Fortunately this isn’t deal or no deal – on some issues agreement is possible. But to get there nations must accept that the outcome of Copenhagen will be an uneven and incomplete series of compromises.
The bad news is that laggards such as Australia, Canada and the US are going to have to be let off the hook and allowed to pledge to meet targets grossly out of line with their responsibility for climate change. But the political reality is that there is a limit to what they will commit to this year. Push too hard and we face a nightmare scenario where they either lead a race to the bottom, dragging down developed world targets, or just walk away, derailing the process completely.
This will, of course, further enrage developing nations, so laggard states must try to find ways to appease the developing world. Most obviously they should make a large contribution to financing what will be an expensive deal. The inadequacy of the range of policies proposed by the US could also be off-set through increased bi-lateral cooperation with China on designing, manufacturing and deploying clean technology, expanding on the memorandum of understanding they signed on climate change earlier this year. It goes without saying that the US must also end hypocritical posturing about China and India and shelve ridiculous threats to impose tariffs on goods from these countries.
These kinds of compromises, though imperfect and distasteful, will be acceptable if there is progress on what the Maldives described as the “beefier” issues. Negotiators need to focus their efforts on reaching agreement on reducing emissions from deforestation and degradation (REDD) and on how to expand the use of clean technology in the developing world. It would also be a significant step forward to begin the process of facilitating financial flows to help the poorest adapt in the face of droughts, floods and crop-failure. Ultimately a focus on the practicalities is better than empty promises about short term targets.
The importance of progress on these beefy issues cannot be understated either. Deforestation, for instance, is one of the largest drivers of climate change. To avoid disaster nations must tackle this issue now. Negotiations on forests are at a crucial juncture in Bangkok this week and there is a real possibility that they might go very wrong. The current negotiating text does not explicitly protect intact natural forests and might inadvertently provide financial incentive to those who convert forests to other uses. An agreement at Copenhagen could start a process that initially slows and eventually stops deforestation, but there is a danger that without sufficient attention and pressure, it could perversely encourage it.
It is worth remembering that Copenhagen will be just another step forwards, part of an ongoing process of crafting a response to climate change. Ideally this summit will lay the practical foundations for this response. But if nations fail to agree on at least some of these issues this December, then negotiations will become even more of an unyielding morass, which would be a bad thing for everyone.