November 30th, 2011
02:00 AM ET

Durban's U.N. climate stakes

Editor's Note: Michael A. Levi is the Director of the Program on Energy Security and Climate Change at the Council on Foreign Relations. This is his Expert Brief, reprinted with permission of the Council on Foreign Relations.

By Michael A. Levi, CFR.org

On Monday, November 28, diplomats convened in Durban, South Africa, for the seventeenth annual UN climate negotiations, known formally as the Conference of the Parties (COP) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC).

Those talks, which will last two weeks, are aimed at advancing international efforts to mitigate and adapt to global climate change. The proceedings will involve a mix of technical negotiations aimed at fleshing out and implementing past agreements, and political negotiations focused on elaborating the legal obligations of countries to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions.

The talks will be much lower profile - and involve lower stakes - than the contentious gathering in Copenhagen, Denmark, two years ago. But several important issues are still on the table, and the consequences of decisions made in Durban could linger for many years.

When the Copenhagen climate talks ended in acrimony and blame trading, many speculated that the days of global climate change negotiations were numbered. Yet lost to many amid the chaos was a major political agreement (ForeignAffairs) among leaders from the United States, China, Europe, India, and others.

Christened the "Copenhagen Accord," the non-binding agreement appeared to commit all countries to emissions-reduction efforts, whether quantified as absolute cuts (as in the case of the United States and Europe) or as a mix of specific emissions-cutting policies and reductions in emissions intensity (as in the case of China).

It also saw developed countries pledge to seek as much as $100 billion annually in financial assistance for developing countries, all major countries promise to submit their emissions-cutting efforts to some sort of international scrutiny, and all countries agree to create new systems aimed at promoting the spread of low-carbon technologies.

Soon after Copenhagen, though, it became clear that not all countries were eager to follow through on their pledges. Moreover, for many, Copenhagen alone was inadequate. Many developing countries continued to treat the Kyoto Protocol as central to the global climate regime, and demanded that developed countries (excluding the United States) sign up to a second set of legally binding emissions targets that would start in 2013.

Some European countries, meanwhile, were alarmed at the non-binding nature of the Copenhagen outcome, and began to seek ways to reorient future negotiations toward a legally binding treaty.

Nonetheless, the sixteenth annual U.N. talks, held in Cancun, Mexico, were considered a success. The Copenhagen Accord was formalized within the UNFCCC system, agreement was reached on governance for a future climate fund, and countries made progress in elaborating a system of technology centers and in starting to develop rules for international audits of countries' emissions-cutting efforts.

That was possible in large part because the two most contentious issues were deferred. Developing countries accepted a weak pledge that the fate of Kyoto would be resolved at a later date, and Europeans relented on their insistence (primarily that of the UK) that any interim agreement must commit to pursuing a legally binding deal later. The result, known as the "Cancun Agreements," was widely lauded.

Many observers, particularly in the United States, expected Durban to mainly be a technical meeting aimed at fleshing out the details of the Cancun Agreements. That is certainly one challenge that will be confronted at Durban, with a particular focus on moving arrangements for an international climate assistance fund forward. But technical negotiations, however important, are likely to be overshadowed by two bigger political fights, over the Kyoto Protocol and the broader future of the talks.

Most developing countries continue to insist that their developed counterparts sign up to a new set of commitments under the Kyoto Protocol–and unlike in Cancun, the issue cannot be easily punted to the future, since the current Kyoto Protocol commitments expire at the end of next year. Nonetheless, most developed countries–including the United States, Japan, and Canada–have flatly refused to adopt new obligations, and their stances are unlikely to change.

That leaves Europe in the middle. European countries have left open the possibility of a new set of Kyoto commitments, but have set a condition: all major countries must commit to seek a new agreement by 2015 that would involve legally binding emissions-cutting obligations by 2020. This demand meets resistance from China, in particular, which has long insisted that it will not take on legally binding commitments to cut emissions.

If, however, Europe modifies its demands so that China can sign up, the result may be a compromise that the United States is unable to accept. Either way, the potential for an ugly outcome is high. Among other consequences, this would likely thwart progress in the more mundane, but still important, technical talks.

The world would be better off if the U.N. talks were to focus on technical matters like transparency and the global climate fund, at least for the indefinite future. While preserving the Kyoto protocol has some symbolic and political value to many developing countries, it has little, if any, utility for confronting climate change, since a new Kyoto commitment period would, at best, ratify targets that Europe has already passed into domestic law. (Developing countries have no substantial obligations under Kyoto.)

Moreover, efforts to conclude a legally binding global agreement (FT) are likely to run into the same roadblocks that they confronted at Copenhagen, barring major changes on the ground in the United States, and perhaps elsewhere. Worse, depending on the specifics, pursuit of a legally binding deal could deter countries from moving forward in less formal but still meaningful ways, if they were afraid that their informal efforts might later be hardened into international law.

U.S. negotiators, though, have limited leverage with which to steer the outcome. The best result for the United States would likely be a European decision to commit to a second set of Kyoto commitments while abandoning any insistence on a future legal deal. Given past public pronouncements, though, this outcome is unlikely.

Perhaps more feasible is an outcome where Europe clearly directs its demands for a legally binding deal away from emissions targets and toward agreement on matters like transparency and rules for disbursing international climate finance. This would largely spare the United States, and open up some room for the technical talks, though it could also complicate them.

Whether any of this would be acceptable to European leaders, many of whom are wedded to the idea of legally binding emissions targets (and who might even benefit politically from an ugly outcome in which the United States was blamed), or to developed country leaders, remains to be seen.

Regardless of the specific outcome, the terms of future climate negotiations are likely to be set in Durban. The outcome may seem meager in its immediate impact, but its influence on climate diplomacy may be felt for years to come.

The views expressed in this article are solely those of Michael Levi.

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Topics: Climate • Energy • United Nations

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