International negotiators will gather in Copenhagen, Denmark in December to hammer out a new and possibly historic worldwide treaty to regulate greenhouse gas emissions. Following up on the expiring Kyoto Protocol, it is widely billed as the last chance to save the planet from a temperature rise of two degrees Celsius or higher. Sascha Müller-Kraenner is the Europe coordinator of The Nature Conservancy, a U.S. environmental group. Paul Hockenos spoke to him in Berlin.

PAUL HOCKENOS: Could you, in a nutshell, give us the background to the Copenhagen summit?

SASCHA MÜLLER-KRAENNER: Copenhagen is the culmination of a 20-year process. In the early 1990s, the world started negotiating an international climate agreement based on the first scientific reports coming from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). There were a number of subsequent efforts, first the Framework Convention in Rio in 1992, which was very general and had no concrete commitments. In Kyoto in 1997, there were some initial concrete commitments, at least for the industrialized nations. This was hailed a historic compromise between the United States and the European Union. But as we know, the United States dropped out of the deal.

Then a slow phase followed for international climate diplomacy because of the Bush administration. For almost a decade not much happened. In 2007 the IPCC issued a stern warning, and a new effort was made once it became clear that there would be a new U.S. administration. The idea was to fix the two major flaws of the Kyoto Protocol—that it was not ratified by all developed countries, mainly by the United States, and that it did not contain concrete objectives for any of the major developing countries.

The later point is important because in those 20 years since Rio the developing countries’ contribution to global greenhouse gases has more than doubled. China and the United States are now the largest emitters. In the early 1990s one could say that this was the industrial countries’ problem and that they had to fix it, but today we need a deal that includes everyone.

HOCKENOS: To what degree will Copenhagen build on Kyoto or contradict it?

MÜLLER-KRAENNER: We have to go beyond the Kyoto Protocol. The current commitments are just not strong enough because the problem has become more dramatic. In 2007, the 13th UN Climate Conference drew up the Bali Roadmap, which defined what a compromise could look like. First, all developed countries would make advanced commitments to reduce their emissions in absolute numbers, beyond the commitments in Kyoto. Second, developing countries would take new measurable actions. And third, developed countries would transfer technology and provide financing to developing countries to help them fulfill their obligations.

Another important factor for the developing countries is deforestation, which was excluded from the Kyoto Protocol. Deforestation accounts for 20% of global greenhouse gas emissions today and, for a number of tropical forest countries, especially countries like Brazil or Indonesia, considerably more. Tropical deforestation alone makes Indonesia one of the biggest emitters of greenhouse gases worldwide today.

HOCKENOS: What then is really at stake in Copenhagen?

MÜLLER-KRAENNER: Copenhagen is important for two reasons. First, the Kyoto Protocol only defines commitments until 2012, so there needs to be follow-up. The end of 2009 is a reasonable timeframe for such an agreement, because it would still need another two years plus to be ratified before actually going into force on January 1, 2013. Second, we have seen a considerable build-up of political momentum, especially this year with numerous meetings under the UN climate process, the Major Economies Forum, the G-20, and G-8 summit, and a UN Special General Assembly in mid-September in New York. This political momentum should not be wasted. It would therefore be useful to at least agree on a common political basis in Copenhagen even if the details might have to be filled out in consecutive rounds. The rough terms of the political deal have to be agreed upon for the simple reason that it will be extremely difficult to muster the same political tension of world leaders on the climate problem in another year.

HOCKENOS: What would you consider a positive outcome?

MÜLLER-KRAENNER: For a number of reasons — mainly slow progress in the United States, very complex negotiations between developed and developing countries, and a complex set of issues described in the Bali Roadmap including mitigation, adaptation, technology transfer, and finance — it looks like we will only get a very general political agreement in Copenhagen. Key is that it sets a mandate for a legally binding agreement, not a general framework.

The Copenhagen agreement also must contain new objectives both for developed countries and developing countries that are measurable, reportable, and verifiable. Third, those actions must be balanced by significant new financial resources from developed countries that support developing countries. Without these three elements–a legally binding character, objectives both for developed and developing countries, and a sound financial architecture–we will not have a deal. What we can reasonably achieve in Copenhagen is a political agreement. The technical terms and legal text will follow later.

HOCKENOS: To what extent is the United States necessary for achieving a positive outcome?

MÜLLER-KRAENNER: The United States is absolutely critical. First, it is still the biggest emitter together with the Chinese. Second, due to the financial resources necessary for stopping the rise of energy use in developing countries, the United States is necessary to help developing countries transition toward low carbon economies. Third, U.S. participation is important politically. Developing countries that economically take the United States as a point of reference would only join such an agreement with meaningful commitments if the United States was part of it. Even with the European Union, Japan, and others, such an agreement would not be enough to convince countries like China and Brazil to join.

HOCKENOS: What are the Obama administration’s options?

MÜLLER-KRAENNER: There are two ways to go about it. One is to wait until the legislative process for energy and climate legislation in the United States is finalized and then commit to these exact domestic targets internationally. Scenario number two is that the Obama administration starts negotiating on a reasonable assumption of what might happen in United States, knowing that in Copenhagen we will not yet sign an international agreement but merely set the framework. Obviously what the Obama administration cannot do is commit to something internationally that is not in the cards domestically. That is what Vice President Al Gore did when he signed up for something in Kyoto that was contrary to what the Senate had laid down in the Byrd-Hagel Resolution. Then the Clinton administration didn’t follow up with any advocacy activities toward Congress to get national climate legislation enacted.

What the Obama administration can do, however, is make a reasonable assumption about how far and how fast it can move, based on the national legislation in the works. This would leave room for international negotiation, which wouldn’t be the case if the United States arrived in Copenhagen with a finished agreement. The problem is that so far this is exactly what the U.S. administration has said — it will wait until it has national legislation enacted and introduce exactly what it can commit to domestically. So the question is whether the Obama administration will take a carefully calculated risk and make an assumption about what it can accomplish in the United States.

HOCKENOS: What are the stickiest points for Washington and the Obama administration? Where is there most likely to be opposition from the United States?

MÜLLER-KRAENNER: All points are sticky so far because the commitments do not go far enough. The United States has given no indication whatsoever as to how much money it is willing to put on the table for an international deal. Most importantly the United States has not yet committed to a legally binding international agreement. Instead the United States has proposed an “implementing agreement” or a loose framework of countries pledging individual commitments with review from the international community. These countries might be blamed and shamed but they would not have to fear any legal consequences. We not only need review mechanisms, but also compliance mechanisms. The same goes for financial commitments, which are absolutely crucial for developing countries. These countries have made it crystal clear that there will have to be a certain symmetry between their commitments and developed countries’ commitments to support them financially.

HOCKENOS: To what extent do the current climate talks represent a power shift in global influence and to what extent do emerging economies like China, India, and Brazil play a role different from the one they played 10 years ago?

MÜLLER-KRAENNER: They play a huge role. After all, global, economical, and political influence has shifted. The U.S. influence in those negotiations has decreased significantly, because U.S. economical and political weight has decreased, and because it lost legitimacy during the years of the Bush administration. The United States has been extremely passive in the negotiations. Since it is not a member of the Kyoto Protocol, it is only allowed as an observer in UN climate change meetings.

Furthermore, all the informal consultations that drive the policy process have not included the United States in the last years. Because it has not been part of the continuous consultation and discussion processes between the European Union and major developing countries over a long stretch of time, it has lost touch with the thinking of other major players. Simply speaking, despite disagreements, at the end of the day the European, Indian, and Chinese delegates were having a beer together while the Americans were never invited to have a beer. That’s apparent in the discussions nowadays.

Power has also shifted in the climate context. Originally Kyoto was a deal between the European Union and the United States, in which developing countries signed on but did not undertake commitments of their own. Developing countries were still to a large extent in an observer position, just making sure that there were not commitments imposed on them through the backdoor. But today they are much keener to only commit to things they consent to — now they are really negotiating.

HOCKENOS: The European Union has seen itself as a pioneer forging the way in climate policy. Will it still have that role in Copenhagen?

MÜLLER-KRAENNER: It definitely still had that role in Bali. One important factor though is that we are not talking about the same European Union anymore. During Kyoto we had the EU-15 and now we have the EU-27. The European Union is not only bigger, which means more complex decision-making processes, but it is also much more diverse because the new member states are in an absolutely different economic situation. That makes the European Union a more complex beast and intra-EU consensus building processes more complicated.

In Bali the European Union showed leadership by being the first one to put a target and a comprehensive legislative package on the table. Every additional step to build consensus with the European Union is extremely difficult, but so far the European Union has stuck together. It has been much slower than one would have wished, but the European Union is still diplomatically driving the process.

HOCKENOS: German Chancellor Angela Merkel dubbed herself the “Climate Chancellor.” Does she deserve this moniker?

MÜLLER-KRAENNER: Merkel is representing a tradition of German leadership inside the European Union and on the international stage. She is continuing the leadership role that former chancellors Gerhard Schröder and Helmut Kohl had.

However, one also has to distinguish between a Germany taking on the leadership role internationally and a Germany having difficulties pushing through the necessary implementation measures on the domestic front. Although Germany has put forward a rather ambitious domestic plan as a target, the implementation of specific legislative measures is still lagging. Some things have happened in the last four years, but there is still a gap between the proclaimed target and the measures that have been put on the table. Merkel is less of a leader domestically than internationally.

HOCKENOS: What is a worst-case scenario?

MÜLLER-KRAENNER: The worst-case scenario in Copenhagen would be a major fallout between the United States and developing countries. This could mean that United States would not be willing to sign a legally binding agreement and developing countries would then leave the negotiations as well. On the one hand, actors like China and India, the big emerging economies, need some pushing, as does the United States. But we also have to be careful that negotiations do not break down. At some point we may have to realize that we need more time — maybe another half a year.

HOCKENOS: When it comes to climate change, does the Obama administration have its eye on the ball?

MÜLLER-KRAENNER: I have the impression that the people now in charge really care. They are very professional. I am slightly disappointed, however, that this administration is so underprepared. The administration needed much longer than expected to formulate policies and to understand how the political dynamics in the UN climate talks have changed and progressed since Kyoto. That is surprising for a political culture with such an abundance of think tanks, writing policy papers on every imaginable detail of the climate talks. The full negotiation team is still not in place because the nomination process of political appointees is so cumbersome.

My concern now is that the Obama administration, with all the other issues on the table such as health care reform and Afghanistan, is losing its focus precisely when things are becoming serious. But it doesn’t have to be this way. In principle we have a well-organized build-up toward Copenhagen. We have the Major Economies Forum coming up in September, the G-20 summit in Pittsburgh, the UN Special General Assembly, and a number of bilateral meetings planned. So in principle all the important actors are coming together. The problems are all on the table. What is missing is the political will and leadership necessary to make Copenhagen a success.

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