Opening Salvos as UN Climate Negotiations Slog On

Oxfam International activists stage an action in Durban

The 17th meeting of the Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change begins tomorrow in Durban, South Africa.

For several years now the world’s governments have been trying to develop a comprehensive treaty to address the climate problem and the shortcomings of the Kyoto Protocol.   Very little progress has been made.

There are many obstacles to be cleared.  One of the most intractable is the desire on the part of the United States to insure that developing countries take actions to reduce the growth of their emissions in such a way that they can be objectively verified.

For developing countries such as China and India, they respond that the United States is a large historic emitter and that they expect action from the developed world before they will consider any legal instrument inhibiting their own emission growth.

Over the past several weeks countries have been presenting draft papers of language that they would like to see in any agreement coming out of Durban.

Today some of these texts were released to the public.  The offerings from China, India, and Brazil on the one hand, and the United States, on the other, don’t give much hope in terms of bridging the political gaps between the developed world and the major emerging economies.

The United States offered a text on “long-term finance”–which refers to the ways in which rich countries will help developing countries advance their economies in a low-carbon manner.  Instead of focusing on how specific financing commitments will be raised and delivered, the text is much more concerned with the “transparency” issue.

The text offered by China, India and Brazil is short and to the point:

Acknowledging that the largest share of historical global emissions of greenhouse gases originated in Annex I Parties and that, owing to this historical responsibility in terms of their contribution to the average global temperature increase, Annex I Parties must take the lead in combating climate change and the adverse effects thereof.

Also acknowledging that, according to the preamble of the Convention, social and economic development and poverty eradication are the first and overriding priorities of developing countries.

The work towards identifying a global goal for substantially reducing global greenhouse gas emissions as well as a timeframe for global peaking of emissions must be based on historical responsibility as referred above, bearing in mind the context of enhancing and achieving the full, effective and sustained
implementation of the Convention.

In essence, these three large and growing economies are saying that the developed countries are largely responsible for creating the problem and, hence, should be the first to exhibit behaviors that will help alleviate rising emissions levels.

Neither of these positions are surprising.  However, after four years of negotiations the fact that there is no evidence of spaces for agreement is troubling.

UN Climate Negotiator: “We do not belive conditions are ripe” for legal agreement in Durban

The last intersessional international climate negotiations before the major conference in Durban ended today in Panama with modest progress made on some issues like the structure of a financing mechanism to help poor countries cope with climate change.

US climate negiotiator Jonathan Pershing. photo: US Department of State

But major movement on what to do when the Kyoto Protocol’s first commitment period ends next year and how to bring large emitters like the United States and China into an agreement on long-term emissions reduction actions has remained elusive.

At his closing press conference, US lead negotiator, Jonathan Pershing, said that his country does “not believe conditions are ripe for a mandate in Durban for a legally binding agreement.  For our part we can only consider an agreement with equal legal force to all the major economies.”

This means that the US will not engage in anything legally binding without developing country emitters like China and India agreeing to binding reductions in the growth of their emissions as well.

Those emerging economic powers, however, are quite content with the Kyoto architecture which creates a two-tier system whereby the historic Western emitters are solely responsible for reductions.

At the closing plenary developing country after developing country argued for a continuation of Kyoto after its 2012 expiration.

Going into Durban, the expectations have got to be modest.  The negotiating text on what to do with Kyoto is an unwieldy 49 pages long with such divergent options that it seems like the accounts of the 2007 Bali conference could equally apply to the proceedings in Panama.

Pershing tried to be upbeat at his news conference today about the financing architecture that is taking form, but on the fundamental issue of reducing greenhouse gas emissions he observed:  “I don’t see any meeting of the minds of the issues.”

Climate Negotiations on the Eve of Durban

Climate negotiators from throughout the world are in Panama this week for the last negotiating session before December’s major Conference of the Parties (COP) meeting in Durban.

Delegates Arrive for Climate Talks in Panama (photo: adoptanegotiator)

Last year’s COP in Cancun ended on a cautiously optimistic note as the explicit gridlock and petulance that marked the 2009 Copenhagen summit was avoided and a series of “agreements” emerged that would put negotiations on a path forward towards a new global treaty.

So where are we on the eve of Durban? Has there been significant progress towards substantive agreements? Or did the non-committal nature of the Cancun Agreements merely  temporarily avoid the need for  confronting critical differences between countries?

The two negotiating tracks are still proceeding–one dealing with what happens when the Kyoto Protocol’s first emissions reductions commitment period ends next year (AWG-KP) and another dealing with “long term commitments” for countries, like the United States and China, that are not bound by Kyoto’s reduction pledges (AWG-LCA).

On the Kyoto side, several Kyoto-bound developed country emitters like Japan, Canada, and Russia have insisted that they will not sign on to another commitment period under the current situation.

Developing countries, led by China, are still insisting that the Kyoto must proceed with a second commitment period. This has led the European Union to say that they are willing to consider a second round of emissions reductions only if it is part of a “broader package.”

They argue that since EU emissions are around 11% of the global share, their unilateral actions will not have the impact needed to stave off dangerous climate change.

On the AWG-LCA track, there still doesn’t seem to be anything concrete to have emerged yet that bridges the concerns of the major developing countries and the United States.  One of the major features of the Cancun Agreements was that countries–developed and developing–would voluntarily list their emissions reduction strategies in a public fashion and that there should be some way that any emissions reductions could be independently verified.  Also related to this is the crucial issue of financial mechanisms for developing countries to help transition to a low-carbon economy.  Developing countries are critical of developed countries’ focus on how climate finance funding might operate to the exclusion of  a discussion of monetary commitments.

How these logjams will be cleared is difficult to ascertain at this point.  Over the past few days in Panama, it appears that there has been a flurry of documents and “conference room papers”  circulating where countries are staking out positions.

The Panama conference ends tomorrow, so we should have a sense of where things are headed going into Durban within the next 24 hours.  The European Union was hoping for a “roadmap” towards a legal agreement to be adopted in Durban.  That would surely be progress.