The international global warming negotiations in Bonn, Germany have just wrapped up. They began with a loud applause as U.S. Special Climate Envoy Todd Stern announced that the U.S. is back. And they ended with the reality of the work that needs to be done over the next 8 months to ensure a strong agreement in Copenhagen. There is a lot to be done, but there are hints that with strong leadership the pieces can fall into place.

While little progress was concluded at this meeting, some signs emerged of how the pieces will fall into place for the four key elements essential to getting a strong agreement:

  1. Strong leadership from developed countries with firm and aggressive emissions reduction caps
  2. Willingness of developing countries to undertake significant emissions reductions on their own and the structure and size of performance-based incentives from developed countries to encourage even greater developing country emissions reductions.
  3. Reversing the rate of deforestation.
  4. Supporting adaptation to the impacts of climate change in the most vulnerable countries.

Here are some issues that arose that will need to come together over the next couple of months if the world is to commit itself to a strong path to solve global warming.

The U.S. is “back”

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Special Envoy Todd Stern’s remarks provided a strong signal of President Obama’s commitment to reengage the U.S. in international negotiations (full remarks are available here). Or as he put it:

… I want to say on behalf of President Obama and his entire team that we are very glad to be back, we want to make up for lost time, and we are seized with the urgency of the task before us.

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His speech also reaffirmed two key pieces that the U.S. will be bringing to the negotiations:

  • Firm limits on U.S. global warming pollution in the near-term and targets through 2050; and
  • “Significant funds” to support developing countries through performance-based incentives for emissions reductions and adaptation assistance.

Implications of the emerging international elements in the U.S. climate legislation

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Only a day after Todd Stern’s remarks, the “sprint” began to pass a clean energy and global warming bill in the US. Chairman Waxman and Markey from the U.S. House of Representatives released a discussion draft which contains a number of key tools to help secure a strong international agreement in Copenhagen later this year.

How these provisions play out in the U.S. debate (and other capitals around the world) will be a preview of what can be agreed in Copenhagen as these are crucial elements that countries will have to bring to Copenhagen.

Developing country action and relation to incentives

While there are still a number of proposals by countries for the “developing country emissions reduction package”, there was a lot of frank conversation about the development of “low carbon strategies” by developing countries. While the specifics of these strategies are still under discussion, they essentially outline a medium-term strategy of where the country can head in a carbon constrained world while meeting their development objectives, what actions they can implement on their own, and what actions they could achieve with assistance from the developed world.

Under these strategies developing countries could commit to reduce emissions in key sectors of the economy and receive incentives for further action through the carbon market and technology agreements. This would mean evolving from “offsets” to sectoral approaches for developing countries.

Unfortunately this aspect is being debated at the moment as a “chicken and egg scenario” (as I discussed here) — with developing countries not willing to show what actions they can do until the developed countries detail what assistance they can provide and developed countries not outlining what assistance they will provide until they know what actions the developing countries will undertake. It is a dangerous dynamic with the future of the planet hanging in the balance.

It is essential to include deforestation reduction efforts in the Copenhagen agreement

While deforestation reductions weren’t central to the negotiations in Bonn, Germany there was a surprising moment where a large number of countries signaled quite forcefully that they want deforestation reductions included in the Copenhagen agreement. This is a strong sign that we might finally help create the tools to reducing the deforestation emissions that account for about 20% of global emissions.

We need the political leaders at the highest level to come together before Copenhagen for a strong agreement

Climate negotiators will need their leaders to point them in the right direction if we are going to get a strong agreement. There are a lot of very difficult political decisions that will need to be agreed before and during the Copenhagen meeting. And these will require decisions “above the pay grade” of climate negotiators if we are to have any chance.

A number of venues are emerging for these leaders to start to send the signal that there is space for a strong agreement…that countries are ready to set aside their differences and get into the business of designing the workable strategies. These world leaders will be meeting a number of times, including at the Major Economies Forum just announced by President Obama, the G20, the Summit of the Americas, and a number of key bilateral engagements such as the US-China dialogue (that will bring together countries representing most of the world’s global warming pollution). I hope that time is used wisely.

World leaders want an agreement in Copenhagen

At the recent G20 meeting in London the leaders of the largest 20 economies in the world (and the world’s biggest emitters) agreed to the following direction for their negotiators (PDF):

We reaffirm our commitment to address the threat of irreversible climate change, based on the principle of common but differentiated responsibilities, and to reach agreement at the UN Climate Change conference in Copenhagen in December 2009.

Closing the gap over the coming months … it can be done

There a number of promising ideas that are beginning to emerge. But we’ll need to quickly get past the posturing and into structuring the strong agreement by making some of the necessary difficult choices.

Over the next month or so, developing a strong international response to global warming will focus on the discussions occurring in the Major Economies Forum and back in Bonn, Germany in June. At the June meeting, countries will have to start to “show their cards” as they’ll have a draft negotiating text which will focus the negotiations.

So there is still a lot of work to be done and not a lot of time, but some promising signs are emerging that it can still be done. All paths will inevitably lead through the U.S. as countries are waiting for U.S. leadership.