Copenhagen: What Progress on Offsets and Adaptation?

by Victor Flatt

December 07, 2009

Today, the 15th Conference of the Parties (COP) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) opens in Copenhagen. I will be a credentialed observer from non-governmental academic and research organizations including the Center for Progressive Reform and the Center for Law, Environment, Adaptation, and Resources (CLEAR) at the University of North Carolina School of Law.

In this space I have particularly focused on the carbon trading market and the use of offsets in the context of domestic legislation; in Copenhagen, I will continue to focus on the implications of any decisions regarding offsets and the carbon market, and whether or not this will in turn affect the U.S. debate and legislation. Because offsets raise concerns of co-harms and benefits, and because much of this harm or benefit will occur in the developed world I will be examining issues concerning adaptation as well.

The conference is a huge undertaking that is less predictable than might seem at first blush. Officials of the 192 parties to the UNFCCC (the United States is represented by the State Department, and various lawmakers will also attend) will meet in two groups: the official Conference of the Parties and an implementation group. Additionally, the credentialed side organizations, along with the countries themselves, will be holding nearly 300 official side meetings and presentations.

While the conventional wisdom is that any real progress must be made before the conference, this is not necessarily true. Though the diplomats and other negotiators would like to have all substantive decisions settled, some real progress can occur at the meeting itself. In fact, the whole point of bringing together 5,000 government agents with 15,000 experts, business persons, and environmentalists, is to allow knowledge and agreement to flow between countries and the public and private sectors to facilitate the best possible outcome.

A successful conference outcome would include agreement on targets for reduction, a commitment for reduction from the largest entities (with differences expected between the type and intensity of cuts between the developed and the developing world), and a way for those primarily responsible for climate change so far (the developed countries) to genuinely assist the locations that will be most harmed.

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With respect to offsets and adaptation, expect a majority of the progress off of the official stage.

Substantively, the biggest problem in reaching agreement on adaptation funding is not the amount of money transferred for assistance (though that is what most of the press will look for), but how this money will be distributed and used. Many people, including mitigation policy skeptic Bjorn Lomborg, have suggested that much of the developing world could use money for development rather than climate change adaptation projects. In one sense, he is right, as many of the world’s poorest countries are in desperate need of assistance to develop infrastructure and markets. But of course, not assisting with climate change adaptation or mitigation doesn’t mean more help or funding will suddenly start flowing to these countries for other needs. Yet it is important to be aware of the limitations of merely transferring money that may not provide real help to those in need.

In the last year, climate change players have realized the need for adaptation help to be useful and related to other needs in the developing world, such as jobs programs and health projects. Many of the most important side meetings will be devoted to brainstorming about how to do this effectively. Additionally, there has been an increased understanding that adaptation funding and assistance can be linked to co-benefits that can occur with offsets. Rather than focusing on the total amount of adaptation funds themselves, I'll be looking for novel proposals on adaptation policy, effective methods for direct assistance in the target countries, and effective methods for ensuring that financial assistance is actually used for its intended purpose.

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With respect to offsets, I will be looking for real progress on ensuring that offset programs are genuine, (i.e. verifiable and additional, without causing an increase in greenhouse gas emissions elsewhere), and that they will not increase other environmental or social harm.

On this front, an examination of the multiplicity of official side events addressing these issues is encouraging. Many of the scheduled presentations reflect a keen understanding of the complexities and nuances of offsets and how they fit in to any trading system to control greenhouse gases.

There will also be substantial meetings and programs devoted to the complexities of accomplishing, measuring, and monitoring the reduction of forestry damage and degradation (REDD) in the developing world. Some of these programs also consider how forestry and other offset programs should be examined for other impacts and how they could be accomplished while providing additional benefits.

Commentators are already bemoaning the fact that the CDM process will probably not see radical transformation at the conference, though I am a bit more optimistic. But with respect to offsets, there will be major progress even without official international agreement. The amount and complexity of the programs and talks on offsets bode well for the future. The mere fact that the business sector is increasing its understanding of how the market could work (under the watchful eye of the environmentalists) is truly an important step forward. Even if negotiations break down completely at the official level, the system agreements and understandings on offsets and adaptation at the business and grassroots level will likely make their way into greenhouse gas trading systems that already exist and will continue (as in the European Union and perhaps in the United States). If the major economies develop their economies around greenhouse gas limitations or markets with certain protocols, others will eventually follow suit. Otherwise, they will not have access to the future worldwide trading system that will include these constraints. Thus increasing agreement between businesses and environmentalists on how systems can function, work and be genuine and push from business interests will be a major part of moving forward. I will be reporting on this as well as the “official” results from the meetings.

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Also from Victor Flatt

Victor B. Flatt is the  Dwight Olds Chair and Faculty Director of the Environment, Energy and Natural Resources Center, University of Houston Law Center, and a Distinguished Scholar, Global Energy Management Institute at the University of Houston.

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