Over the next few weeks, leading nations will be deciding the fate of the Copenhagen Accord, the three-page climate change agreement recognized at last month's international summit but never adopted.
If they embrace it, they'll also be embracing a process that sidestepped one the highest procedural hurdles of the UN system, unanimous consent.
On Jan. 31, the first deadline of the Copenhagen Accord arrives. It isn't mandatory — the accord was recognized by the Conference of Parties at last month's summit but never adopted because six countries objected — however, Annex I countries that formally associate themselves with the accord agree to declare their 2020 emissions reduction targets by the Jan. 31 deadline.
Meeting that deadline and moving forward with financing and technology transfer decisions in the accord are critical, U.S. Special Envoy for Climate Change Todd Stern told an investors' forum today in his first public comments on the Copenhagen conference since returning from Denmark.
"We have an accord that's lumbering down the runway, and we need to get the speed for it to take off," Stern said.
To do that, "it's incredibly important" that two things happen: Countries need to notify the UNFCCC secretariat that they accept the accord, and they need to set their 2020 targets.
Robert Orr, UN assistant secretary-general for policy coordination and strategic planning, told the group he believes "a very large number of countries will be associating themselves" with the accord and offering targets. If that happens, the accord will have strong backing to become the foundation for efforts to get a legally binding agreement fully approved by the UN later this year.
"We will see a very intense negotiating calendar for 2010, but now with a very fundamental basis on which to build," Orr said. "2010 is all about us finalizing a deal."
However, Stern's comments today, and those of Deputy U.S. Special Envoy for Climate Change Jonathan Pershing yesterday, suggest that the U.S. will be focusing its global climate change efforts outside the traditional UN process, possibly with members of the group of the 30 or so countries whose leaders hammered out the accord at Copenhagen in what Stern noted was literally the 11th hour.
The formal UN negotiating process, under way for two years, didn't made enough progress on major issues such as financing and transparency for the Copenhagen talks to succeed, Stern said.
It took the unprecedented involvement of heads of state, particularly about 30 from developed and developing nations who gathered in a negotiating room at 11 p.m. on the second to last day of the conference, to work out an actual deal. "They almost literally rolled up their sleeves and went through the text line by line like negotiators," Stern said.
"It may be easy to forget how dangerously close we came to failure in Copenhagen," he said. "We came within a hair's breadth of collapse."
One of the largest frustrations in dealing on the international level is procedural. Because the UN requires consensus, too much attention is given to positions that aren't realistic when everyone needs to be focused on setting up a system that can move the effort forward, Stern said.
It's hard to imagine a global agreement being possible without the UN, Pershing told the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington on Wednesday. But the UN's process, requiring 192 nations to all agree amid such complex negotiations, showed its flaws in Copenhagen.
Moving forward "will be a combination of small and larger processes," Pershing said.
One key "smaller process" is the Major Economies Forum, a group of the world's largest greenhouse gas emitters that was organized by President Bush and refocused this year by President Obama on energy and climate change. "It provided a forum for the more detailed conversation," Stern said.
"We spent a lot more time working with China than anyone else, also with India, Brazil, South Africa. Going forward, there will have to be some kind of analogous small group, whether it's in that setting or whether it's a setting that might come from the group of 30 or so that was in Copenhagen," Stern said.
He suggested that a similar group might also be formed by Mexico, the host of the next Conference of Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, COP16, planned for late November.
The meetings in Copenhagen did lead to some major breakthroughs, Stern said. It was the first time a large body had specifically endorsed a goal of limiting global warming to 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial age temperatures. He noted the effort toward requiring international review to check up on countries' progress toward their targets. That was absent from Kyoto, and it shows, he said. And "you cannot underestimate the importance of a breach in the firewall between developed and developing countries."
The countries signing on to the Copenhagen Accord will be busy in the coming weeks working out details of how to provide the fast-start financing, support for the deforestation program REDD and technology transfer that were promised in the agreement.
The agreement pledges $30 billion from developed nations in 2010-2012 for adaptation, technology and mitigation efforts. Beyond that, it only sets a "goal" of mobilizing $100 billion a year by 2020. It names programs that will have to be established: a Copenhagen Climate Fund as the financial mechanism for funding projects, including forestry, adaptation, and capacity building; and a Technology Transfer Mechanism.
"There will be a lot of conversation in coming weeks on how to set that up," Stern said.
First, emissions reduction targets are due. Officials from the BASIC countries — Brazil, South Africa, India and China — who took a leading role in the Copenhagen negotiations plan to meet Jan. 24 to discuss their commitments.
The White House announced in November that it was prepared to offer U.S. emissions reduction target in the range of 17% below 2005 levels in 2020 (equivalent to about 4% below 1990 levels) and ultimately in line with final U.S. energy and climate legislation. When Stern was asked today how the Obama administration would work with the Congress to hold up its end of the climate agreement, he sidestepped.
The issue is clearly important to the president, Stern said. He described the House-passed American Clean Energy and Security (ACES) bill and the effort in the Senate by Democrat John Kerry and Republican Lindsey Graham as very important.
"I think there will be a significant effort to press forward," Stern said. "We're hopeful that it will get done."
(Photo: UN Photo/Mark Garten)