The Copenhagen climate summit is just weeks away and it seems that every columnist and their dog has a view on whether it will be a success or failure.

A recent editorial in The Age said: “It is now clear that the chances of that (strong deal in Copenhagen) are slim.”

This comes on the back of the UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown recently telling representatives of the world’s largest economies that we can’t risk a Plan B on climate change.

Let’s be clear, we are currently not on track to sign a ratifiable treaty in Copenhagen but that’s not to say we shouldn’t expect key outcomes that will set us on the path to achieve this global treaty in 2010.

The are many reasons why Copenhagen is unlikely to deliver a treaty in December, but a key international political issue is the lack of substantive progress on how the world will drive public- and private-sector financing for clean energy growth, forest protection and climate change adaptation in developing countries.

The near silence on the scale and particularly the mechanisms to deliver predictable financing from all major developed economies is the principal problem on this front. The Australian government’s public hedging on this issue does not help.

If Copenhagen does not deliver a treaty in December, does this mean it has failed?

The short answer is no. Copenhagen will be a critical political moment where hard decisions will need to be made, but it was never going to be the end of the process.

Success in Copenhagen should not be judged according to whether it delivers a complete and ratifiable treaty. There are, however, certain foundations that the Copenhagen summit must deliver to avoid failure and ensure a treaty is agreed by mid-2010.

With this in mind, The Climate Institute has released a policy paper that outlines the key tests that need to be passed if the Copenhagen summit is to lay the building blocks for a robust multilateral climate security regime and a rapid global transition to clean energy economic growth.

An ambitious, fair and binding climate regime will be built on five pillars. It must be: consistent with climate security; have a robust legal form; include mechanisms to raise and deliver large-scale financial support to developing countries; be accountable and transparent; and — importantly — it must be politically durable.

To give an example, in Copenhagen countries must make a decision to build on the key features of the Kyoto Protocol and finalise a new treaty in enough time to ensure entry into force before the end of Kyoto’s first commitment period in 2012. The world can’t afford another year of discussion around what officials from 192 countries are actually meeting to talk about.

To be consistent with climate security, Copenhagen must also ensure the new agreement maintains the flexibility to respond to emerging scientific and technological developments, and avoids locking in potentially inadequate 2020 commitments.

Consistent with existing commitments, this can be done by ensuring the next compliance period is not extended beyond 2017 and agreeing that following the next reports of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change in 2013-14, a comprehensive review of the adequacy of collective and individual country commitments is undertaken and completed by the end of 2015. This would link emission reduction actions and commitments to climate change science and be used as a basis for the third compliance period commitments for 2018-2022 (i.e. Australia’s 2020 targets).

Future international action on climate change should be transparent and accountable by, for example, being based on internationally agreed accounting. Without an effective science-based and international system covering all sectors rules would largely be determined by national (vested) interests. (Witness the current debate in Australia about the role agriculture will play in reducing national emissions.)

To be politically durable, the Copenhagen outcome must also broaden participation in legally binding, but fair, commitments by advanced developing countries and enhance leadership by the US and other developed countries. Unless it achieves this, Copenhagen will fail to address the fundamental issues that have eroded confidence in the international climate regime.

While it is easy to fall into the politics of despair, it is important to note that the climate policy in all the major economies is heading, albeit too slowly, in the right direction.

The EU has an emissions trading system and it will inevitably be followed sooner or later by Australia, the US, Japan, Canada and other major developed country emitters. Newly industrialised countries such as South Korea and Mexico are also embarking on this route. China, Brazil and India are implementing and/or signalling legislated policies to slow emission growth. Indonesia also has signaled its preparedness to undertake decisive action and to do more if financial support from developed countries is forthcoming.

These and other commitments come close to matching Australia’s conditions for committing to a 15% reduction on 2000 carbon pollution levels, but we need to press on for the 450ppm or lower agreement and 25% reductions for Australia.

Despite the slow progress at the international level, action at the domestic level is accelerating. The fundamental question is whether these domestic commitments and actions coupled with a new post-2012 climate agreement add up to an effective global outcome.

Copenhagen is a critical stepping-stone to an ambitious global action, but not an end in itself. With political ambition, however, it can lay the foundations of global action to drive clean energy economic growth and put the world on a path towards climate security.