Fresh Air in Copenhagen

By Washington Post, Washington Post - December 7, 2009

THIS WEEK, international negotiators convene in Copenhagen to forge a long-anticipated international agreement on climate change. The headline heading into the conference was the announcement of a carbon-curbing target by India, the last of the high-profile greenhouse gas emitters to step forward. While the commitments on the table before the conference -- most recently from the United States, China and the subcontinent -- are almost certainly inadequate, they have made possible a Copenhagen agreement that will at least put the world on the right path.

Now, however, negotiations center on how to transfer hundreds of billions in cash and technology from rich countries to developing ones. Developing nations insist that they need the aid to adapt to the worst effects of climate change, to curb deforestation and to get off carbon-intensive development paths. Though the amounts that developing countries demand are impossibly high, the International Energy Agency estimates that non-OECD countries will, in fact, require $197 billion of additional investment annually for carbon reduction by 2020. Not all of that must come from foreign donors, but Yvo de Boer, climate chief at the United Nations, has said that for curbing emissions and adaptation the developed world should contribute $10 billion annually over the next few years and about $100 billion a year in the long term.

The White House indicated before the conference that developing nations are likely to agree to the $10 billion figure in Denmark. But in the long term, the best outcome is for most of the money flowing from rich nations to come from private investment, which should respond to incentives that national governments create for business to invest in carbon-cutting efforts.

Any Copenhagen agreement should ensure that the results of such national policies are recognized as assistance. This approach, argues Fred Krupp of the Environmental Defense Fund, will also require that developing nations with serious mitigation plans have access to a sound international carbon market in which their efforts are all measured in the same units -- tons of carbon -- and are internationally verified, so that private capital is guided to effective programs.

On account of international politics if nothing else, another chunk of aid will have to come from rich nations' public funds. The British newspaper the Guardian has reported that some European Union countries may want the option of diverting existing aid flows instead of allocating new money. In fact, that solution is sensible if aid that would have gone to promoting carbon-intensive development is reprogrammed to be greener, but not if it merely steals from the poor to pay for climate-change efforts.

Also critical is ensuring that new conduits for foreign aid don't become corrupt international institutions that set policy for the benefit of those in power in recipient nations, rather than for the Earth's climate. A sizable role for the World Bank or a comparable institution, which rich countries favor, is a good idea. So is the U.S. position that donor nations commit to spending a certain amount but not guarantee which international entity will get it. The House-passed Waxman-Markey climate bill gives the administration flexibility on where to send aid, and that provides the United States needed leverage over how it is used. If there is danger that money will be wasted, America could simply distribute it through other facilities or even bilaterally.

If developing countries agree to sensible accountability measures and rich countries put real money on the table, this issue need not prevent the parties at Copenhagen from reaching a robust political agreement.

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