The world has been asking: How will the United States turn its climate change talk into real action? President Obama began to answer that question this week when he announced his National Climate Action Plan, laying out concrete steps to curb climate change at home and abroad, including a policy that would bar the U.S. from financing conventional coal plants internationally.

The concrete steps he described are vital--most importantly because they represent actions, not just words. But everyone should also take note of the starting point in his speech. It reveals the critical role the international climate change process can play in stimulating climate action.

The Role of Copenhagen (COP 15) and UNFCCC Climate Negotiations

When President Obama outlined his plan earlier this week, he began with the U.S. commitment to reduce its emissions 17 percent below 2005 levels by 2020. Those numbers bear remembering—not only for their content, but also for their origin. The 17 percent figure comes from the commitment that the United States--represented by the president himself--made at the international climate summit in Copenhagen in 2009 (COP 15). That this figure was the president’s starting point suggests that there’s much more to Copenhagen’s implications than the usual storyline has suggested.

There’s no question that Copenhagen didn’t achieve what the world wanted or needed in emissions reductions and other climate action. Most notably, the summit did not clearly put us on track to meet the goal of keeping temperature increases below 2 degrees C (3.6 degrees F), an objective we must pursue with even greater intensity now. In fact, "Copenhagen" has gotten a fairly bad name in the history of climate policy.

But the fact that the U.S. commitment made there continues to frame policymaking in the country should tell us something important: Copenhagen was a moment--or better put, a process--that shaped and continues to shape the direction of climate policy-making around the world in many key ways.

Spurring Climate Action in the United States and Abroad

In the absence of Congressional legislation, the only overarching goal for U.S. climate policy is the one that comes from an agreement made during the UNFCCC process. The 17 percent target should only be an initial step along a much longer path, but even getting there will require concerted efforts by the Obama administration on several fronts. As laid out in a WRI report, achieving and beating the 17 percent goal involves setting pollution standards for power plants, stimulating energy efficiency, reducing methane emissions from natural gas, and phasing-down use of HFCs. Getting to 17 percent is not the solution in itself, but the commitment sets a minimum benchmark to guide and motivate policy.
The Copenhagen process also led to significant commitments from other countries as well. India and China both laid out and then committed to ambitious goals for reducing the greenhouse gas intensity of their economies by 2020. Many developing countries have generated Nationally Appropriate Mitigation Actions (NAMAS) - plans laying out a set of emissions reduction actions they intend to take and coordinate with climate finance providers.

The international climate negotiations have also stimulated serious action on climate adaptation and resilience, starting a decade ago with the development of national adaptation plans by least developed countries. In recent years, including at Copenhagen, the U.N. climate process has continued to raise the profile of action on adaptation and resilience, including the need for climate finance. Obama’s speech this week reiterated the importance of U.S. engagement in this collective international effort to support those who are most vulnerable to climate change impacts.

The point here is not to lionize or overly romanticize Copenhagen or the U.N. climate process more broadly. But we should learn lessons from the ways in which the negotiations, the Copenhagen commitments, and the results of those commitments have played such an important and additive role in spurring action in many countries.

Securing Strong International Climate Action

So what do we learn – especially for the upcoming international climate action agreement in 2015? Copenhagen was not just an outcome in itself, but rather a process, stretching both before and after a particular moment in time. For the 2015 agreement, it will be vital to keep in mind the importance of a process that can catalyze action. Pursuing the international negotiations effectively will depend on seizing on the key intersections with national policy-making and creating a positive feedback loop with them.

Several concrete steps in the negotiations can help achieve this goal:

  • Countries should submit their emissions-reduction proposals early—no later than the end of 2014—in order to enable a robust review process of mitigation as well as climate finance, including for adaptation.

  • Robust, scientifically and economically informed, reviews of country proposals—including benchmarks for ambition and equity—should take place during 2015.

  • The 2015 agreement should include mechanisms that will stimulate countries to ratchet-up their emissions-reduction actions and finance over time, as the science, needs, and changing circumstances warrant.

Building these elements into the international climate process can create an ongoing, iterative process that will generate the greatest possible chances of success in 2015--and more importantly beyond. In his speech, President Obama expressed his support for the international climate negotiations. Making those negotiations a dynamic, catalytic process will be key to unlocking meaningful climate action by the United States--and the rest of the world.