conference. 

A year ago in Poznan (the site of last year’s climate summit), my colleagues and I got beat up pretty badly for suggesting out loud that Copenhagen was unlikely to produce a final deal, and the aim instead should be an interim political agreement.  Here we are in Copenhagen, working on an interim political agreement. 

What’s that mean?  There’s a lot of emphasis from the United States and others on this being an “operational” agreement delivering “immediate” results.  Let’s hope so.  But an equally important test for Copenhagen is whether it charts a clear path toward the next agreement – one that turns political pledges into binding legal commitments.

The real skirmishes here, which thus far have largely escaped the press’ attention, are about the broad shape of that future agreement.  Will it be an entirely new protocol or will Kyoto live on?  Will the commitments of China and other major developing countries be just as binding as those of the developed countries (and how binding is that)?  How will countries verify whether others are complying with their commitments?

Pretty dry stuff, but the sort of questions that these negotiations – and, ultimately, our success in combating climate change – will turn on.  (For more, see our Copenhagen Climate Agreement).

It’s quite clear that many of these core issues will not be fully resolved by the end of next week.  We can count on governments to set another deadline, though, probably a year from now in Mexico City.  And to have any hope of getting a solid legal agreement there, parties need to get as far as possible here on the broad architecture.  It’s especially important that nothing agreed now foreclose options that may be necessary later to get a treaty through the U.S. Senate.

Political promises are a good start.  But we need much more.  Copenhagen has to be a springboard toward a ratifiable treaty, not simply a well-attended pledging conference.

Elliot Diringer is Vice President for International Strategies