Monday, November 28, 2011

Kicking the Can

In the Opening Plenary of the latest round of climate negotiations in Durban, South Africa, South Africa's president Jacob Zuma reiterated an increasingly ineffectual plea:

"For most people in the developing countries and Africa, climate change is a matter of life and death."

While few who understand the problem doubt the truth of this statement, the power it has to motivate political action has ebbed significantly in the years since Copenhagen. For many delegations the sense of urgency has all but disappeared. For both the European Union and the United States, success in Durban will be primarily defined by setting into motion some of the agreements made in principle last year in Cancun. In effect, this is settling on wallpaper before the house is built.

What can we expect from Durban?

Many of the core issues that stalled talks in Copenhagen and Cancun remain unresolved and in all likelihood will be postponed until next year. While there is widespread recognition that the Kyoto Protocol was largely ineffective in slowing or stopping the accumulation of greenhouse gases (GHG) in the atmosphere leading to warming, delegations are split as to how to move beyond Kyoto.  Target reductions in GHG emissions were voluntary and only applied to countries totaling around 25% of all global emissions. 

Last year Japan, Canada, Australia and Russia made headlines by stating that they would not be part of a second commitment period or extension of the Kyoto Protocol.  Losing the involvement of these countries further undermines the effectiveness of a Kyoto-like agreement in solving the climate problem.  Yet, for many developing countries it is imperative that the assumptions Kyoto was built on remain in any final agreement.  This means that major economies of the developing world such as China, India, and Brazil should not be required to make the same level of sacrifice as quickly as the United States and the EU.  In his opening press conference in Durban, the U.S. negotiator Jonathan Pershing called this position "untenable".  As he put it, excluding the major economies of the developing world "will not solve the problem, [and] it will not be accepted in the United States".  Stalemate? 

Another seemingly intractable problem is what any final agreement will ultimately look like.  While the 195 countries that signed the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change have all agreed to work towards a solution to the climate problem, there is no consensus on what exactly this means.  Since Copenhagen, there has been a great deal of discussion in the international community about whether the goal should be a treaty that binds countries to certain commitments or some set of voluntary commitments made by each individual country.  The EU stated on Sunday that there is no point to an agreement that is voluntary, "it simply won't work".  The ultimate effectiveness of voluntary action may ultimately be tested as few of the delegations seems to have the appetite to pursue a legally binding agreement prior to 2015.  While most countries agree that a legally binding agreement is necessary, it would be shocking to see it become a reality in Durban.

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