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From Angst to Action: Moving Forward After Copenhagen

Where things stand after the UN climate conference in Copenhagen, and the key steps to ensure progress in Cancun.

Despite positive momentum in the lead-up to Copenhagen, including greenhouse gas reduction pledges by all major economies, COP-15’s conclusion did not go as most had planned or many had hoped. The outcome has unleashed countless interpretations, opinions, emotions and recommendations. Some see the meeting as a major failure, others as a stepping stone, still others as a moderate success. Three months on, the time is overdue for countries to rise above the “blame game” and take advantage of the momentum created both by the Accord and significant (albeit unfinished) UNFCCC draft decisions of December 2009. The first step for that occurs this week in Bonn, Germany.

The prospects for progress are good. Over 100 UNFCCC parties have either associated themselves with the Accord or submitted pledges to the Secretariat. Countries have also signaled their attachment to the UN process. The imperative for action is greater than ever. Countries must formalize and begin to implement the commitments---both on actions and finance---that emerged out of Copenhagen, and lay the groundwork for a successful UN climate conference in Mexico this December.

If Copenhagen taught us anything, it is that complex issues such as climate change need as many strategic and focused gatherings as possible, so long as they support a commonly shared outcome.

Forums, Processes and Texts to Move Climate Talks Forward

It seems most logical and expedient for countries to integrate the Copenhagen Accord into other negotiating texts and processes underway. The Accord and the texts that emerged from the two UNFCCC negotiating tracks (Kyoto Protocol and Long-term Cooperative Action) share enough substance to pave the way to one or more new legally binding instruments. Countries will doubtless continue to disagree over whether the optimal outcome is a new amendment or protocol to the UNFCCC, or a revision of the Kyoto Protocol. But the Accord should provide sufficient political guidance and momentum to push forward its substantive implementation, as well as the conclusion of one or both negotiating tracks over time.

A post-Copenhagen consensus seems to have emerged that---despite the breakdown in process at COP-15---the UNFCCC remains the only legitimate multilateral forum for concluding a global deal. However, it is not the only forum from which conversations, helpful actions, or momentum could originate. Bilateral and plurilateral (involving many but not all UNFCCC parties) discussions can provide useful venues to move issues forward toward an outcome in Cancun. If the Copenhagen meeting and the process leading up to it teach us anything, it is that complex issues such as climate change need as many strategic and focused gatherings as possible, so long as they support a commonly shared outcome.

Moving Toward COP-16 in Cancun

We can’t get hung up on what should or should not have happened in Copenhagen, but we do need to learn from it. Process questions must be sorted out before Cancun, particularly in the next UN negotiating session in April, so that by the June session negotiators are talking substance, not fighting over process.

Those that have supported the Accord should not retreat from it; those that remain skeptical should work to strengthen it.

In December, COP-16 must focus on reaching decisions that strengthen the institutional and procedural framework around the pledges that heads of state and government made at and subsequent to Copenhagen. In other words, the Accord should provide the minimum political baseline from which upward progress should be measured. Those that have supported the Accord should not retreat from it; those that remain skeptical should work to strengthen it. Common ground should be found in agreeing to the details that will strengthen the content, as well as the legal and institutional character of countries’ pledges. Doing so will help to build trust between nations that pledges will be honored.

Clearly, it would be optimal to get closure on the legal form of a new global climate agreement in Cancun. However, if that is not possible, countries should agree a set of “activation decisions.” At a minimum, these should ensure that support for developing countries is delivered (whether for reducing emissions from deforestation and degradation, adaptation or technology transfer), and that systems are finalized for all countries to transparently communicate their actions to counter climate change.

Nailing Down the Details: Key Issues and Priorities for 2010


The Copenhagen Accord outlined two significant funding commitments from developed countries to the developing world, that together finance adaptation, forest loss prevention (REDD+), technology development and transfer, and more. The first commitment is an upfront “fast start” investment of $30 billion over three years; the other is a long-term commitment of $100 billion per year by 2020.

Priorities in 2010 should include that countries 1) deliver their commitments to the fast start funding, 2) clarify the sources of the $100 billion, and 3) figure out how to distribute funding so that it both helps the most vulnerable countries and catalyzes low-carbon development. There are a number of places where movement will occur this year; the World Bank, and G20 all have climate finance on the agenda. The UN Secretary General’s High Level Advisory Group on Climate Change Financing is also an opportunity for countries to make recommendations on sources of finance.

Movement on finance is the key to making progress on other issues in the negotiations. Ideally, these discussions will lead to the establishment of an enhanced finance mechanism at the UNFCCC meeting in Cancun. How country finance pledges are going to be tracked and accounted for in the UNFCCC system should also be spelled out in this decision. (Click here for more on current pledges, and watch for upcoming WRI publications on this topic.)


Since COP-15, Norway and France have taken the lead in coordinating interim finance mechanisms for developing countries that are preparing and taking a variety of actions to reduce emissions from deforestation and forest degradation and management (REDD+). The Accord commits countries to “the immediate establishment of a mechanism including REDD-plus,” and negotiators separately reached a workable, first draft on many of the key components of such a mechanism. This urgently needs to be finalized and adopted in Cancun in order to guide the interim finance processes. Other venues may also take action on REDD this year. Watch for whether advancing U.S. climate legislation incorporates REDD, and whether the European Union decides to include REDD in the next phase of its emissions trading scheme.


The question for adaptation is no longer if, but how to support the world’s poorest countries in adapting to a changing climate. This year, the priority should be quickly getting the pledged funds into a functional system. This system should give developing countries the flexibility to develop and implement national adaptation strategies that are both appropriate for their countries and that complement their development. Adaptation negotiators were close to reaching a final decision on these matters and this should be finalized and adopted in Cancun. Coupled with the finance decision, we could see real progress on this issue.


The Copenhagen Accord establishes a Technology Mechanism for transferring emissions reduction and adaptation technologies to the developing world. Several initiatives inside and outside the UN negotiations can help move this forward. The UN negotiating text, for example, currently includes a climate technology center, supported by regional centers and a climate technology network, which would boost developing country capacity and speed technology transfer.

Several new and existing partnerships---such as the Asia-Pacific Partnership on Clean Development and Climate, the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation, the Energy and Climate Partnership of the Americas, and bilateral MOUs between countries like the United States and China---can catalyze capacity building and technology sharing now. Watch for a Clean Energy Ministerial meeting convened by U.S. Secretary of Energy Steven Chu in July in Washington, DC, at which the United States could take the lead in moving these efforts forward.

Foundational Elements: Creating a System to Track Progress

The Accord has specific language for both developed and developing countries concerning the measurement, reporting and verification of financial and emissions reduction pledges. Developed countries committed to use a set of “rigorous, robust and transparent” accounting standards for their financial and emission reduction commitments. This commitment should be integrated into the formal negotiations this year to ensure that actions taken by developed countries are comparable and transparent. A decision in Cancun on how countries report their actions and finance will build trust for other issues in the negotiations.

In addition, the Copenhagen Accord provides quite detailed guidance on how developing countries should report on actions using an enhanced version of the UNFCCC national communications, and a process of “international consultations and analysis.” A decision in Cancun, informed by the commitments enshrined in the Copenhagen Accord, should articulate the guidelines and processes that UNFCCC countries will use to report on their respective obligations.

Strengthening Kyoto Protocol and Copenhagen Accord Emissions Pledges

It is clear that pledges to date are not adequate in light of the scientific estimates of what’s needed to avoid 2 degrees Celsius warming (or the 1.5 degrees Celsius most climate scientists think is more appropriate and is included in the Accord).

WRI analysis shows the highest possible calculation of those developed country targets to be in the range of 12-18% below 1990 levels by 2020 (depending on assumptions regarding the details of the pledges)---far from the level of action needed. It is therefore essential that the science review, which the Accord states must be completed by 2015, be initiated this year. It is also essential that the review includes a clear, agreed-upon procedure for integrating new scientific findings into the UNFCCC process, and assessing emissions reduction efforts in light of the 1.5 degrees C goal.

In addition to avoiding further warming, stronger targets and actions would better position countries in the race for clean energy. In particular, the world’s largest emitters need to step up.

In addition to avoiding further warming, stronger targets and actions would better position countries in the race for clean energy. In particular, the world’s largest emitters need to step up. Europe should commit to a 30% reduction to ensure that it keeps its frontrunner position in the low carbon economy. Japan, Canada, Australia and Russia should increase their targets, adopt credible and binding domestic laws to meet current pledges, and show a clear pathway to a zero carbon economy by 2050. This would assist in catalyzing further change in emerging economies.

The world is most closely watching the United States, due to its size and share of historical emissions. Adopting comprehensive climate legislation before Cancun would signal serious intent to meet the 17% target to which President Obama committed in Copenhagen, and should be a top agenda item for this Administration and the U.S. Congress. The United States was committed and involved in Copenhagen. It now needs to match pledges, both for emissions reduction and finance, with implementation. Lack of such decisiveness could seriously endanger any progress in Cancun.

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