03 October, 2011

Climate talks in Panama unlikely to end the logjam

Sergio Abranches

The last official preparatory meeting to the Climate Change Convention in Durban is taking place in Panama, since last Saturday. Negotiators will attempt to arrive at feasible drafts to be tabled at the next session of the Climate Convention, COP17, in Durban, South Africa. The signs are that an agreement on the core issues deadlocking conversations is unlikely to happen.

A radical polarization between developed and developing countries emerged since the first preparatory meetings, early this year. This was somehow surprising. COP16, in Cancun, seemed to have restored confidence among parties, and to point towards a more cooperative dialogue. No party or observer would really imagine that a major deal was possible this year, or even next year, especially after the worsening of global economic conditions with a new turn of the financial crisis. But there was some hope that a few meaningful strides would be possible, until conditions were ripe for a final deal.

It seems unlikely that global climate negotiators will be able to solve conflicting views on the core issues that are deadlocking climate talks in this climate of sharp polarization. The present situation seems to indicate that countries have moved backwards to the old veto politics that impeded any significant global climate deal for one decade.

This persistent deadlock threatens the credibility of the Climate Convention (UNFCCC) as the multilateral instrument to negotiate a future, substantive and encompassing global climate deal. A deal that is binding to all major emitters, setting emissions reduction targets that meet the scientific consensus about the minimum levels necessary to achieve relative climate security.

The divide between developed and developing countries seems to have increased over the last months. On the one side developing countries say there will be no broader deal prior to the approval of a second commitment period for the Kyoto Protocol. The first period ends in 2012. Developing countries argue that they are already committed to reduction goals proportionate to their historical obligations, and commitments from developed countries are still lacking.

It is true that the aggregate commitment from developed countries is still behind scientific requirements. The goals set for the United States in Copenhagen are too low for the major developed emitter. There is little  room in most developing countries to implement emissions reduction policies without substantial financial and technological support from developed countries. But this is definitely not true for the larger emerging economies such as China, India, Brazil, Mexico, and several others. These countries are doing less than they could and should, particularly when we take into account their future emissions, and the pace their emissions is increasing as their economies grow.

Insisting on the continuation of the Kyoto Protocol seems increasingly less credible as a strategy to achieve a meaningful global climate deal. The countries that owe more on the side of further commitments to reduce their emissions are all outside it, namely the United States, China, Brazil, India, and a few other G20 members.

It is more plausible to say that their concern is not really with the future of global climate change policy, but with the immediate impact of the first commitment period of the Kyoto Protocol ending, without a decision about a second one. The focus of concern is what would happen to the financial and technological cooperation mechanisms under the Protocol and to the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) that allows for investments in emissions reducing ventures in developing countries to be used as offsets by developed countries.

The negotiators for the European Union said, on a press briefing in Panama, that CDM projects would continue to be accepted as offsets within EU’s own cap and trade framework, even if Kyoto Protocol’s commitments are not renewed.

While developing countries insist on placing the Kyoto Protocol on center stage of negotiations, developed countries are playing it down. U.S. chief negotiator, Todd Stern has been clear in all his statements that his country is out of it, and has no intention to approve it in the future. The U.S. stance has not changed in Panama. The representative from Japan reiterated his country will not be a party to a second commitment period. New Zealand said that they remain prepared to take on a second commitment period only in the context of a comprehensive global agreement that contains legally-binding emission reduction targets for all major emitters. Australia’s position is more or less the same, if not a bit more direct in the sense of only accepting a successor to Kyoto that reaches all major emitters at once.

A second commitment period seems far away, unless there is enough progress on the “long-term” negotiations (AWG-LCA) aiming at a concomitant and comparable deal that encompasses all large emitters, developed and emerging, especially those outside the reach of the Kyoto Protocol.  This global deal, however, is nowhere in sight.

The Kyoto Protocol has very few virtues as far as necessary climate change mitigation is concerned. It is the only legal framework we have. It helped to create a carbon market. But, alas, in spite of being legal, it reaches about a third of  the global emissions encompassed by the pledges registered under the Copenhagen Agreement. It is legal, but it is hardly binding, because there is no enforcement mechanism in place. Its compliance instruments are either lacking or too weak to make a difference. If what counts is the moral and political constraints of being a signatory, than it does not differ too much from the Copenhagen Agreement, especially after its main elements were approved into the Climate Change Convention framework in Cancun. The carbon market has so far failed to prove itself as a working mechanism to effectively reduce emissions, and is far from becoming a global institution.

UNFCCC’s executive secretary, Christiana Figueres, reported progress on the design of the Green Climate Fund (GCF) and the Technology Executive Committee (TEC), but she raised concerns about the need for progress on monitoring, review and verification (MRV). She has also said that negotiators are for some time working against the clock under the Kyoto Protocol. On the motivational side, she said that Durban needs to address further commitments for developed countries under the Protocol and the evolution of the mitigation framework under the Convention for developed and developing countries. That is precisely the key for the deadlock.

Informally what is already under negotiation is a transition regime once the first commitment period of the Kyoto Protocol ends. The major concern is what will happen to the financial and technological cooperation mechanisms created by the Protocol and with CDM. It doesn’t seem too difficult to foresee that a legal extension of these mechanisms beyond the Protocol’s first commitment period is far more probable to happen than the approval of a meaningful second period. This transition rule and progress on the institutional design of technology cooperation and of the Green Fund seem to be the feasible goals for Durban.

The institutional rules that govern the UN’s decision-making process feeds cross-cutting vetoes and has a clear bias towards the status quo. Usually the only viable exit from a deadlocked status quo is muddling through, or accepting piecemeal, minimal changes at a time. The unanimity rule precludes substantial consensus-based decisions leading to a change of regime. This is particularly true for the global climate change regime. If unanimity is to be enforced in absolute terms, no substantive consensus would be possible in this heterogeneous assembly of 193 countries, that ranges from oil producers to small islands threatened to disappear; from giant emitters, developed and developing, to poor countries that have very low emissions. Some of the smaller emitters show nevertheless a far more consequential disposition to find a new path towards low-carbon development, than most of the fast growing large emitters.

In Copenhagen, the application of the absolute interpretation of the unanimity rule led to the collapse of a deal based on a large consensus among all relevant players. It was defeated by the veto of a handful of ideology-orientated countries, largely peripheral to global politics, and to global climate policy. In Cancun, a more relativistic interpretation of the unanimity rule allowed the waiver of a small minority’s whimsical veto, and the approval of the Cancun Agreements.

If negotiators fail to find a way to solve the gridlock within the next few years, the UNFCCC risks loosing its credibility and legitimacy. It will come to be seen as an irrelevant segment of climate politics, one dominated by diplomatic fencing. The sustainability of the Climate Convention will be in jeopardy. But, much worse, if the logjam extends beyond 2012 the danger increases of the world loosing the possibility of maintaing unavoidable climate change within relatively safe boundaries.

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