09 December, 2011

Satisfacing though insufficient deals in Brussels and Durban

Sergio Abranches, from Durban

The European Union seems to be doing better in the Climate Summit than it did at the Financial Summit in Brussels last night. While in Durban, the EU is likely to get its proposal for a roadmap to a post-2020 comprehensive legal agreement on climate change, in Brussels it failed to agree to Treaty changes deemed necessary to prevent a fiscal and financial meltdown.

Yesterday US special envoy Todd Stern said his country supports the EU proposal. The US was seen as the biggest stumbling block to a Durban Agreement that would be satisfactory to most of the parties although falling short of what is already necessary to prevent very dangerous global consequences of climate change

In Brussels, the biggest stumbling block has been the United Kingdom. European leaders complained that prime-minister David Cameron held out an agreement for hours trying to get concessions to favor UK’s banks, the Financial Times reports. At the end of a long and exhaustive meeting the heads of government and states of the European Union failed to agree on changes to impose tighter fiscal rules on the eurozone. The UK will be out of the pact and several other countries, among them the Czech Republic, Hungary, and Sweden are still considering whether they’ll be on board.

The new fiscal regime has been somewhat scaled down, and negotiated among the 23 EU members only. One of the arguments holding back a treaty change is very similar to concerns being raised in Durban about a new legally-binding climate change treaty. The Financial Times reports that Germany’s insistence on a full treaty change to lay down fiscal discipline could lead to “potentially tortuous negotiations and then ratifications”, leading to more uncertainty and confusion.

A full treaty here in Durban is also feared to raise long negotiations and a rather uncertain ratification process. At least the US Senate would hardly ratify such a treaty in the foreseeable future.

In Brussels as in Durban political difficulties and lack of a shared vision make a broad consensus very unlikely, and lead to a second best solution at the very best. These “suboptimal” choices, as economists like to say, are the only possible political decisions, irrespectively of the alerts from experts about the real and present dangers ahead.

Financial meltdowns are far more visible, and have far more immediate painful consequences than climate catastrophes. Even climate related disasters as deadly floods, severe droughts, devastating hurricanes fail to change the politics behind climate change negotiations.

The consequences of acute financial crises such as deep recessions, large scale unemployment, generalized insolvency usually do move the politics behind economic policies. But it appears this is not happening this time. At least not to the degree necessary to give structural answers to the crisis.

A seasoned economist who is very knowledgeable about the dynamics of financial markets said yesterday that a systemic crisis is already in place. This means that there is a very clear and very present danger of a chain of banks insolvencies as well as of a fiscal collapse in several countries.

In Durban, ministers from almost 200 countries meet to decide on broader and stronger global measures to face the challenge of climate change. We are on the eighth year on a roll in which extreme climate events all over the world have disrupted crops, and reduced harvests raising the price of food and leading millions of poorer people into hunger. In the Horn of Africa, a famine is killing children and adults as well, as a result of a long and severe drought. Yet not decisions leading to real structural change will be made here.

Neither the visible consequences of climate change, nor the warning signs coming from science that we are too near a tipping point to feel safe will change climate politics in the near future. As in Brussels negotiators will fail to do all that is needed, and will decide on too little action too late in the game. As in Brussels, they’ll say that what they’ve agreed upon will be sufficient to face the crisis for the time being and, if needed, further action would be taken later on

Political arguments are the same no matter the subject matter of decisions. They respond to a correlation of economic and social forces that constrain their margin for decisions. However, this margin is wide enough to do more than they usually do. Power competition among major political players, ideological prejudices, personal shortcomings all have an independent influence on political decision-making, apart from the structural constraints that make the connections between economics and politics. Financial interests or the carbon interests are not to be blamed alone for the failure to decide on meaningful policies either in Brussels or in Durban.

The Durban package is taking shape, it will be presented by negotiators as an important accomplishment. But the agreement will almost surely fall short of the present scientific requirements for current emissions reductions, adaptation to climate change, and incentives to speed up the transition to a low-carbon economy.

Convergence on what the Durban package should contain has accelerated yesterday, after US lead negotiator Todd Stern said his country would support the European Union proposal for a roadmap to negotiating a legal regime by 2020. If the US really approves the roadmap it will open the way for the EU to sign into a second period of commitment under the Kyoto Protocol. The first one ends in 2012. The other point of  resistance will be the BASIC group. But Brazil and South Africa have already committed to support it. China and India will likely agree to it, although it may require framing it more creatively to calm their concerns.

Almost all negotiators say that we should wait for the fifth assessment report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) due to be released by 2013-2014 to fit targets for reductions of greenhouse gases emissions to the 2C limit to additional average global warming. The assessment report with review the scenarios for emissions and global warming to reflect the current state of the art of climate science. Yet, the fourth report’s scenarios, already show that emissions  are pointing towards more than the 2C.

Technical analyses of the commitments to reduce emissions to 2020, made in Copenhagen and reaffirmed in Cancun, already point to a 3C to 4C warming. This gap is called the “ambitions gap” in the language of climate change politics. Nevertheless the Durban Agreement will reinstate these targets as the legal ones, under the Climate Convention, and the EU and a few other countries will likely inscribe them as legally-binding targets into the second period of commitment under the Kyoto Protocol. Negotiators will commit to a revision of these targets by 2015, on the light of IPCC’s new assessment reports, to determine whether they should agree to do more. They may even pledge to decide on the political outlines of a new climate change regime by 2015, so its technical details could be worked out over the next years for it to be ready to enforce by 2020.

Too little too late. The fact is that incremental decision-making at the UNFCCC, one COP after another, is not taking the world out of the ‘business as usual‘ situation science already tells us is very likely to entail catastrophic climate change.

Though failing to meet scientific standards the Durban package will meet the expectations of the majority of players. Expectations have been lowered by the negative global economic and financial context. The African Group and the AOSIS (small island states), representing the countries most vulnerable to climate change will be satisfied with the approval of the roadmap to 2020 proposed by the European Union, and the ‘Cancun package’ making last year’s agreement fully operational. Their negotiators have already said that their priority in Durban would be getting a fully operational Green Climate Fund, and a working Executive Committee for Adaptation.

To these countries adaptation is the critical priority, far more important than mitigation, i.e. reducing emissions. They are already suffering from climate change, and need the financial and technical resources to adapt.

All countries under the broad umbrella of the G77+China, including the BASIC (Brazil, South Africa, India and China), have decided that the priority in Durban is to approve a second period of commitments under the Kyoto Protocol.

To them it really doesn’t matter that the second phase of the Kyoto Protocol will cover no more than 15% of global emissions. They praise the legal architecture, and the operational mechanisms of the Protocol. China and India have gotten the lion share of resources for mitigation from the Clean Development Mechanism, (CDM). The more vulnerable countries have benefitted from the Protocol’s mechanisms to support adaptation, but they say the Green Climate Fund will be far more important to them.

Negotiators have already decided that the Green Climate Fund, the Center and Network for Clean Technology, and the Executive Committee for Adaptation will be a part of the Durban package. However, they have not reached consensus on the concrete details of this package. They also have to agree on the outlines of the new transparency regime, to guide the reporting, monitoring and verification (MRVs) of pledges made in Copenhagen, and reaffirmed in Cancun.

Finally they’ll probably consume all day today, and maybe a substantial part of Saturday, to also agree on how to frame the decision on the roadmap to a post-2020 climate change agreement that gets the support of the US, the BASIC countries, and meets the EU conditions to sign into a second period of commitment under the Kyoto Protocol.

EU Climate Change Commissioner Connie Hedegaard started her press conference today saying it was a “long night”. The “European roadmap is at the center of negotiations”, she said. If a good outcome does not come from Durban, it will “not because negotiators are not working hard to get it”. The commissioner has confirmed that the ‘Cancun package’ of operational measures to enable last year’s agreement is “almost done”.

She also mentioned the support of AOSIS, Brazil, and South Africa to the roadmap. She indicated that the US was part of a small group of 27 countries convened by midnight, that has made progress. Connie Hedegaard mentioned that China has been rather vague, and India has a tougher position. “We praise Brazil and South Africa to be already on board, and we are waiting for the other half of the BASIC.”

She stressed that the roadmap would end last century’s division among countries. All will be bound by the same regime, she explained. “Although we have made progress, we are not yet there”, she said. The central difficulty is to get agreement on a legally-binding agreement to encompass all major emitters. Hedegaard said there is no country proposing to abandon the principle of differentiated responsibilities according to their respective capacities. Only that everyone will be bound by the same legal instrument. “And time in Durban is really short. I am concerned with the pace of negotiations,” she concluded. A bit later Connie Hedegaard admitted that “from what I’ve seen by four o’clock this morning we’ll have a deal in Durban at the end. It is not the first time that we have to go beyond the official deadline to have a deal.”

Negotiators will invest a large amount of energy to get a politically satisfactory package deal, although it will hardly be a scientifically sound one.

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