3 Ways to Salvage Upcoming Global Climate Talks

Despite intransigence from China and the U.S. -- the world's two leading polluters -- the Durban conference can still do some good

patrick nov25 p.jpg

Activists from the WWF demonstrate on the sidelines of the UN Climate Change Conference COP16 in Cancun / Reuters

As delegates from nearly 200 countries prepare to descend on Durban, South Africa next week for the seventeenth meeting of the Conference of Parties (COP-17) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), pessimism runs high. Privately, the leaders of major established and emerging economies concede that no new climate treaty containing binding emissions reductions will be negotiated before 2016. And even if an agreement were reached, it would not come into force until 2020--eight years from now. This bleak outlook comes despite warnings from scientists and economists about the dangers of delaying dramatic action to mitigate the planet's warming.

Just this week, the UN World Meteorological Association reported that the volume of greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere reached a new record during 2010. And emissions appear to be accelerating, with carbon dioxide rising by 2.3 parts per million over the past year--a significant jump from the average (2.0) over the past decade. According to the U.S. Energy Department, recent increases in global carbon emissions exceed the worst-case projections of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).   Adding to the warnings, a recent IPCC report predicts that dramatic planetary warming during this century is "virtually certain." Fatih Birol, chief economist of the International Energy Agency, warns that the world has a brief, five-year window to stop a worldwide mean temperature increase of 2 degrees Celsius: "If we do not have an international agreement whose effect is put into place by 2017, then the door to will be closed forever." Two degrees Celsius may seem like a small rise, but scientists regard it as a critical threshold, beyond which the world will face more extreme weather such as melting icecaps, devastating droughts, and torrential rainfall and flooding. And without significant efforts toward mitigation, global temperatures could rise even more.

Recommended Reading

The reasons for the diplomatic deadlock are plain. Major parties to Kyoto, including Japan, Russia, and Canada, have already signaled that they will not take on a second commitment because China and the United States--the world's top two polluters--are not included in it. The European Union (EU) is prepared to sign up for a second round, but it insists that major developing countries, whose emissions are surging as their economies grow, must embrace and follow through on real commitments. The EU's preference is to negotiate "a single global and comprehensive legally binding instrument" including all emitters, though it would countenance an "interim" solution whereby major emerging countries would accept a "road map" and timetable for treaty commitments. Even this fall-back position faces resistance from the so-called "BASIC" caucus--Brazil, South Africa, India, and China--who are disinclined to accept binding targets that might jeopardize their domestic growth and development goals.

The United States, for its part, has abdicated leadership on climate issues. Heading into an election year, President Obama seldom mentions global warming any more. And with the laudable exception of John Huntsman--who actually believes in climate science--his Republican rivals for the presidency have mostly fallen over themselves to deny its existence or importance.

Given these international and domestic dynamics, is Durban destined to be a failure? Not entirely. While a successor treaty to Kyoto with updated, binding targets is off the table, the conferees have an incentive and the ability to snatch some measure of victory from the gathering.

  • First, governments can agree to build on the climate mitigation activities they are already undertaking individually, bilaterally, and multilaterally. Under the broad Kyoto umbrella, parties have adopted various mechanisms and initiatives designed to reduce emissions, ranging from reporting requirements to market schemes for carbon trading, investments in renewable energy, and more robust fuel standards and targets for carbon intensity. As in Copenhagen and Cancun, states parties will stress the cumulative effect of parallel national efforts, rather than a stringent, binding treaty.
  • Second, rather than admitting failure and declaring Kyoto "dead," the assembled delegations could seek to keep it on life support, in the form of a political rather than a legally binding agreement. A looser, informal "Kyoto II" could play several roles. It could provide a framework for a more robust system to monitor and verify compliance with stated national goals. It could offer a mechanism for transfer of clean energy technology and climate financing to the developing world. And it could hold out the promise, however distant in the future, of a successor treaty.
  • Third, Durban will ultimately be judged on whether the wealthy world makes good on its financial commitments to help developing countries adapt to the climate change the world has failed to mitigate. At Cancun last December, delegations to COP-16 agreed to create a Green Climate Fund of up to $100 billion to help countries cope with global warming. Unfortunately, that target seems increasingly out of reach, as advanced market democracies grapple with slow growth, massive fiscal imbalances and swelling sovereign debts. This week Ernst and Young reported that austerity measures across ten of the world's major economies had created a climate funding "gap" of $22.5 billion--a figure that could double to $45 billion should the crisis in the eurozone escalate.

Perhaps coincidentally, the U.S. congressional supercommittee, composed of twelve legislators from the same country, admitted defeat this week--exhibiting a complete inability to engage in practical compromise. Given the stakes involved, let's hope all the delegations a part of the COP-17--regardless of their diverse interests--do not resign themselves to the same fate.

This article originally appeared at CFR.org, an Atlantic partner site.