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Another Perspective on the Durban Climate Talks

by Michael Levi
December 16, 2011

I argued earlier this week that many were overreacting to the outcome from the Durban climate talks. Trevor Houser, partner at RHG and visiting fellow at the Peterson Institute, posted his own thoughtful take on the talks on the PIIE website. I’m reprinting the last part, which is in part a direct response to my earlier post, with his permission. We’re planning to follow this up with a discussion soon.

In international climate diplomacy, mandates matter a lot, as they considerably bind the hands of negotiators later on. The mandate that resulted in the Kyoto Protocol (agreed to in 1995 in Berlin) called for developed countries to act first, and it insisted that economic development is the overriding priority for developing countries. It also argued that current, historical and per capita emissions in developed countries are higher than those of developing countries, which gives the developed countries a much greater responsibility to act. With all that in the mandate, it’s no surprise that the Kyoto Protocol only included emissions reduction commitments for rich countries and no surprise that the US bowed out.

The “Bali Action Plan” that launched the current round of negotiations did a little better. It called for some action from developing countries but expected much more of developed countries, including calling on them to finance developing country action. It did not include reference to historical or per capita emissions, but reaffirmed economic development as the overriding priority for developing countries. These details made it impossible to negotiate an agreement that was symmetrically and legally binding on all countries – a US requirement. Instead, the US pursued a politically-binding agreement that included action from both developed and developing countries – the Copenhagen Accord.

For the next decade, this politically-binding approach is the right one to take – a point on which CFR’s Michael Levi and I agree. Countries are still trying to sort through the politics and mechanics of domestic climate action and building confidence in the ability of other countries to act. As such, a legally-binding approach right now is both impossible and unadvisable, because it will either reduce ambition, exclude important countries, or both. (My full argument to this effect can be found here and Levi’s can be found here.)

But beyond 2020, a treaty could be a very useful instrument in increasing global ambition, provided that it is crafted in the right way. And the Durban Platform has created the possibility of that happening – not by what it includes, but by what it leaves out.   There is no mention of historic responsibility or per capita emissions. There is no mention of economic development as the priority for developing countries. There is no mention of a difference between developed and developing country action. Rather, it calls climate change a problem requiring urgent action by everyone, and calls for the widest possible collaboration. It also calls for a “legal instrument or an agreed outcome with legal force” applicable to all Parties. That is very different from either the Berlin Mandate or the Bali Action Plan.

Levi  correctly points out in his Durban critique that developing countries will look to insert legal asymmetry in negotiations going forward. But that is very different from having asymmetry baked into the mandate from the start. And given how the world will look in 2020, it will be a lot easier for American diplomats to push back as negotiations for a post-2020 agreement unfold (provided, of course, that the US moves forward on domestic action – a prerequisite for any meaningful international progress).

Consider the following. By 2020, China’s annual emissions will be roughly double those of the US. Chinese per capita emissions will be higher than European per capita emissions, and China’s historical responsibility (when calculated properly, see analysis here) will be close to exceeding Europe’s. In the face of these trends, it will be much tougher for large developing countries to argue for the exemption from legal commitments they won in past agreements, particularly when the negotiating mandate calls for the legal instrument to apply to all parties.

None of this makes me an optimist about the world’s ability to effectively address climate change, mind you. But the EU and US were able to leverage the expiration of the Kyoto Protocol (the best leverage available now or for the foreseeable future) to win a mandate that gives us a fighting chance.

 

 

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