This thing might just come together after all.
I’ve said all along that the first week and half of these international climate talks will consist of posturing, ultimatum trading, threats to walk out, and other drama, each twist and turn amplified by a milling, ravenous press corps that’s locked out of the rooms where the real action is happening. While the chaos rages outside, negotiators will be plugging away, feeling out the shape of an agreement, careful to concede nothing in public. In the last few days, as ministers and heads of delegations get more involved, there will be signs of movement. Then heads of state will arrive to hammer out final details and triumphantly sign a weak but better-than-nothing agreement.
That’s more or less how things seem to be playing out, if slightly behind schedule. The central conflict of the talks has been between China, which wants the U.S. to commit to substantial aid to developing countries, and the U.S., which wants China to submit to independent measurement, reporting, and verification (MRV) of its emissions targets. The last couple of days have seen a few big steps.
On Dec. 16, U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack announced, at an event organized by Avoided Deforestation Partners founder Jeff Horowitz, that the United States would contribute $1 billion to a $3.5 billion package from developed countries to address deforestation. That gave a boost to negotiations over a U.N. deforestation plan, which is “nearly done.” The following day, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton made it official that the U.S. supports establishing a $100 billion/year fund to help developing countries deal with climate change (though she was skimpy on details). She put strings on the aid: only if China agrees to “transparency.” Well, that same day the Chinese budged on that issue for the first time. The one big sticking point I haven’t heard any developments on has to do with the legal framework — will this be a grand deal inclusive of the Kyoto framework? Will Kyoto be abandoned in favor of this vague new “political” track? Will the two tracks proceed simultaneously but linked? I suspect it will be the third, but we’ll have to wait and see.
Regardless, while there’s more left to finish than would be ideal at this point in the process, to say the least, the shape of an interim deal is fairly clear and within reach. Semi-final draft text was hammered out last night, to be presented to heads of state today. Last I heard, Obama was locked in a room with 18 world leaders to hash it out.
The interim agreement won’t contain enough concrete commitments to get to the 2C goal everyone’s talking about, mainly because big developing emitters won’t commit to cuts. And of course the U.S. commitments are pathetic (thank you, Senate). The agreement won’t be fully responsive to the demands of science and justice. Much work will remain to be done and the fight will continue.
However, contra my green brethren, it seems to me that a robust political agreement that sets the stage for Mexico City next year would be an enormous victory. It would mean Obama had pulled off the first part of his three-part high wire act.