As Durban Deadline Draws Near, the Big Carbon Emitters Should Cut a Deal

by Andrew Light

DURBAN — The expected end game of the international climate talks in Durban is shaping up to be a fierce stand off.

A showdown has emerged between the EU and other parties over their conditions for agreeing to a second commitment period of the Kyoto Protocol. The first commitment period will expire in 2012.  If it is not renewed the fate of the instruments that support the world’s fragile carbon market is uncertain.

Japan, Russia and Canada have all signaled that they are unwilling to continue with a second commitment of binding emission cuts for the treaty leaving only the EU ready to move forward.

But the conditions the EU has asked for at this meeting to preserve the Kyoto Protocol are steep.  In exchange for their commitment they expect everyone else – in particular the other large greenhouse gas emitters like the U.S., China, and India – to begin a roadmap for a process that will create a binding agreement on reducing emissions later in the decade.  What we now know as the “mandate” debate has pulled everyone into a discussion over the fate of the Kyoto Protocol — including the U.S., which is not a party to it.

While the fate of U.S. emissions is not bound to the fate of the Kyoto Protocol, the fate of many of the most important achievements of the Obama administration in this forum are now tied to Kyoto through the mandate debate.  Included in this list are the institutions that were created out of last year’s meeting in Cancun – such as the Green Climate Fund (tasked with mobilizing a large chunk of the promised $100 billion a year in climate financing by 2020) and the Clean Technology Center and Network – as well as progress they have made on pushing for a more rigorous system of transparency for measuring, reporting, and verifying (MRV) promises for emission reductions.

The dominoes could fall like this:  If the U.S. and other parties say no to the EU demand for a mandate on a process of a new binding agreement, then the EU could in turn say no to a re-commitment to the Kyoto Protocol.

If the EU passes on the Kyoto Protocol, then the G77 (representing most developing countries at this meeting) — which has been adamant in their insistence this year that the extension of the Kyoto Protocol was absolutely critical to them — could walk away. And if that happens then all parts of the climate architecture moving through this process could come to a halt. The result would be that the final negotiating text that has been worked out here on the Green Climate Fund, the Clean Technology Center, and MRV could be left abandoned with no possibility of approving it before the parties go home. We’d have to wait another year until these valuable institutions were potentially picked up again and made a reality.

With this much at stake, why would parties say no to the EU’s demands? The key is the insistence that the outcome of the new roadmap to emerge from this meeting end in a “legally binding” agreement.  The EU wants some assurance that they will not be the only countries bound by an international regime to reduce their emissions. Currently, all other parties that have registered emission reduction targets have only done so through their official submission to the Copenhagen Accord in January 2010 — which is not legally binding.

The EU is also concerned about the math and physics of the matter. If they are the only party to continue with the Kyoto Protocol then only 15 percent of global emissions will be bound under an international treaty. On the other hand, the combined pledges from the Copenhagen Accord cover countries representing over 80 percent of global emissions. If we’re going to get an agreement that binds everyone to a common set of rules and standards aimed at limiting temperature increase to 2 degrees Celsius, then a greater percentage of global emissions needs to be covered under a new instrument.

But so far there is little indication that the US, China, India and several other parties like the idea of signing onto this package. While no serious objections have been voiced about authorizing a roadmap to come out of this meeting that will continue work on a new agreement in a stipulated amount of time, parties disagree on the idea of agreeing ahead of time to a legally binding outcome for this process.

This week several parties, such as the U.S. and India, expressed reservations that they can enter into a process that guarantees an agreement a legally binding outcome when they don’t yet know what the content of the agreement would be. The U.S. has also repeatedly demanded for an all-inclusive binding target in order to craft a workable climate agreement. According to our lead climate negotiator Todd Stern, the U.S. is not necessarily opposed to a legally binding outcome, but rather to an outcome that, like the Kyoto Protocol, is binding only to some parties and not to others — regardless of the size, scale, and growth of their emissions.

The EU has been lock-step behind Connie Hedegaard, the EU Commissioner for Climate Action, who claimed in a press conference on Wednesday that parties who don’t commit to binding actions take on an “unbearable responsibility.”

But the insistence that parties agree on a process to create a legally binding outcome does not mean that those parties entering into negotiations have to say yes to anything that this process produces.

In an exclusive interview with Climate Progress, EU lead climate negotiator Artur Runge-Metzger explained that the EU was after something more akin to a couple getting engaged.  If two people get engaged, then they aim for a particular legally binding outcome.  As a process of achieving that outcome, they embark on a list of things to do – picking a date, a location, an invitation list, etc. – over a discrete period of time.  But as everyone knows, an engagement, even a good engagement, is not necessarily a successful engagement.

Engagements can even end at the altar.

Similarly, Runge-Metzger acknowledged that if parties agreed to a roadmap leading to a legally binding agreement they can pull out if it takes a turn to something they don’t want.  The U.S. has been clear that it will not tolerate an agreement that once again leaves China in the position of not having legally binding emission cuts while developed countries do.  If the U.S. agrees to the EU’s proposal for a roadmap toward a legally binding outcome, and it loses the fight during the creation of a new instrument somewhere along the way to ensure that the agreement is reciprocal, then it can drop out of the process.

Nonetheless, many parties are still wary of signing on to the EU process.  Right now, throughout the ICC, negotiators are hard at work trying to find the sweet spot between the preferred language for the outcome of a new negotiating process preferred by the EU and language and something that can garner more support.

This afternoon a new text was introduced from the South African hosts of the meeting floating a compromise.  Instead of initiating a process that leads to a legally binding commitment it would “launch a process in order to develop a legal framework applicable to all under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change after 2020.”

Unfortunately, reports on the floor were that the EU would reject this  language and it was changed just a few hours later at 1:00am to “launch a process to develop a Protocol or another legal instrument.”  The reasons the EU might reject substituting “legally binding” for something else are certainly not without merit from the perspective of their aims in initiating this process.  After all, the current Kyoto Protocol is a legal instrument, that China has signed onto, but it does not bind China legally under an international process of scrutiny, review, and enforcement to report or reduce its emissions.  Similarly, the original treaty that created the UNFCCC is a legal framework, ratified by the U.S. Senate, but it does not require the U.S. or anyone else to reduce  emissions.

As negotiators go back in to meeting rooms late into the night and try to hammer out a new compromise on the EU roadmap, the U.S. should aim to broker a deal to get to “yes.”  The stakes are far too high not to.

As long as the U.S. is absolutely clear on its conditions for signing onto a legally binding deal down the road, it can sign onto a roadmap for a legally binding instrument with fair warning to all parties that if conditions are not met the engagement will be off.  Some will worry that this could be the U.S. in Kyoto all over again.

In the run up to Kyoto, the U.S. worked hard to create a climate treaty.  But the U.S. Senate voted 95-0 months prior to Kyoto not to even consider ratifying a treaty that divided the world into two categories, requiring emission reductions for developed parties and not for developing parties — regardless of the size, scale, and trajectory of their emissions.  Since the U.S. worked so hard to shape that treaty it was a huge disappointment, and a blow to our international credibility to have to bow out of the process.

But this time around is not like Kyoto.  The U.S. has been perfectly clear the last three years that we will not accept a non-reciprocal, non-conditional agreement on emissions reductions from developing countries.   If our conditions are not met, then we do not have to sign on to the final product (just as any party can do if their conditions are not met).  On the other hand, if our conditions are clear then we can work toward an outcome that would make for an agreement that would pick up where the Kyoto Protocol and the Cancun Agreements will leave us off in 2020.

And if we don’t make a deal, and this meeting ends without an outcome, the Obama administration risks losing everything it has worked for over the last several years and the progress that has been made which, though unsatisfying to many, nonetheless gives us critical means for moving forward.

After all, whether the EU gets its way or not, the outcome over the mandate debate will not ensure that another ton of carbon gets reduced from the world’s overall emissions during this decade.  At best, the process the EU has proposed would lead to an agreement that would require reductions in emissions after 2020 given the time it will take to finalize a treaty and enter it into force.

On the other hand, the Green Climate Fund is the only measure that could overcome the twin “gigaton gaps” that exist from the pledges made so far out of the Copenhagen Accord.  As we argued in a report published last year it is the key instrument for mobilizing the finance needed to increase the ambition of parties under the Copenhagen Accord as well as a critical means to provide directed financing to closing the gap between those pledges and a path by 2020 that gives us a chance of stabilizing at 2 degrees Celsius.

If this meeting collapses over the mandate debate then we risk the postponement, and worse, the abandonment of this effort.  It is not clear when we will get a chance again to put all the major carbon emitters on the road to a common effort.

Andrew Light is a Senior Fellow and Director of International Climate Policy at the Center for American Progress.


19 Responses to As Durban Deadline Draws Near, the Big Carbon Emitters Should Cut a Deal

  1. Henry says:

    I’m afraid there will be no chance for the Green Climate fund because, as has been stated elsewhere, the US will not sign on if the fund is administered by the UN. And the UN will never let it be administered elsewhere, so it’s practically dead in the water.
    They should have worked out more of these details beforehand!

  2. Jeff Huggins says:

    My Assessment

    1. What a mess.

    2. There is no good reason for the U.S. to avoid a “serious engagement”-type of deal, if we are at all serious about climate change. No good reason at all.

    3. Among other reasons, there are always things we can, and may need to, eventually do in order to encourage and prompt China to enter into an eventual agreement that involves actual binding targets. For example, we still have almost totally-open trade with them; we’re a huge customer of theirs (which also leads to other issues). In general, in more than one way, we are subordinating the climate problem to narrow economic/trade matters. If we enter into an engagement deal now, such as the one that the EU proposes, that IN NO WAY eliminates leverage that we can have, or future actions we can take, to try to get China into binding targets of some sort. Do we (the U.S.) have good thinkers there in Durban, or anywhere in the Obama Administration, or not?? I get the impression that we aren’t thinking — that we’re mainly looking for excuses!

    4. Overall, where is the leadership? Do we even know what ‘leadership’ means any more?? We claim (or at least many claim) to some kind of “U.S. exceptionalism”, but we have apparently forgotten what leadership means, and the only exceptionalism we seem to be practicing these days is that of denying science and searching for excuses for inaction!

    5. And what is CAP’s role? How is it that CAP is located in Washington, and has so many former Demo insiders, and excellent thinkers, and yet the Administration is performing so dismally?? Can someone please explain that, before I put my head in a vice, as Joe sometimes says?

    6. In sum, what a mess!



  3. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    The EU and the US are operating, as they did in Copenhagen, as a secret ‘tag-team’ (not so secret, really-only to the deliberately blind Western MSM propaganda system)to try to foist an ‘agreement’ detrimental to the non-Western world on the conference. These are the same tactics utilised in the UN, at GATT and WTO talks and in every international forum. The West is determined to maintain its global dominance, and climate destabilisation is mere ‘collateral damage’ in this process. Indeed, if they can no longer ‘call the shots’ the pathocrats of the Western ruling elites are quite prepared to take the ‘Samson Option’ and bring the whole edifice crashing down on all our heads, rather than allow Chinese, or Indian, or Russian or Brazilian, economic hegemony to materialise.

  4. Luc Binette says:

    This text only address policy considerations, strategies and perceptions. Maybe it is a balanced text, but it misses one important consideration. To save the planet, Science should be the driver of these discussions. Only Science can show us the path to the adequate emission reductions needed. The facts are: England and the US have been the 2 dominant contributors to the accumulated CO2 emissions. China is far behind. Talking about a deal to come into effect in the year 2020 means game over about limiting temperature rise to 2C. The global historical responsibilities of Canada, US, EU, are such that it will amount to a genocide on the poors of this planet. We have no excuses not to act, starting now.

  5. Colorado Bob says:

    Three quarters of climate change is manmade, according to two Swiss scientists who have come up with a radically new way of modelling the climate.

  6. andrew light says:

    Good point Henry but as of tonight the US has successfully negotiated this issue and the new text (which you can find online) creates enough distance between the UN and the GCF for the US to release its hold.

  7. andrew light says:

    As far as we can ascertain if there was any tag team action here so far it has been between the US and the BASIC countries (Brazil, South Africa, India and China).

  8. andrew light says:

    On your point 5, unfortunately with 16,000 people here everyone’s ability to influence the outcome is limited. That said, the CAP team at Durban is working hard for a good outcome with a lot of support from our colleagues in DC. We’re doing everything we can to pave a road to yes.

  9. andrew light says:

    I agree. The absurd thing is that the part of the deal which is holding everything up is the part of the deal that doesn’t help us to reduce emissions this decade. That’s why we think the rest of this decade should be used locking in the pledges parties have already taken out of the system, increasing their ambition with finance from the Green Climate Fund, and finding other avenues for reducing emissions from agreements. We’ll have a report out on this in the new year:

  10. Sou says:

    Still too focused on the blame game and ‘who goes first’ and ‘I’ll only do x if you do y’. There is not enough focus on the solution.

    You’d think that at this level of government and leadership, people would be savvy enough to work out a way forward.

    Makes one wonder how the world will go when things start to get really tough with climate change.

  11. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    andrew, me darlin’, you’re not cynical enough. The post-mortem after Copenhagen is where to look for clues. While the Western MSM were, en masse. and with that ‘spooky synchronicity’ we all know so well, blaming the evil ChiComms for the impasse, every Third World opinion I saw blamed the rich countries. Who to believe? A tricky one, that!
    Then, a few months later, the story of how Denmark had been party to the concoction, by Western forces, of a ‘secret deal’ (just like the Green Room fait accomplis forced on the poor world at GATT and WTO ‘negotiations’)detrimental to the poor world and beneficial to the rich West, came out, to be immediately suppressed by the Western MSM and consigned to the ‘memory-hole’. I am certain that the same sort of thing is afoot again, hope that I am wrong, but will be gob-smacked with amazement if it is not so.

  12. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    The ‘pledges’ of the rich countries to the Green Climate Fund are not worth a hill of beans, even a mole-hill. Such pledges have been made before, in climate negotiations and meetings concerning poverty and development, and, after their PR utility is over, they are dropped like hot potatoes. What remains are World Bank and IMF ‘conditionalities’ on loans, which are predicated on environmentally destructive ‘development’ and social regression, WTO ‘Free Trade’ rules which often outlaw environmental protection in favour of trade penetration by the rich world, and private ‘vulture funds’ buying up bonds, banks and property on the cheap, while the capital markets ‘redline’ the poor world. In other words the whole machine of ‘disaster capitalism’ driving the poor world into deeper misery.

  13. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    It will descend into the ‘bellum omnium contra omnes’ which the Right prefers, because it will allow them to seek a final solution to the ecological problem through Malthusian methods, kicked along by some hard ordinance.

  14. Neo says:

    Nobel-Winning IPCC Chair Rajendra Pachauri Urges Obama to “Listen to Science” on Global Warming

    Pachauri continued, “Actually, to be honest, nobody over here [at COP 17] is paying any attention to science.”

  15. Merrelyn Emery says:

    Well here we are and here we go.

    What we have proven so far:

    1. When we are organized in a system that confers rank, and therefore inequality, each individual player is forced to compete, to fight for their rights and self interest.
    2. Even when we face collective suicide, the system and its effects hold which is why we now find ourselves in this untenable and unsustainable position.
    3. The only way out now is to abandon the design principle that confers inequality and to re-institute that design principle that confers and induces equality and gives us a chance of working together on our common problem.

    What will it take? A few more disasters than we are seeing at the moment – probably not.

    A huge planetary disaster that means we are all hungry and moving – maybe.

    Pretty close to the end with just a few survivors – maybe, but only if the survivors have conscious conceptual knowlegde of the design principles and know how to implement them.

    Durban, along with all the previous rest of the COPs, has shown that this is not a technological problem, it is a human and social problem of how we organize our structural relationships.

    We can start changing them now at the individual organization and community level which will release huge anounts of creativity and innovation for voluntary change at the local level which will diffuse.

    OR, we can put our faith in our dependency on our ‘leaders’ which will continue to keep all of us in dependency or fight/flight, neither of which will achieve the solutions we so desperately need.

    Its an open and shut case as far as I’m concerned, ME

  16. nosoyyo says:

    Mulga Mumblebrain is of course right. We have the alleged “adults” in the EU, and then the bad guys. Except the “adults” are proposing putting off a promise until 2015, and putting off action until 2020. So that is still the death knell for human civilization, but is now the most we can hope for. Then we can praise a compromise between half a billion or a billion survivors. And thank God we have some “adults in the room.”

    Sound familiar? Same as every policy argument over the past few years — Dems propose a watered down proposal of the watered down compromise, Repubs say no, etc. Only this time Obama’s negotiatiators are playing the role of the Repubs, but they still love this “game,” and CAP will continue to be the cheerleaders, by ignoring the fact that the entire debate has shifted, and laying false blame as usual. Those darn Republicans, those global bullies the Venezuelans and Bolivians — yes Bolivians! Those Chinese and Indians. (yes, I did read the new twist that the US is now lumped with them — but I assume we’ll be hearing that it’s because of those darn Republicans). Obama and the Democratic party are the problem at least as much as the Republicans, and maybe more. It doesn’t matter if we have a non-denier in the white house if we’re denied action, with close to zero political pushback. Inhofe is celebrating the fact that during Obama’s presidency we’ve gone from a huge Congressional delegation in Copenhagen in 2009 to zero US congresspeople, Dems or Repubs, in Durban. Let’s not join him in cheering.

    I didn’t bother to read CAP’s whole study of “we can get 2/3 of where we need to be by 2020 with promises made up to now” because even if true, 2/3 of where we need to be is not far enough, and 2020 isn’t very far into the “absolutely last chance to act” period. And it’s pretty convenient to talk about “forget new commitments and stick to promises up to now” when the US has promised so little. The truth, as always, is that if the US were to step forward with 100% of the commitments that need to be done, then other countries would likely follow suit. We are the problem. And Obama is our leader.

  17. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    nosoyyo, we had the same problem in Australia (it rhymes with failure). We elected an Obama type, Kevin Rudd, in 2007, to be rid of what in my opinion was the vilest regime and PM in our history. Rudd set out, from day one (from his rambling, incontinent and incoherent ‘victory speech’ in fact)to maintain every Howardite policy of the previous evil decade in place, in many cases worsening them. To cover a little, he made a few cynical PR gestures, like signing Kyoto. Immediately the Australian delegation to Bali began obstructionist manouevres, exactly like their predecessors, designed to protect our reliance on fossil fuels and coal exports in particular. It was the same at Poznan, Copenhagen (where Rudd impressed with his hysteria, potty-mouthed abuse of the Chinese, and his role in planning the unsuccessful Western coup to impose an unjust settlement on the non-Western world),Cancun and, no doubt, here, too.
    In the meanwhile Rudd, who had declared climate destabilisation the greatest moral imperative of our age, dogged it once the Murdoch villainy attacked him over it. He proved a typical invertebrate politician (added to his absolute control-freakery it was a repulsive look)and had no guts for a fight. He was soon replaced by something quite bad but different, Gillard, another Rightist, but at least one with a modicum of guts, who has achieved the inconsequential vacuity of a ‘carbon pollution’ price, to solve all our problems.
    The same system, market capitalism, the same type of politician, the fraudster, the same result-nada. At least Obama can give a speech, if full of phony rhetoric, and clearly loves himself. Our pollies are more plainly self-loathing, and that’s one thing they do get right.

  18. mulp says:

    The US has racked up a greenhouse gas debt over the past 200 years of $50 trillion and is adding to it at $1 trillion a year, but won’t go on a carbon austerity program to reduce it to $900 million because Chine is adding $1 trillion to its $5 trillion debt each year and refuses to admit it has a huge debt problem that requires immediate austerity to reduce its carbon deficit to $800 million.

    I get annoyed when I read about the supply of oil increasing when they mean the rate of depletion, and the talk of greenhouse gases refers to quantity when they are talking of the rate of adding to the total accumulated greenhouse gases, a total which is already higher than is good for humanity for the next century. If all human life were extinguished Jan 1 2012, it would take decades to return to the greenhouse levels of 1900.