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Toward a Binding Climate Treaty: Copenhagen and Beyond

Even the best possible Copenhagen outcome will be a waypoint, not an endpoint.

A translation of this post originally appeared in the Norwegian paper Klassekampen.

As a hundred heads of state congregate in Copenhagen on Friday, the world’s attention will be fixed on the Danish capital. This is fitting, given that our planet’s climate is at stake.

Amid the declarations and speeches, however, it is important to remember that even the best possible Copenhagen outcome will be a waypoint, not an endpoint. One that must lead to a legally binding climate agreement, concluded in 2010. Only a binding global agreement can assure fairness, and trigger carbon-cutting measures worldwide as countries gain assurance that all are acting in concert. Only a binding global agreement will level the playing field, unleashing business activity and innovation in support of a low carbon economy.

No generation before ours had enough information to understand the urgent need for action. No generation after ours will have the opportunity.

This is what politicians and negotiators must have in their minds as they lay the foundations for global action and financing to curb greenhouse gas emissions. The “political agreement” that emerges on December 18 must not substitute symbolism for commitment. We need the framework and a specific date by which a binding global agreement will be concluded.

That said the prospects of making major progress at Copenhagen are better than they seemed only last month, and like night and day compared with the gloomy outlook that prevailed little more than a year ago.

In December 2007, in Bali, climate negotiators from 180 nations booed their U.S. counterparts into silence as frustration at George W. Bush’s non leadership on climate change boiled over. Developing countries, meanwhile, emphatically rejected any suggestion that they should join industrialized countries in setting targets to reduce emissions. A year later, despite initial relief when President Obama stated his commitment to take action on climate change, progress bogged down. There was particular disappointment when U.S. negotiators insisted that there would be no U.S. commitment to greenhouse gas reductions until Congress had approved cap and trade legislation and that, even then, early U.S. reductions would be less than scientists had urged.

In recent months the dynamic has changed. Key countries have reluctantly accepted Washington’s insistence that it cannot commit to a reduction target until the Congress has done so. Major developing countries with growing GHG emissions, including China, India, Brazil, Mexico, Indonesia, and South Africa, have announced quantitative and significant (though non-binding) commitments to reduce domestic emissions.

President Obama’s eleventh hour decision to attend the summit, and to commit the U.S. to reduce emissions “in the range of 17%”, evidences his own commitment to the issue. His presence, an explicit personal commitment to do all he can to secure legislation, and an acknowledgement that the United States must be a significant part of an effort by the industrialized world to help poor countries adapt to climate change’s impacts and accelerate low carbon development to reduce poverty while avoiding emissions, could do much to assure a positive outcome.

Of course this optimistic scenario - and the future of U.S. climate leadership - depends utterly on the outcome of legislation presently before the Senate. If Congress does not pass a climate bill which commits the U.S. to a greenhouse gas reduction target by the summer, prospects for concluding a global legally binding agreement in 2010 will dwindle. Vital years may be lost in addressing the looming crisis of climate change.

Getting such a bill passed will be neither easy nor quick. While opinion polls continue to show a majority of U.S. voters favor action on energy and climate legislation, many Americans are preoccupied with jobs and the weakened U.S. economy. And Senate rules require 60 out of 100 votes to pass major bills – difficult when many Senators from the coal dependent regions of the country are hesitant to impose restrictions on carbon.

The Democratic majority will need some support from Republicans. In a hopeful sign, a trio of heavyweight Senators – Democrats John Kerry and Lindsey Graham and Independent Joe Lieberman – last week released a significant bipartisan framework for climate legislation which they hope will garner the required 60 votes. To produce a compromise that satisfies moderates without losing liberals they will need the help of the White House. If – and it’s a big if – the Senate votes yes, the bill will then need to be reconciled with the American Clean Energy and Security Act passed by the House of Representatives in June and the compromise version sent to the President for his signature.

There are two important reasons for guarded optimism about Senate action. First, large segments of US industry have joined us in fighting for strong legislation because they see it as necessary and inevitable, and want certainty. Second, the alternative is not the (fossil fueled) status quo. Not only does the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) stand ready to regulate greenhouse gases as pollutants under the U.S. Clean Air Act – if Congress fails to act; but 23 U.S. states, covering more than half the American population, will continue to regulate emissions at a regional level. This kind of piecemeal approach is not an outcome that U.S. big business wants – and business has the ear of Congress.

No generation before ours had enough information to understand the urgent need for action to avert climate catastrophe. No generation after ours will have the opportunity – it will be too late to avert terrible harm. We have the evidence to prove that action is necessary. We have the technology to shift to a low carbon economy. We may still have the opportunity to avert catastrophic warming. It is an historic moment. The question is whether we have the wisdom and the will to act.

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