COPENHAGEN -- Trust between nations is in short supply at the U.N. climate talks. Dealing with it has emerged as the linchpin in the negotiations of a new global warming treaty.
"Transparency" is the buzzword du jour for U.S. negotiators, representing what they insist they want to see in a new deal: one that holds China, India and other major emerging countries to account for the emission reductions they make.
"People need to trust the process, and that trust is built through transparency," Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) told a packed hall at the U.N. conference today (see related story).
The issue is coming to a head amid unprecedented attention on the U.N. climate talks. World leaders are arriving before countries have bridged a gulf of discord on dozens of issues, and the stress is palpable.
Already, world leaders are ratcheting up their rhetoric. Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez this morning denounced capitalism and "the world imperial dictatorship." Before the plenary ceremonies could even begin, the vice president of Sudan charged the Danish hosts of the U.N. talks with a "conspiracy" to leave poor countries out of key discussions and undermine their interests.
But transparency has risen to the top of the agenda in Copenhagen for one reason: It is important to the Senate. Without it, Kerry and Obama administration officials warn, the United States might not pass cap-and-trade legislation at all. That, in turn, would torpedo hopes of an international treaty being finalized sometime next year.
China, meanwhile, has some trust issues of its own with the United States. Namely, they and others are skeptical the United States will cut emissions at all -- despite President Obama's public pledge. After all, developing countries often point out, the United States signed the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, only to back out. Chinese leaders, backed by India, Brazil and South Africa are flatly refusing any measures that would open their emission books to the world.
"This is a problem that we may not be able to decisively bridge here in Copenhagen," said Elliot Diringer, vice president for international strategies at the Pew Center on Global Climate Change.
In the tortured lingo of the U.N. climate regime, nations want MRV: measurable, reportable and verifiable actions. But the language, born from global warming talks two years ago in Indonesia, means different things to different countries.
Developing countries believe the phrase in the agreement that came out of Bali refers only to money. That is, rich countries should face a compliance system to ensure they give poorer ones the funds necessary to help drive down emissions.
The United States, backed strongly by Japan, says the road runs both ways. The funds need to be under check but so do the emission cuts.
China has pledged to reduce the rise of carbon emissions relative to economic growth 40 to 45 percent. India has pledged to reduce by 20 to 25 percent. Major nations like Brazil and South Africa also have made serious pledges. They say it will amount to a total combined reduction of 2.1 gigatons of CO2 in the coming decade -- a claim that analysts scrambled to figure out how to verify.
"Their actions should be clearly reviewed," said the Japanese climate ambassador, Akihiko Furuya, in an interview. "It makes us know that their actions are real and their actions are effective and contributing to mitigation efforts globally."
Furuya argued that once the countries have committed to cutting carbon domestically, presenting their cuts to an international body should not be a major imposition. "Why do they have hesitation to submit their actions?" he asked.
The answer, analysts say, is partially cultural even as it is rooted in the history of U.N. climate talks.
China, though it is shedding communism from its financial system, continues to cloak much of its data in secrecy. And at a recent panel talk in Washington, former Assistant Secretary of Commerce Raymond Vickery, who has worked for years to promote U.S.-India economic cooperation, argued that India's history with colonialism makes its leaders particularly sensitive to international interference. Others note that India still bristles over the strings that the International Monetary Fund attached to country aid to help the collapsed economy in the early 1990s.
Indian Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh has insisted that Indian democracy is a powerful enough truth squad. "There is no country where the MRV is so ruthless as it is in India," he said. Chinese leaders, meanwhile, say they will conduct their own studies and make their reports available to the public, so no additional review is necessary.
Michael Levi, a climate expert at the Council on Foreign Relations, criticized India in particular for its position.
"India is essentially providing cover for China on transparency," Levi said. "It would be a perfect fit for India to come out and say, 'We are a democracy ... and we believe in transparency.'" He also argued that China's intentions are not clear. "Let's not assume that China wants a deal," he said. "They want to avoid international opprobrium for scuttling a deal."
Is compromise possible?
The European Union says it backs the United States in the insistence upon transparency and Swedish Environment Minister Andreas Carlgren told ministers today that he expects China to take binding targets. But it remains unclear how deep E.U. support runs.
"I'm concerned about the inability of the Europeans to be willing to say 'no' to the demands of the G-77," said Frank Loy, who helped negotiate the Kyoto Protocol under President Clinton. "The U.S. and Europe are not yet together, especially on the transparency issue."
Analysts say they are confident a compromise exists. But finding it won't be easy. Negotiators are juggling dozens of prickly issues, from forest offsets to intellectual property, and none of them are being worked out in a vacuum. Horse trading or hard lines on any one could produce compromise or dug-in heels on another.
Meanwhile, many fear the United States has already offered all it can. President Obama already has announced the United States will accept carbon cuts "in the range" of 17 percent below 2005 levels in the coming decade. Without Senate passage of climate legislation, he likely cannot offer more in the way of targets.
Obama also announced a $10 billion fund to help poor countries meet immediate needs in preparing for climate disasters. Even if the U.S. pledge to that fund is more than the approximately $1.2 billion approved in the budget, it is not likely to sway other nations.
One major give could be a figure on long-term financing. Developing countries say they need at least $100 billion to help them transition to low-fossil-fuel economies. But the United States has not given any indication of what, if anything, it may have to offer.
"There's still nothing on the table for [developing countries] to move one more step," said Jennifer Morgan, climate change director at the World Resources Institute think tank.
China wants other things, too, like joint research and development technology partnerships and assurances that U.S. legislation won't include a tax on its imports. Yet the inclusion of such a border tax measure in the Senate bill is almost a given.
"That piece of the domestic legislation is playing out on the international stage and hardening the domestic line," Morgan said.
New negotiating text out today develops several possibilities on trade, one of which is eliminating the idea of barriers entirely. A move like that would be almost guaranteed to plummet U.S. support for an international accord, and experts said they doubted it would remain in the final text.
U.S. cash seen as key
Meanwhile, Ramesh told E&E that he sees only one way a compromise can be reached: money.
"If the U.S. puts $100 billion on the table, if the United States comes up with a generous offer, the chemistry of Copenhagen will change," Ramesh said.
Annie Petsonk, international counsel for the Environmental Defense Fund, said that in some ways, it is a good fight to have. Just months ago, developing nations were refusing to do anything at all to slash carbon.
"Instead of this being a standoff of 'I'm not going to do anything,' it's starting to be 'I'll do more than you do,'" Petsonk said.
But, she added, accountability does matter. The alternative to binding targets is a system in which nations simply make promises but are not held accountable. Scientists would be virtually unable to guarantee whether the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere was truly declining.
Said Petsonk, "It would mean for our kids we would not have a way to ensure them that we've tackled the problem that they are going to have to live with."