U.N. climate talks’ real-world outcome will be determined in Asia

December 11, 2011

Even as representatives from nearly 200 countries celebrated the last-minute compromise they fashioned at U.N. climate talks Sunday in Durban, South Africa, it became clear that its real-world outcome will be largely determined in Asia, rather than in Africa or the West.

Broad in scope but short on details, the Durban Platform aims to break down the firewall that has divided the historic big emitters of greenhouse gases — industrialized nations — from the major developing countries whose emissions, scientists say, are now driving future climate change.

The existing climate treaty, the Kyoto Protocol, did not require developing nations to reduce emissions. The Durban Platform starts a new process whose goal is to complete, by 2015, a global climate pact with legal force, applying to all nations. This will mean major developing nations will be required to make cuts.

The documents agreed to in Durban, after an unusual extension of the talks by more than 24 hours beyond their scheduled adjournment, also flesh out details of several key programs. Those include two transferring technology and climate aid to developing nations and one laying the groundwork for international monitoring of countries’ efforts to cut emissions.

The exact obligations countries will face under a new climate accord remain unclear. But the wide reach of the agreement shows that the byzantine negotiations which have steered global policymaking on climate for two decades are now catching up with reality.

The United States continued to attract the bulk of attention — and criticism — during the conference from activists who charged it was not doing enough to curb its own emissions or to aid poor countries imperiled by global warming. But for most of the countries pushing for a meaningful outcome in Durban, the focus was on China and India.

U.S. likely to move slowly

Several foreign negotiators and climate experts interviewed over the past week said they know that the United States is unlikely to adopt nationwide limits on greenhouse gases anytime soon, especially if a Republican wins the presidency next year. China, by contrast, is establishing a pilot trading system in several provinces and sectors next year along with other policies aimed at slowing its carbon output.

“I have to admit, we look these days more at the East than the West,” Jos Delbeke, the European Commission’s director general for climate action, said in an interview. The idea of tackling China’s rising emissions, he said, is “daunting. But that should not diminish our efforts to get them involved. The opposite is true.”

For several years, the European Union has been debating whether to cut its emissions 20 percent or 30 percent by 2020 compared to 1990 levels. Fatih Birol, chief economist at the International Energy Agency, said he recently shocked a group of E.U. officials by telling them that the difference between those two goals was equivalent to a matter of weeks’ worth of greenhouse-gas emissions from China. Moreover, according to Birol, China’s per capita emissions will surpass the E.U.’s by 2015.

“It was like a bomb had gone off in the room,” he recalled.

Delbeke has spent time in China briefing government officials on how to implement a system that limits greenhouse-gas emissions and trades pollution allowances, similar to the European Union’s. So has the Washington-based World Resources Institute, which is hosting a delegation of officials from China in January to consult with American experts in Washington, Boston, New York and Sacramento on climate policy.

“On the ground, China has one of the most impressive implementation programs for climate in the world,” said Jennifer Morgan, who heads WRI’s climate and energy program. But, she added, “they’re still learning, so they’re nervous about having their targets bound up in an international agreement without having the confidence they can meet the commitments.”

This year’s U.N. meeting came as the world’s only existing climate treaty, the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, reaches the end of its first commitment period. E.U. officials maintained throughout the conference that they would be willing to extend emission cuts under the Kyoto accord only if all the world’s major emitters agreed to negotiate a new legally binding climate pact.

But through most of the Durban talks, China, like the United States, resisted the idea of signing on to a binding treaty-negotiating process.

A critical turning point came on Thursday night, during a meeting of the “indaba” — a term that typically indicates a significant conference of Zulu and Xhosa elders, but in this case referred to an informal negotiating session of several dozen countries at the U.N. talks. The group had been debating whether to establish a new negotiating process applying to all members of the U. N. Framework Convention on Climate Change, which would produce a legally binding treaty. According to participants, Australia said it could accept the term “legal instrument” as an alternative. China and the United States endorsed the term.

But when officials drafted language also containing the option of a “legal outcome,” which could encompass voluntary agreements, India identified that term as essential to reconcile any future climate pact with its need to pursue economic development.

India’s refusal to budge — which South Africa accepted — brought the conference to the brink of collapse, as officials from Europe and smaller nations decried the agreement as insufficient.

“This is indeed a historic opportunity, and we cannot build history on shaky foundations,” Colombia’s deputy minister of foreign relations, Patti Londono Jaramillo, told delegates. “It is a weak wording.”

During one break in the proceedings, representatives from several countries huddled to reconcile the concerns of India and those pushing for a stronger provision. The State Department’s lead climate lawyer for the past two decades, Susan Biniaz, suggested the word “outcome with legal force,” which pleased both sides.

Disputes foreseen

Several experts said the final text will force all major emitters to sign on to a legally binding agreement of some form by 2015, assuming they have the political will to do so. Brazil’s chief negotiator, Ambassador Luiz Alberto Figueiredo Machado, who helped craft the compromise, called it “an excellent text that clearly sets points of action, points of commitment, and timetables, and it is legally binding, so it is extremely effective, potentially, for responding to the need of climate change. We got what we came to Durban to get.”

Michael Levi, a senior fellow for energy and environment at the Council on Foreign Relations, questioned that analysis in a blog post Sunday. “Was all this vague language an intentional fudge?” he wrote. “Almost certainly.”

Veterans of the process predicted there would be plenty of fights over the meaning of the Durban Platform in the years to come and said near-term progress would take place in countries and regions rather than at a U.N. forum.

Costa Rica’s environment minister, Rene Castro, hailed the idea that in theory, “China, Brazil, India and even the U.S. accepted the need to do more sooner” in Durban. But he added, in the same e-mail, that he remains concerned that the world will not cut its emissions quickly enough to reduce the impact on the “most vulnerable countries like Bangladesh and small island states. Adaptation costs [are] likely to increase for everybody.”

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