One cheer for Copenhagen

Sunday, December 20, 2009

LATE FRIDAY at the Copenhagen climate conference, cheers erupted when word came that President Obama had struck a deal with Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao. But privately, some climate activists scratched their heads. What, exactly, were people cheering?

The agreement emerging from the talks isn't bold. It will include greenhouse gas mitigation targets for developed and major developing countries, which had been announced before the conference. It noted developed countries' pledge of $100 billion annually by 2020 to assist developing countries, and it prioritizes funding for those most in need. In return, major developing countries agreed -- generally -- to a regime of reporting and verification of their emissions goals.

Many of the details, particularly on the transparency provisions, still need to be set. Developing countries agreed that any project supported with outside aid should be subject to international measurement, reporting and verification -- an important step. Countries such as China, however, will domestically fund many of their efforts, so at least as important are rules on the reporting of those carbon-curbing programs. The agreement states that they, along with aggregate national carbon inventories, will be domestically monitored but internationally reported on a set schedule, after which some kind of international review would follow. The establishment of this principle represents movement on China's part, though its impact will depend on future agreements, which must ensure that review is truly independent. Even then, these measures are weaker than those applied to developed countries. That disparity will have to change before funding really ramps up or before any international carbon market starts to operate on a large scale.

Some of the targets included, meanwhile, aren't adequate. A U.N. report leaked last week concluded that, taken together, pledged emissions cuts would almost certainly allow for warming far beyond 2 degrees Celsius, the threshold beyond which scientists say global warming could be disastrous. Governments must do better.

Then there is the obstructionism of a handful of countries such as Venezuela and Sudan, which prevented the agreement's formal adoption, a problem the U.N. negotiating structure may well have to work around again in the future.

Still, this outcome, however imperfect, should prod the U.S. Senate to take up climate-change legislation. Even if China hadn't moved, reducing America's dependence on foreign sources of energy and tackling domestic pollution are strong enough reasons to pass a bill. Vigorous debate should commence. Sens. John Kerry (D-Mass.), Joseph I. Lieberman (I-Conn.) and Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) have released a framework for legislation similar to a cap-and-trade bill the House passed, which requires a lot of fixing. Sens. Susan Collins (R-Maine) and Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) have their own, much simpler bill that would rebate carbon auction revenue directly to taxpayers. It is appealing, and it warrants attention, too.

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