This blog has been hibernating for the past days because I was visiting Washington, DC, for business. This post is motivated by several interesting discussions that I had with different climate experts on international negotiations after Copenhagen.

For background, the Copenhagen Conference of December 2009 was officially supposed to produce a global agreement after the Kyoto Protocol expires in 2012. Instead, it produced the Copenhagen Accord: a non-binding text that allows countries to submit emissions or action pledges for 2020. Far from concluding the negotiations for a global treaty, the Copenhagen Accord is the beginning of a new era in climate diplomacy.

This new era is surrounded by great uncertainties, and it is not even clear what the delegates should negotiate about. The United States does not have  a federal climate legislation  (and may not have one for years to come), and China did not play a constructive role in Copenhagen.

One issue that gained prominence in Copenhagen was the question of monitoring, reporting, and verification (MRV). Once seen as a fringe issue, MRV was a key point of contention in Copenhagen, as the developing countries objected to any verification requirements until the dramatic final hours of the negotiations.

Progress towards a mutually acceptable MRV system may prove useful for achieving the ultimate goal of a global treaty for several reasons. First, it is clear that a system must exist for binding commitments to have any meaning. Otherwise it is too easy for individual states to scrap mitigation efforts without adverse consequences. Second, the MRV system can be addressed without fully specifying commitments. Resolving the MRV question may be possible without a full agreement on North-South burden sharing, an issue that is even more controversial than MRV. Finally, an MRV question is particularly important for climate finance, as verification is absolutely essential for securing contributions from industrialized countries to mitigation and adaptation in developing countries.

A number of issues must be resolved. What is the relative importance of international and national MRV? How much national capacity do developing countries have for MRV, and how can they improve it? Will MRV be mostly voluntary? Will it be phased in gradually? Will all mitigation actions be subjected to similar MRV requirements? Will the requirement be different for developed and developing countries, and to what degree? And so on.

This brings us to the other key issue, namely finance. One of the silver linings in Copenhagen was that developed countries, including the United States, pledged to begin providing financial assistance to the global South for climate mitigation and adaptation. However, this is a major institutional design challenge. Where does the money come from? Private or public? Which principles govern allocation? What kind of institutions channel the funds? Will the MRV requirements be more stringent for mitigation actions supported by foreign donors?  And so on.

I believe that resolving these issues may help generate momentum for ambitious commitments in the future, though the wait may be longer than it should be. The reason is not that MRV and finance are easy issues. Quite to the contrary, they are controversial and important issues! But they are not impossible, and this is the reason why I believe a focus on them is useful. If multilateral negotiations deliver results on such issues — neither trivially easy nor impossible — they may help restore mutual confidence among the delegates and restore the legitimace of the United Nations process.

Successes that fall short of the ultimate goal of binding commitments can be very important, but only if they are relevant to the central issue. Both MRV and finance will inevitably be a part of a future global treaty, so addressing them is a good place to start.