Just what is in a “political agreement”?

As the world turns its attention to Copenhagen, the most asked question is “What do you think will be agreed?”. The reality is nobody knows what will happen but given the political announcements of recent weeks expectations are dropping. We have all been told that a “legally binding” agreement will not be completed in Copenhagen, but rather to expect a major step forward or a “political agreement”.

When all is said and done, Copenhagen will almost certainly represent a landmark in the progressive shift to a global low carbon economy. Whether the final agreement is reached there or 6-12 months later is of little consequence, provided clear direction comes in December. We shouldn’t forget that the signing of the Kyoto Protocol led to many years of discussion and that the agreement itself was not finally ratified until 2005, some eight years later. Although we cannot wait eight years this time around, a delay into 2010 to allow a more substantive agreement to be reached is acceptable, perhaps even desirable given the current state of deliberations in the US Senate on the cap-and-trade bill.

But much still needs to be achieved in Copenhagen.

First, the delegations must reach agreement on overall structure. This is really an essential part of the process, but gets very little coverage in the media. The Kyoto Protocol has no formal end so the discussion regarding future commitment periods continues to roll on, but of course without the USA. In parallel, the AWG-LCA (Ad-Hoc Working Group on Long-Term Cooperative Action) is negotiating a text which could be adopted as a new international agreement – but what of the Kyoto Protocol if that were to happen. Many developing countries have reacted negatively to its demise, but equally it is unsustainable in its current form given the small number of countries with specific targets. This may have seemed appropriate when discussions commenced in 1992, but it is not an appropriate fit for the reality of today.

But the Kyoto Protocol shouldn’t just be discarded. The key elements that lay the foundation for a market based approach need to be extracted and adopted into the new structure. Without this infrastructure the broader premise that carbon markets will be a key component of a future agreement will have no foundation. Nor is it likely that these will be recast from scratch – it will just take too long.

By the end of the Copenhagen meeting we may well have some sort of announcement regarding international action, but if it doesn’t include something about the Kyoto Protocol, it’s future and the framework within which a new agreement will sit, it is hard to see how that new agreement will emerge at future meetings. Hard though it may be, Copenhagen is the time and place to deal with this issue.

Second, there must be clear recognition that the end-game requires all parties to adopt absolute targets, which means the focus must be on the transition for developing countries from their current status to a future one bound by emissions limits. For some countries such a move can come in the near future, for others it could be some decades away. Transitionary financial and capacity building measures will be critical.

Finally, an emissions reduction pathway must be agreed and devolved to national / regional level. Today there seems to be broad agreement that a two degree target is where the world is going, but this isn’t a compliance based target. At best it is a loose guideline for domestic action, but it is wide open to interpretation. Like it or not, the only thing we can control is the amount we emit and nothing else. With that done comes an adpatation strategy. So an agreement that confirms the two degrees but does little to translate it into a global emissions pathway is of limited value.

The reality is that we know what has to be done, we know the timeline we have to do it in and although there remains much room for innovation we also know we have the necessary technology base to deliver the required reductions.

There is no impediment remaining other than self interest and nationalism. These will have to be set to one side in Copenhagen and beyond