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What Will This Week's Climate Forum Accomplish?

Katherine Michonski is a research associate for energy and the environment at the Council on Foreign Relations.

Yesterday, the Obama administration kicked off its Major Economies Forum on energy and climate change, bringing together 17 countries, including Brazil, China, India, the EU, Indonesia, Japan, Britain, and South Africa, to build momentum for a "successful outcome" at the U.N. climate negotiations in Copenhagen this December, as well as explore smaller "concrete" clean-energy steps. This is basically a reformulation of an earlier Bush initiative (the Major Economies Meeting) with a slightly new title. The Bush effort was sometimes criticized for being little more than an attempt to undermine ongoing U.N. talks. But the process is valuable—and worth watching.

The logic behind the Major Economies Forum is that the U.N. climate talks—with its 192 participating countries—is far too unwieldy to get a number of critical issues resolved effectively. It makes sense to have a smaller, more flexible forum to hash out key issues among the major emitters, who are responsible for 80 percent of the world's carbon emissions and will have to take the biggest steps in curbing that pollution. The MEF would ideally allow these countries to focus on more high-impact "joint ventures" that might not get due consideration or support within the U.N. framework.

The forum could also help the major players develop their negotiating positions for Copenhagen and deal with a few of the more contentious issues outside of the U.N. framework. All parties in the U.N. climate talks have met once already, in Bonn, and will meet four more times this year. The rifts between developing and developed countries (over, among other things, financing for mitigation and adaptation) that surface during those U.N. talks could be addressed in more detail in the MEF forum, providing an opportunity for some sort of pre-Copenhagen agreement by the major emitters to emerge before the actual negotiations in Copenhagen begin.

So what should we expect to result from the current meeting? We can be certain there are things it won’t achieve this time around (anyone expecting the United States to come out with firm emissions targets shouldn’t hold their breath). At a minimum, the MEF will help lay the groundwork for cooperation among the major emitters—what the forum achieves in the long run depends on the ability of the group to forge consensus on key issues. In July (when the "leaders MEF" meeting is currently scheduled to take place), it will be interesting to see what "concrete initiatives" this renewed process proposes to reduce major economies' emissions.

--Katherine Michonski