In The Field

Barcelona climate: Momentum builds for a “political agreement” in Copenhagen

The European Commission’s chief negotiator, Artur Runge-Metzger, acknowledged this afternoon that Europe might have to settle for a political agreement rather than a binding legal treaty in Copenhagen (see my post this morning for a quick discussion of the issue). Everybody else has been talking about this possibility for some time, but it’s not insignificant when the EU, which has always been the primary driver of this process, starts talking about it. Indeed, one environmentalist told me that once Europe gives up on the idea of a fully ratifiable deal in Copenhagen, the game is over.

As noted by The Associated Press, the official European position on the need for a ratifiable treaty remains in place. When I asked a spokesman about some kind of plan “PlanContentRecord B”, he squirmed and said this represents more of an acknowledgement of what other people are saying than anything else. In fact, people in the United States started saying this last year, shortly after US President Barack Obama’s election, citing the monumental difficulty of establishing a new climate policy in less than a year. Interestingly enough, I talked to one former negotiator who said that many Europeans have been thinking along these lines for just as long but simply chose to maintain pressure by pushing for a full deal.

As it happens, UN climate chief Yvo de Boer and Malta’s Michael Zammit Cutajar, who chairs the non-Kyoto negotiations that include the United States, both outlined their vision of a political deal in Copenhagen in a closed-door session with non-governmental groups on Wednesday. For a summary of their positions, check a blog posted by Elliot Diringer at the Pew Center on Global Climate Change, a group that drew criticism from ncomprehensive one other than Yvo de Boer himself for making the very same assessment last year.

The problem, once again, is that the United States is not ready to commit because it doesn’t have, and isn’t likely to have before early next year, domestic climate legislation in place. The US and the EU discussed the issue at a climate summit this week in Washington but were unable to reach any agreement on how to move forward.

As it happens, the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee passed a comprehensive climate bill today, but committee votes aren’t that important in the Senate. This one is even less important given that Republicans boycotted the vote. The significance of the boycott is unclear, but Senator John Kerry, the Massachusetts Democrat who authored the Senate bill, is already reaching across the aisle in an effort to craft a compromise (see the Washington Post for more detailindex).

One thing is clear: US Senate does not respond to global frustration. On the other hand, discussions about securing some kind of an interim political agreement in Copenhagen and then returning to seal the deal in three to six months do in fact take into account the Senate schedule. Conventional wisdom posits that the bill needs to be finished in the first half of next year, because once lawmakers start campaigning for the 2010 elections in the fall they won’t want to touch the issue. That pushes things off until 2011. Scheduling another meeting in, say, June, would maintain pressure on Democrats while giving the Senate some necessary breathing room.

Make of all that what you will. In the meantime, the talks here in Barcelona wrap up tomorrow. There are some early reports of progress on discussions of technology and adaptation, but many of the bigger questions on financing and emissions are likely to get kicked down the road. More soon.

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