Head scratching over what is next for Copenhagen Accord internationally and in US Senate

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Publish date: January 3, 2010

Written by: Charles Digges

NEW YORK – With the Copenhagen climate talks fading into the rear view mirror – with the promise of more climate negotiations to come – what will happen both on the international stage, where leaders left behind a legal knot that experts are only beginning to unravel – and how will it effect the passage of US President Barack Obama’s climate legislation at home?

The debate will be fought both in international forums and on the floor of the US Senate.

The half dozen edicts handed down by world leaders in the 11th hour on the frenetic last day of the two week summit – dealing with everything from verifying carbon emissions cuts to mobilizing millions of dollars for poorer nations – all require formal UN enactment rulings from the parties who came to the summit. None of these follow up rulings have been made.

On the domestic front, it seems clear that enacting legislation to cap US carbon dioxide output and allow polluters to trade emissions permits is essential to delivering the promises Obama made to other world leaders.

This leaves unsettled and largely unexplained – how and when the leaders’ directives in Copenhagen will be become a reality.

Even US President Barack Obama himself expressed disappointment with Copenhagen’s outcome while speaking recently on “PBS NewsHour,” a US television programme.

“I think that people are justified in being disappointed about the outcome in Copenhagen. It didn’t move us the way we need to,” he said in his televised remarks.

“The science says that we’ve got to significantly reduce emissions over the next — over the next 40 years. There’s nothing in the Copenhagen agreement that ensures that that happens.”

Environmental leader have tread carefully since the summit broke camp two weeks ago, and acknowledge they did not walked away with what they expected to achieve – a binding international climate agreement.

“The Copenhagen Summit has in no way saved the world. But it gives room for further work on an international climate agreement,” said Bellona President Frederic Hauge. But he added that “It is terribly sad that we have not come further, but we must not give up on the UN track,” he said.

“One of the building blocks of Copenhagen is the formulations of forest and fast start funding, as well as acceptance from larger countries that they will be able to take a reduction,” said Hauge.

Others are unsure of how these positives of the Copenhagen Accord will be implemented.

“Nobody knows the answer,” Jonathan Lash, president of the World Resources Institute think tank, told Climate Wire . He called the logistical unknowns “crucial questions” and said that as of Christmas Eve, even US State Department officials were unsure of the next steps.

The Accord

The Copenhagen Accord is a four-page declaration laying out the newest road map for tackling global warming. It is the creation of President Obama and a handful of other leaders, most notably China’s premier, Wen Jibao, who took over climate negotiations when ambassadors from 192 countries meeting in Denmark last month failed to develop a new path for lowering carbon emissions and sparking a new global clean-tech economy.

Among it’s most notable accomplishments were bringing the four biggest greenhouse- gas emitters in the developing world — China, India, Brazil and South Africa – together and get them to list voluntary climate targets as part of an international registry and to allow third-party countries to scrutinize whether the four are making the emission cuts they say they are.

But the accord is not legally binding, meaning countries made promises to cut carbon but face no consequences if they don’t. In days immediately after the summit’s conclusion, leaders from South Africa and elsewhere distanced themselves from the declaration, while others hurled blame for disappointing results.

The big test for the strength of the accord will come January 31, when rich and poor nations alike are to submit their economy wide emissions targets to the UN. If that goes as planned, the UN will have to compile a registry to record each country’s action, and a body to provide “international consultations and analysis” that will ensure that China, India and other nations are living up to their climate commitments.

Funding pledged by richer nations to poorer ones to help climate adaptation and mitigation efforts is also due to become liquid in January.

Show us the money

Then there is the question of financing. Analysts said short-term funding in the accord announced to help poor countries cope with climate impacts is fairly straightforward. Developed nations promised $30 billion over three years, and at least for 2010, much of the money already has been allocated. The U.S. Congress in its 2010 appropriations targeted about $1.2 billion for various bilateral and multilateral climate projects.

The language of the Copenhagen Accord calls for mobilizing the money “from a wide variety of sources, public and private, bilateral and multilateral, including alternative sources of finance.” Between the lines, activists say, that means a significant portion of the U.S. share will come from international emission allocations from a cap-and-trade system, as well as offsets.

While other sources of funding are likely – aviation and shipping fuel taxes and an International Monetary Fund plan pitched by financier George Soros  at a Bellona side event in Copenhagen are among other proposals under consideration –  it’s clear that the United States is relying heavily on passage of climate legislation.

“The most critical question is going to be the Senate and what action the Senate takes,” said David Waskow, climate change program director at Oxfam America. “In a sense, everything hangs on that.”

Compromises – including nuclear – await climate bill in US Senate

Senator Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, the top Republican on the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, called language in the Copenhagen deal allowing for verification of developing countries’ carbon cuts “a very small step forward.”

“We need to find ways to move forward in a bipartisan effort that makes sense for America, regardless of whether the rest of the world follows through or not,” Murkowski said.

In the wake of the health care debate, winning Republican support for such a bill is crucial, even if it might mean adding provisions favoured by the nuclear and oil industries, or scaling back the legislation’s scope.

Indeed, it’s become increasingly apparent since the Copenhagen climate summit that the Senate will go forward in a dramatically different direction than the House, which approved its own climate bill last summer.

Environmentalists familiar with Democratic plans say party leaders remain committed to bringing up a bill this year. They are looking to Massachusetts Democratic Senator. John Kerry’effort to craft a compromise plan with Senators Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican, and Joe Lieberman, Connecticut’s Independent

But in a sign of how difficult it will be to cobble together 60 votes, Kerry and Graham have provided few details about what their plan will contain.

They hope to blend emissions limits with wider offshore oil-and-gas drilling, expanded federal financing for nuclear power and a lot of support for low-emissions coal projects, among other measures aimed a navigating a thicket of regional and partisan interests.
Graham told reporters that different senators are proposing a variety of plans for limiting carbon emissions, and he said he’s open-minded to what is included in a bill, as long as it is a “meaningful control” on pollution.