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Key World Leaders Agree to Two-Step Process for Finalizing International Agreement

Jake Schmidt

Posted November 15, 2009 in Solving Global Warming

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This morning (Singapore time), leaders from 19 countries -- including the US, China, Mexico, Australia, South Korea, and Japan -- joined a last minute breakfast to discuss the upcoming global warming meeting in Copenhagen.  The breakfast meeting, hosted by the President's of Mexico and Australia on the sidelines of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit, reportedly agreed to a framework being called "one agreement, two steps".  This framework would result in a political agreement with some key details being reached this December and a deadline for finalizing the full legally binding agreement in a short timeframe.

This outcome for the meeting in December began to arise more seriously over the last two weeks and was a key part of the discussions at the recent climate negotiations in Barcelona (as I discussed here).  So it isn't a huge shock, but the fact that these key world leaders agreed to such an outcome is the first open acknowledgement from such a large number of key world leaders may come as a surprise to some (as you can see from this sampling of news coverage: Washington Post, New York Times, Reuters, and Financial Times).

To some this may be viewed as a setback, but is it?  Well it depends on what countries actually do in response when they come to Copenhagen.  After all, every year of delay in taking action increases the costs of addressing global warming (as a recent International Energy Agency report has shown and as I discussed here). 

But an extension -- months not years -- could be worthwhile if countries use the time to firm up their commitments to reduce their global warming pollution and to finalize all the details of an international structure to ensure that those commitments are met.  Especially since the lack of clarity about what the US would actually be able to commit to is limiting the willingness of other countries to firm up their commitments (as I highlighted here).  This framework would then allow the U.S. Senate to finalize its clean energy and global warming bill in the first part of next year so that the US could then be more explicit about its actions in the final legal agreement.

So the ultimate impact of this extension in reaching a final legal agreement that puts the world solidly on a path to address global warming depends on how countries respond. 

Do countries use this extensions as an excuse for not taking action to reduce their global warming pollution OR do they agree that they will continue (and deepen) their efforts to reduce emissions and take a bit more time to firm up the full legal details of the final agreement?  All the major emerging economies have provided strong hints of the types of further actions that they'll undertake to curb their global warming pollution and almost all developed countries have put forward more aggressive targets (as I discussed here).  So I doubt that such a delay will setback these countries efforts to be able to come forward with strong measures to address their global warming pollution.  In fact, if done right it could allow some key countries -- like the US -- a bit more time to have a solid enforceable basis for their commitments.

Having the Copenhagen meeting such a focus of world leader's attention has had a positive impact in getting a number of countries to bring forward their commitments to action.  I find it hard to believe that such a diverse and wide-ranging group of countries would have come forward with such actions if Copenhagen hadn't been looming.  So as long as the delay doesn't lead to a loss of focus by world leaders -- an unlikely scenario -- we could see even more solid commitments come forward before the final agreement is signed next year.

Does that extension never end OR is it a short extension to finalize the full legal details -- months rather than years?  While the announcement doesn't explicitly outline a firm deadline for finalizing the legal agreement, most discussions have focused on finalizing the legal agreement either sometime in mid-2010 or December 2010 in Mexico when countries are scheduled to meet again on global warming.

We can't afford a long extension in firming up the final international agreement so this needs to be measured in "months not years".  So world leaders will have to agree to a firm deadline in Copenhagen -- not an agreement to maybe finalize the agreement sometime in the future.

Are there enough details reached this December in Copenhagen to leave all countries accepting of an extension and enough details to firm up the final agreement in months OR are there insufficient details reached this December?  We'll have to wait and see on this one as Africa and the small-island states signaled in Barcelona that they would be unhappy with any delay (as Reuters discussed here).  And it will really depend on what clear actions countries signal they can do in Copenhagen.  Trust isn't necessarily the nature of international negotiations so world leaders will have to say more than "trust me".  Rather they'll have to say: "here is my down payment" and then "trust me" that I'll bring more firm commitments in months.

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The answers to these and more questions will be critical in assessing whether this "one agreement, two step" framework will ultimately lead to a strong international agreement that puts the world solidly on a path to solving global warming.  We don't know for sure at this stage, but stay tuned as I expect we'll have an interesting two-week ride in Copenhagen.  And we'll get a glimpse of the response from other countries as Ministers from 40 key countries are meeting tomorrow in Copenhagen for preparatory discussions before the negotiations reconvene in Copenhagen in just 3 weeks.

I remain optimistic that the world can actually come together and address this challenge.  We don't have any choice, so let's stay focused on solving this challenge and make sure that the extension to finalize the agreement leads to stronger and more robust set of commitments to take action and an international framework to ensure that those commitments are met.

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Switchboard is the staff blog of the Natural Resources Defense Council, the nation’s most effective environmental group. For more about our work, including in-depth policy documents, action alerts and ways you can contribute, visit NRDC.org.

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