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Three Ways The Copenhagen Talks Could Succeed (Or Go Bust)

Given that there's virtually no chance a finished climate treaty will come out of the upcoming talks in Copenhagen, one might be forgiven for asking what, exactly, the world's diplomats are actually going to do these next two weeks in Denmark. Already, further talks are scheduled for next year—including yet another big climate summit in Mexico City in 2010. But with only so many negotiating sessions to go around, most climate-policy experts agree that tangible progress needs to be made at Copenhagen if there's to be a chance of a new global treaty to succeed the Kyoto Protocol, which will expire in 2012.

I asked Jake Schmidt, the director of international climate policy at the Natural Resources Defense Council, to get a better sense of what the big goals are for Copenhagen—and the obstacles to getting them accomplished. Basically, there are three major areas where countries need to strike rough agreements in order for the summit to be considered a success:

Commitments on reducing emissions: This is the one everybody focuses on—and the one where most advances have been made so far. True, Obama's announcement that the United States would aim to reduce its emissions some 17 percent below 2005 levels by 2020 has been ridiculed as paltry in Europe, while China's ensuing pledge to reduce its carbon intensity doesn't represent a big departure from existing policies. But the simple fact that the world's two biggest polluters are now making explicit commitments is unprecedented. Add in recent promises from India, Mexico, Brazil, Indonesia, and South Korea, and the stage is set for both poor and rich countries to hold hands and pledge real reductions at Copenhagen. The overall goal is to keep global temperatures from rising more than 2°C by reducing worldwide emissions at least 50 percent below 1990 levels by 2050.

What could go wrong? Some wealthy countries, notably Canada and Russia, are still balking at putting forward proposals to cut emissions. And it's still an open question whether others, like the United States and Australia, will be able to follow through on their pledges by passing domestic legislation. What's more, newly industrialized nations like Malaysia, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar represent a growing chunk of global emissions but have yet to signal any commitment to make their own cuts. (OPEC, not surprisingly, has been fighting from the start to torpedo a global deal.)

Standards for verifying those cuts: Making commitments is all well and good, but they'll be for naught if countries can't agree on how the emission cuts will be measured and verified. According to Schmidt, the United States has proposed that all countries report their emissions every two years and allow the inventories to be scrutinized by an expert review panel, which would verify the methodology and point out problems.

What could go wrong? China and India's recent pledges to slow their rates of emissions growth may have signaled that they're willing to make an effort, but developing countries have generally argued that they don't want to be bound to these promises—nor allow international scrutiny on whether they're meeting their targets. Excuses include appeals to national sovereignty and hurt feelings over broken funding promises from rich countries, but either way, progress has to be made on this issue in a way that will help everyone save face but still satisfy those skeptical that countries like China and India will actually follow through.

Financing emissions cuts in poor countries: There's little chance developing countries will agree to any treaty unless it includes substantial commitments from wealthy countries to fund mitigation, adaptation, clean-energy tech, and efforts to halt deforestation in the developing world. Mediators have proposed that industrialized countries start by offering $7 to $10 billion per year between 2010 and 2012 to get started, but fierce disagreements about the numbers remain (as you'd expect, poor countries want more aid, rich countries argue for less).

What could go wrong? Developing nations are immensely skeptical about pledges made by wealthier nations when it comes to climate change. And not without reason: Since the first framework convention on global warming in 1992, industrialized countries have made—and then broken—a variety of promises to help poorer nations mitigate and adapt to a warmer planet. To make matters worse, the E.U. has jeopardized negotiations with its current proposal to come up with money for climate aid by taking it out of its current aid budget. Finding a sustainable source of long-term funding won't be easy.

(flickr photo credit: aadu)