Why Copenhagen Still Matters

The climate talks won't seal a binding global deal, but a lot can still go right in Denmark

Two years ago this week, on the island of Bali, representatives of 180 nations agreed on an ambitious timeline for reaching a global agreement to address climate change. The Bali Road Map, as it was called, identified key issues to be resolved and set a 2009 deadline for completing the negotiations.

That deadline has now arrived. Yet as nations gather for the climate talks in Copenhagen, the real negotiating has barely begun. The draft text is a lengthy, confusing compilation of every single proposal from a wide swath of nations. Many of the ideas are implausible, but all remain in play. President Barack Obama and other world leaders recently confirmed what was widely presumed: Copenhagen won't deliver a final legal agreement. The goal is now an interim political deal setting the stage for a full treaty in 2010.

The delay is disappointing to many but comes as no surprise. Obama is putting a "provisional" target on the table, but until Congress enacts comprehensive climate legislation, the U.S. is in no position to take on a binding international commitment. And there are many other obstacles. Governments still remain far apart on core issues: how to finance stronger efforts in developing countries, whether major emerging economies such as China will take on binding commitments, and how fulfillment will be verified.

Advances Nonetheless

But important and heartening progress has been made since Bali. In Washington, the House passed a comprehensive bill in June aimed at reducing U.S. emissions and fostering a clean-energy economy. Meantime, the U.S. government has taken positive steps—with stimulus funding and proposed regulatory actions—to support the development of lower-carbon energy sources and to reduce emissions.

In China, which now surpasses the U.S. as the largest emitter of greenhouse gases, the government has set ambitious goals for increasing renewable power and energy efficiency, and it just announced a voluntary goal of reducing by 2020 the carbon intensity of its economy 40% to 45% from 2005 levels. India and other emerging economies are also pledging stronger action, while the European Union already has an emissions-­trading system in place that is beginning to deliver actual reductions.

But all of these positive developments fall far short of a viable global solution. With leadership from the world's major economies, we need an international agreement to ensure that all countries are doing their part to reduce emissions and that these combined efforts are getting us to a place where scientists affirm we can avoid the worst effects of climate change.

A Legal and Institutional Framework

Copenhagen can propel us toward that goal. Many governments have come prepared to announce political commitments. Wealthy nations also can be expected to pledge up-front money to help poorer countries reduce emissions and adapt to climate change. But it is critical that the talks in Copenhagen make substantial progress in establishing the legal and institutional framework for converting these pledges into a binding treaty with a robust design. There must be legal clarity about countries' commitments and their compliance with them, so that each can be confident that all are delivering their share. And there must be a sensible, accountable system for providing the support developing countries will need to do their part.

Simply building this framework will require the major parties to do something they've so far resisted: compromise. And compromise requires political will. Countries will have to embrace real commitments, and they will have to look beyond short-term political concerns so we can forge a solution that protects all nations and all people for decades, even centuries, to come.

The science on this issue is now absolutely clear: Climate change is largely the result of human activities, it is happening now, and it is happening much faster than predicted. But it is political reality, as much as science, that will drive the global climate talks. And right now the political reality is that key countries have a lot of work to do to resolve core issues before a lasting global agreement can be reached.

No one is expecting miracles out of the Copenhagen meeting this month. But it is imperative that we see genuine gains—with the goal of agreeing to a final climate treaty when the negotiators meet at the end of 2010 in Mexico City. The Bali Road Map misjudged the distance from Bali to a final agreement, but at least we can take heart that the nations of the world are still on this road together. The challenge is to stay on course to a destination that proves itself worth the trip.