The Durban Agenda I: What Future Framework for International Climate Policy?

Countries have been negotiating the future of international climate policy since 2005. The Kyoto Protocol’s first commitment period expires in 2012. Considering that a peak in worldwide greenhouse gas emissions must occur in about 2015-2020 if global warming is to be held below the threshold of 2°C, it is necessary to reach an ambitious and robust agreement on the future climate regime as soon as possible.

The next UN climate conference will take place from 28 November to 9 December 2011 in Durban, South Africa. The conference will revolve around 2 key sets of issues:

  • The long-term perspective: What will be the overarching framework of future climate policy? A renewed Kyoto Protocol? A new treaty? A voluntary pledge-and-review system without any treaty? Some combination of the above?
  • The near-term perspective: Decisions to implement concrete near-term actions

This post will look at the long-term perspective while a future post will look at the near-term issues.

The Long-Term Perspective

As the Kyoto Protocol’s first commitment period expires in 2012 (though not the Protocol as such as claimed in 99% of media reports), the question where the international climate regime is heading is becoming ever more urgent. Ever since the start of the climate regime 20 years ago, negotiations have been characterised by fundamental differences of opinion on who should contribute how much to the fight against climate change and in particular who should go first. The so-called developing countries point to the historical responsibility of the so-called developed countries (listed in Annex I of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) and hence called Annex I countries) for creating the climate problem and insist that Annex I countries should therefore take the lead in combating climate change, as they have committed to in Art. 3.1 of the UNFCCC. Annex I countries for their part point to the rising emissions in the large rapidly industrialising countries of the South and demand that they need to step up their efforts as well.

According to the Bali Roadmap agreed at the Bali climate conference in 2007, the negotiations are proceeding under two tracks. First, the Ad Hoc Working Group on Further Commitments by Annex I Countries under the Kyoto Protocol (AWG-KP) is negotiating future emission targets for Annex I countries. As the Kyoto Protocol’s first commitment period expires in 2012, the AWG-KP is to agree on new targets for a second commitment period post-2012. Second, the Ad Hoc Working Group on Long-term Cooperative Action under the Convention (AWG-LCA) also negotiates commitments for Annex I countries, intending to cover those that have not ratified the Protocol – i.e. the USA. In addition, the LCA negotiates “Nationally appropriate mitigation actions (NAMAs)” of developing countries, which are to be supported by Annex I countries with technology, financing and capacity-building. Both the actions and the support are to be “measurable, reportable and verifiable”. The AWG-LCA also negotiates adaptation to the impacts of climate change, a crucial issue for many developing countries.

However, based on their fundamentally different views on who has which responsibility Parties hold equally different views on what should be the legal outcome of the negotiations.

The developed countries that have ratified the Kyoto Protocol are not prepared to go any further without significant action by the USA and the rapidly industrialising countries of the South. Ideally, they want to have the Protocol replaced by a new universal framework that also covers the USA and the rapidly industrialising countries. In particular Canada, Japan and Russia have explicitly stated that they refuse to be bound under a second Kyoto period. Most of the remaining Annex I countries have stated that they would prefer a universal framework but could also accept a two-track outcome under the condition that it provides for sufficient efforts by all major emitters.

The G-77 and China want the Kyoto Protocol to continue as a reflection of industrialised countries’ historical responsibility, in parallel to a separate outcome under the LCA. They see the Kyoto Protocol as the only binding instrument for emission reductions the international community has so far been able to create and reject any suggestion to abandon it. They also see a continuation of the Protocol as a key prerequisite for maintaining the distinction between industrialised and developing countries. In their view the two AWGs should have two separate results: On the one hand new emission targets for Annex I countries under the Kyoto Protocol and on the other hand an agreement under the UNFCCC. The latter would cover commitments by the USA, emission reduction actions by non-Annex I countries, adaptation to the impacts of climate change, as well as financial and technological support from Annex I to non-Annex I countries. Developing countries have also posited that no agreement will be possible under the AWG-LCA unless there is an agreement on a second commitment period under the Kyoto Protocol.

There are also differences within the G-77. The countries that are most vulnerable to the impacts of climate change, the small island developing states (SIDS) and the least developed countries (LDCs), have submitted proposals for a new legally binding protocol under the Convention that would work in parallel to the Kyoto Protocol. By contrast, in particular China, India and Saudi Arabia have held that conference decisions would be sufficiently binding and that first the content of the agreement should be determined before discussing its legal form. Their position strongly depends on the (lack of) willingness of the USA to commit to a sufficiently ambitious emission target in a legally binding form.

The USA for their part have demanded a new structure that should be “very different” from the Kyoto Protocol. They reject the top-down approach favoured by the EU and developing countries. According to the USA, the future regime should be based on a “pledge and review” bottom-up approach. In this concept, each country would basically determine its own level of ambition and the international system would mainly serve as a notary to collect and regularly review the implementation of these pledges. The USA also insist that the degree of bindingness must be the same for all the major emitters – a demand that is vehemently rejected by developing countries.

Developing countries have been explicit that their top priority in Durban is securing a continuation of the Kyoto Protocol. As discussed in a previous post, the EU has tied its agreement to a second Kyoto period to getting agreement on a “roadmap” for negotiations towards a new comprehensive treaty.

Unfortunately, Parties’ views on what such a roadmap and an ultimate legal framework should look like are poles apart. In particular the USA has staked out a maximum position, instisting on legal symmetry between all major emitters. The have also noted publicly that they do not believe the conditions are ripe for a roadmap, and that “we would be better served” by focusing on implementing existing agreements and scaling up actions.

One can therefore envision three scenarios for Durban:

  1. The most optimistic scenario includes a second Kyoto period and a roadmap to adopt a legally binding instrument with legally binding commitments by a certain date, hopefully not later than 2015.
  2. The most pessimistic scenario is a second Copenhagen, a conference that fails because of the fundamental divide on these issues. As developing countries have declared Kyoto their top priority, they might conceivably block all progres on other issues if the Kyoto question is not resolved.
  3. The third scenario lies in the middle. The question of the legal nature of the future climate agreement would be deferred yet another time and in the meantime incremental progress would be made on the near-term implementation issues.

Another item for the long-term view is the review of the adequacy of what has been agreed and done so far that is to take place in 2013-2015. Parties still need to agree on the detailed terms of reference for the review, preferrably at Durban. In particular the timing is crucial: the review must be completed in time to provide input to the conference in 2015, hopefully dovetailing with the end date of a Durban roadmap. One crucial input will be the IPCC’s Fifth Assessment Report, which is due in 2014/2015.

Related Posts:

What are the top four conditions for success in Durban? USA! USA! USA! USA!

New Publication: Current Developments in Pilot Nationally Appropriate Mitigation Actions of Developing Countries (NAMAs)

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