Despite slow progress at COP-14, the national climate action plans of several key countries announced this year are signs of progress.
Coverage of the United Nations conference on climate change, which ended last week, has been understandably negative: the thousands of negotiators, analysts, companies and civil society groups that converged on Poznań, Poland, resulted in very few concrete decisions. Spending for climate change adaptation using already available funds was authorized, but even there the scale of support is small compared to the resources needed. And this was just about the only area of agreement. On a problem as urgent as climate change, such limited progress is frustratingly slow.
However, while it is true that the meeting in Poznań yielded little progress, this was hardly surprising. After all, this meeting is held at year one in an agreed two-year negotiating process. Typically, nothing is agreed in these processes until a final deal is struck encompassing every issue. Furthermore, the world is waiting for new leadership from the incoming U.S. Administration, and it made little sense to reach important agreements with a lame duck team.
Despite the limited extent of formal agreement, progress is being made in tackling climate change. The last 18 months has seen most of the major developing economies, including China and India, bring forward significant plans for limiting emissions through aggressive energy efficiency, renewable energy, and forestry programs. The European Union has now agreed to a new round of emissions cuts aimed at reducing emissions at least 20 percent below 1990 levels by 2020. Australia and Mexico have both announced targets.
To be sure, these efforts will be only a down payment on the global emissions reductions required to forestall massive global climate damages; actions by all nations will need to be strengthened to meet necessary emissions goals. Here too, U.S. reengagement is likely to be critical. A strong U.S. climate policy might not only encourage other countries to go further, but also set the stage for a collective effort that can create and distribute critical climate-friendly technologies, provide resources for adaptation, and support capacity building, particularly in the least developed countries around the world.
While expectations were high in Poznań that the new U.S. team would re-energize the climate negotiations, the economic crisis was the second topic of almost universal discussion. At a meeting of finance ministers held in Warsaw directly prior to the UN climate session, it was clear that nations are increasingly worried that the global economic crisis will limit investment---and the capacity of governments to act. Here too, with President-elect Obama stressing that the economic crisis is reason to press ahead with building a green economy, U.S. leadership could be critical.
No observers have ever suggested that negotiating a new global agreement would be straightforward, and the very modest Poznań outcomes underscore the difficulties. However, nations are beginning to act, and while it remains unclear if their action will be aggressive enough (or soon enough) to offset the trend of increasing climate damages, we are finally moving on a more positive track. Ultimately, it is these national commitments that will be reflected in a global deal; it is not the global agreement that drives national policy. From that perspective, the Poznań meeting, while not reaching formal agreement on any new treaty text, provided a forum for nations to announce their new national efforts, and give the rest of us room for hope.