Marriage or Runaway Bride: Will the American-European Relationship Strengthen or Deteroriate at Durban Climate Talks?

EU's Chief Climate Diplomat, Artur Runge-Metzger

DURBAN — It looked like the U.S. and Europe were in for a rough ride coming into the Durban climate talks. The EU wanted a commitment to seek a binding climate treaty by 2020 and the U.S was pushing back.

The impasse over a binding treaty continues. But there has been some movement on key issues this week that may help pave the way toward broader international greenhouse gas targets.

In an extensive interview with Climate Progress, Europe’s chief negotiator, Artur Runge-Metzger, laid out his hopes for movement in the final days of climate talks in Durban. As it turns out, the U.S. and EU aren’t so far apart on some key issues.

While the Europeans have been dismayed by the unwillingness of the Americans to commit to negotiations over binding agreements beyond 2020, Metzger seemed to broadly agree with the U.S. demand that developing countries eventually agree to binding targets — or a final agreement is not worth doing.

“What we really want to see is countries engage in the negotiations process with the view of a legal outcome at the end of that,” he said.

Metzger compared the process to a wedding engagement, saying “you go through it with marriage in the cards. But that will only be decided the day you do the vows. We are asking for engagement.”

So far, the U.S. says developing countries haven’t found the prospect of marriage particularly attractive.

“There are significant wrinkles that come into play,” said Todd Stern, America’s chief negotiator, in a briefing this afternoon. “We’ve made clear that in order to see any legally binding treaty, we’d need to fully bind developing countries.”

Earlier this week, the meeting erupted with a flurry of speculation about China’s apparent willingness to embrace negotiations over a binding treaty. But Stern and Metzger both told Climate Progress this week that China has not changed its stance. In bilateral negotiations last night, Metzger said he hadn’t heard anything new from Chinese negotiators.

“They talk around legally binding commitments without giving clarity to it,” said Metzger. “This is not a breakthrough. In the negotiations, I don’t see anything different happening.”

Stern backed up Metzger’s statement in this afternoon’s briefing: “There hasn’t been a change,” he said.

Both would like to see a change. However, it’s unclear how aggressively each will pursue the courtship.

Jake Schmidt, international climate policy director for the Natural Resources Defense Council, said it’s possible that the Europeans will attempt to strike a more casual relationship with the Chinese in order to “pull the U.S. in” with the hopes that it becomes more serious.

But the EU is “clearly frustrated” by the fickle response from the Americans leading up the Durban talks, said Schmidt.

“They’re saying: ‘first you told us to go into the Kyoto Protocol. We did it, and you backed away. Then you told us to wait eight years to go through the Bush Administration and everything would be better. Now your climate bill didn’t pass you’re telling us wait some more.’”

Adding to overall European frustration, negotiators are simultaneously trying to hold together the crumbling Kyoto Protocol while member countries deal with a financial crisis that could impact regional clean energy development.

Although, there are signs that the U.S. is warming to European advances.

Prior to Durban the U.S. had blocked the final implementing agreement for the Green Climate Fund, an international pool of public and private dollars that would help deploy up to $100 billion a year for adaptation and mitigation projects in developing countries.  The Fund was one of the key agenda items emerging from last year’s successful Cancun meeting.  But earlier today, American officials signaled that they are highly likely to support a framework agreement on the Green Fund

The U.S. came into the Durban talks with concerns about how member countries would manage the fund, asking for more operational independence. While the Americans still have issues with the text, Stern said he is “pretty optimistic” that the fund will be agreed upon. “There is no reason to think this is hung up,” he said.

In a conference judged by incremental progress, that’s a pretty big step.

The Americans have also been very supportive of a technology-transfer program, an idea developed with the Indians and supported by the Europeans.

Metzger said that an inability to agree on these instruments would be a “disaster” both for the climate and for diplomatic relationships.

If the final days of negotiations bring solid progress, however, the relationship may be strengthened. And that could potentially pave the way for a truly productive marriage on climate change.


6 Responses to Marriage or Runaway Bride: Will the American-European Relationship Strengthen or Deteroriate at Durban Climate Talks?

  1. Mike Roddy says:

    Their motivation was suspect, but the Right had a point in insisting that emissions reductions targets be applied to all countries. The notion of allowing Asian countries to “catch up” first via coal plants was always absurd.

    The same principle should be applied to deforestation, especially in Indonesia and Brazil. Then, maybe we could start to do something about deforestation in Canada, Russia, and, yes, the United States.

  2. John Tucker says:

    It just gets too complicated when the ground is uneven. As unfair as it may seem I am thinking a exact per capita CO2 target needs to be set and given the teeth to be stuck with.

    Frankly, we dont have a hundred years to figure out what is “fair” or to set up complex agreements/carbon markets.

    Poorer countries overtake rich world’s consumption carbon footprint

    “The financial crisis of 2009 saw the developing world’s carbon emissions from consumption shoot past the developed world’s years earlier than expected, new research shows”

    ( )

  3. Lewis Cleverdon says:

    Jake Schmidt of NRDC is only partly right in saying of EU delegates:
    ““They’re saying: ‘first you told us to go into the Kyoto Protocol. We did it, and you backed away. Then you told us to wait eight years to go through the Bush Administration and everything would be better. Now your climate bill didn’t pass you’re telling us wait some more.’”

    What he overlooks is the fact that every diplomat, and most delegates, is fully aware that the US senate climate bill was sabotaged by five distinct well-documented interventions by the Obama White House, as was discussed at length here on CP. US credibility as an honest participant in Durban is thus negligible.

    The idea of a notional marriage with EU over climate policy is fantasy – it was blown away at Copenhagen, when Obama (personally) chose to exclude EU delegates from the final session. Why would anyone trust his officials now ?

    This on Durban from the BBC environment correspondent, Richard Black, is worth noting:

    “Behind the scenes, ministers and their teams began to step up diplomatic activity in a series of multilateral and bilateral meetings.

    The head of China’s delegation, Xie Zhenhua, says a legally binding climate agreement is needed.

    Many delegates are particularly keen to discover how far and how fast China is prepared to go towards a future legally-binding agreement to drive emissions down.

    It is widely believed that China holds the key to whether the talks end with a breakthrough or a breakdown.

    Many developing countries are also angered by the hard line being taken by the Indian delegation, which is holding to the line that only the traditional “developed” countries should have to engage in binding restrictions, despite the fact that some countries in the “developing world” bloc now have higher per-capita emissions and incomes.

    Some African nations and small island states are keen to tell the Indian government that it risks isolating itself from the rest of the developing world bloc here.

    There is also generalised frustration with the US. Despite President Obama’s pledge three years ago to “lead the world” on climate change, many sources indicate that behind the scenes, his officials are blocking whatever measures they can.”

    – While China and India appear to have advanced their engagement by swapping their ‘good cop/bad cop’ roles, the final para on US obstruction is very telling. It indicates that the USA, under Obama, does not want any agreement of a binding global treaty:
    “. . . many sources indicate that behind the scenes, his officials are blocking whatever measures they can.”

    The honesty of that final para is affirmed by the fact that the BBC is pretty staunchly pro-USA and has been brazenly dismissive of the climate issue since Copenhagen.



  4. jk says:

    We outsource our carbon to China. Yes, it’s time for China to join developed countries to cut emissions. And it’s time for us to end the brinksmanship and join in too. China may be spewing pollution and GHGs, but it’s doing far more than we are to become a solar and wind leader.

  5. Lewis Cleverdon says:

    JK – I wonder if you know that, as an American, your counterpart in China is reponsible for only around 25% of the current carbon emissions that you are likely responsible for.

    In addition to which the current emissions won’t take effect on global warming until the late 2040s, due to the oceans’ thermal inertia.

    In addition to which the emissions up to the 1970s, that are now causing current warming and climate destabilization, were to a much greater extent Americans’ responsibility.

    Given that America has had far greater capacity to afford technological change, but has not done so, and that successive US presidents have signed up to formal commitments, and have reneged on them,
    it is hard to see the justification for an American now talking about China “spewing pollution.”





  6. Xiao-zi says:

    Per Capita is the most fair and equitable means and one most developing and under-developed countries would embrace, it is the wealthy developed nations pursuing absolutes because it works to their economic advantage since:

    – they have already accumulated wealth based on historical emissions already written off the books when Kyoto was indexed to 1990 emissions (then already declining as a function of manufacturing and infrastructure construction)

    – Their heavy industries are declining or advanced to high profit niche markets with the carbon burden transferred to the developing nations

    – Their commitments start from a high base where there is low hanging fruit to meet reduction targets (in some cases calculated to take virtually no significant action)

    – Their commitments are below those made by developing countries in Copenhagen and Cancun

    – Their per capita emissions are multiples of developing countries (even with the heavy industrial emissions of developing countries factored in)

    Let me give you the most fair an equitable formula for emissions reduction:

    1. Take the gross emissions maximum that must be achieved to reach the 350 ppm target.

    2. Divide it by world population.

    3. Allocate it as a per capita quota, country by country.

    4. Implement a system to trade carbon credits at a fixed minimum value based on a multi-currency index.

    5. Fine countries that come up short on credits (i.e., do not reduce their carbon and cannot buy credits to make up the shortfall).

    Now here is the problem for virtually all developed countries: they are so far above whatever that baseline figure would be they would have to make serious cuts and/or investments they are unwilling to make already.

    And that is why they run away from any discussions using the term “per capita”.

    We in the developing world know that. We have been in the rooms and heard the debates and know the arguments by heart.

    Hence the insistence on Kyoto as a starting point. That is the only place to anchor the boat in negotiations.