The real challenge of climate change negotiations is that countries fear others would take a free-ride on their efforts and undermine their economic competitiveness. The climate regime might be about a global public good and increasing global welfare; climate negotiations, however, are about mercantilist interests and protecting national welfare. This basic tension remained unresolved in Copenhagen. It will take another six weeks before developed countries submit emissions targets for 2020 and developing countries submit their planned mitigation actions.
Complicating the mercantilist negotiation was the power differential between countries. One obvious cleavage was between developed and developing countries. This meant that, first, no country was willing to commit to deeper cuts unless the US Senate moved first. It also meant that negotiations about financing continued to assume the colour of a donor-recipient relationship. That explains why Maldives supports the outcome: it will have first dip into the $10 billion of yearly funding promised for 2010-12 even though mitigation actions so far offered by rich countries are not sufficient to prevent the disappearance of the islands. Further, the 130-nation G-77 block of developing countries also suffered severe fissures. Chinese Premier Wens discussions with small countries notwithstanding, many LDCs and island states were unhappy over the unwillingness of China and India to do more. Then there were the cracks among rich nations. The fact that on the final night President Obama huddled together with the BASIC countries (Brazil, China, India and South Africa) made the Europeans feel that they were being left out in the Copenhagen cold.
The biggest stumbling block emerged on the question of measurement, reporting and verification (MRV). The US made it clear that lack of verification of Chinas actions would make any deal hollow. China protested that international verification would violate its sovereignty. The accord was a compromise that promised that developing countries would submit information on emissions and actions every two years, which would be domestically monitored. But the information would also be subject to international consultations and analysis. Despite the compromise, the actual design and operation of such MRV mechanisms have to be worked out. Similarly, monitoring of promised financial support from developed countries has to become much more robust and credible.
Thus, Copenhagen began building bits of the architecture for a future climate regimeemissions reductions, financing and monitoringbut the regime rests on weak foundations that do not make the vague statements credible. Increasing the credibility of deals between self-interested and differentially powerful parties increases the governance burden for a regime. When the Kyoto Protocol was signed, negotiators hoped that implementation, monitoring and enforcement would sort itself out. Despite that error of judgement, expectations were high for a big breakthrough in Copenhagen, even though the governance questions remained outstanding. Viewed from a governance perspective, the weak outcome of the talks should come as no surprise.
It is hard to predict how 2010 will look for climate negotiations, especially since no clear next steps have been outlined. Rather than only trying to convert a political statement into a legal agreement, negotiators would do well to go back to basic principles. First, much more attention has to be devoted to finding win-win solutions. This is definitely not easy. For instance, cooperation on clean energy technology will still raise competitiveness concerns but it is an essential step.
Secondly, negotiations will always be affected by power asymmetries, but they need to be organised more efficiently. So far the strategy of only the major emitters making deals (at the G20, MEF or in Copenhagen) will be hostage to threats from countries like Sudan or Venezuela. Instead, smaller groups of negotiating coalitions (region-based or issue-based) could be represented by different countries that provide broad-based legitimacy and yet do not make the negotiations unwieldy. The trade regime has managed to graduate to this model since the debacle in Seattle in 1999.
Thirdly, transparency will be crucial, but we have to recognise that there will be resistance to international verification until large developing countries also develop credible domestic capacity to monitor emissions. Therefore, domestic regulatory institutions need immediate attention. None of these steps will yield immediate outcomes; leaders need to set expectations accordingly. Without the governance horses, the climate cart will remain stuck.
The author is Oxford-Princeton Global Leaders Fellow at the Woodrow Wilson School, Princeton University