One of the primary tasks of this conference was to determine the outlines of a "shared vision"—areas where all parties were in agreement concerning what the negotiations would try to achieve. The hope was that this vision would move the negotiations from the very general goals established in the Bali Action Plan toward the kinds of specifics necessary to reach a final agreement a year from now in Copenhagen. So how the negotiators doing? Well, do you want the good news first, or the bad?
Let's start with the good. The negotiations haven't completely broken down—the negotiators have committed to continuing to talk next year, and have set out a work plan to do so. They've even authorized themselves to hold an extra meeting next year, which is fortunate, because they also agree that they still have an extraordinary amount of information to gather on nearly every component of a final agreement.
On the substance, there may still be some progress on the details of an adaptation fund that would assist developing countries in adapting to the effects of climate change. A number of positive actions by China and other developing countries would be good news, if they weren't being effectively ignored by the developed countries. Perhaps the best news is that the Obama administration will be able to begin formally engaging in the process in just over a month, which many hope will build the trust between developing and developed countries that is necessary for successful negotiations in 2009. Oh, and there's always the hope that the eleventh hour negotiations—which begin with the arrival today of each government's highest environmental officials and look like they could continue until Saturday—will bring better news than we've seen so far.
Beyond this, however, there has been very little progress thus far. On the crucial issue of the range of emissions reductions developed countries will commit to in next year's agreement, the negotiators could get no further than to reiterate the very general language from last year's Bali conference. In fact, the developed countries are now arguing that they should be able use on economic and other circumstances to justify setting low targets. This is in contrast to some very concrete action by a number of developing countries: for example, China has just announced a major investment in energy efficiency and renewable electricity, and Mexico has just announced a plan to institute a cap-and-trade system by 2012, with a goal of cutting Mexican emissions in half by 2050.
I described previously some of the failures with respect to reducing emissions from deforestation (REDD). In addition, negotiators cannot even seem to agree that protecting the biodiversity and other services forests provide is anything more than a "co-benefit" that they should "explore," or that diverse native forests are better than monoculture tree plantations. And few developed countries have yet made useful proposals on how they will fulfill the obligation that they recognized in Bali to provide financial, technological and capacity building support to help developing country reduce their emissions.
So where are we now, a day or so from the formal end of negotiations? It looks like the negotiators will do little more than keep the negotiations alive for next year. The work plan lays a foundation for moving forward, even if the lack of substantive progress so far will make next year's work even harder. But there is at least one additional ray of hope: during his campaign, Barack Obama showed the world his capacity for inspiring and motivating. If there ever is a time when this kind of leadership is needed—when these negotiations need an infusion of hope and a sense of possibility—that time is now.