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Does Durban Matter?

Tags: Climate Change , Kyoto Protocol , Global Warming , Economic Growth

Saunders, Paul J.

December 13, 2011

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While South African Foreign Minister Maite Nkoana-Mashabane claimed that “we have made history” in closing the United Nations’ annual climate talks, the real outcome of the Durban conference was more modest. The Durban Platform for Enhanced Action avoids the total collapse of the institutional foundations for international cooperation to combat climate change, but does little more than preserve a format for future talks when significant differences remain.

Few thought that Durban would produce miracles; Copenhagen and last year’s meeting in Cancun, Mexico, made clear that even with a Democratic president and Congress, the United States was unable to accept binding limits on greenhouse gas emissions. Since then, important signatories of the Kyoto Protocol, including Canada, Japan, and Russia—which together account for over 10% of total global emissions—have indicated their unwillingness to extend Kyoto.  They confirmed this stand at Durban.

The most important outcome of the negotiations was the abandonment of the unsustainable principle of “common but differentiated responsibilities,” which no longer reflects international realities. A central plank of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, signed in 1992, the concept of “common but differentiated responsibilities” ensured that all nations share responsibility for reducing greenhouse gas emissions but that developed countries have greater responsibility because of their substantially larger share of historical emissions.

The original goal behind this idea was to find a compromise solution that would include developing nations in a universal international climate regime while allowing poor countries to continue to increase their emissions as a necessary byproduct of further economic development.  Nevertheless, the world has evolved considerably since 1992, when China’s nominal gross domestic product (GDP) was just 2.01% of the world economy, according to the International Monetary Fund. Within just five years, in 1997, China’s economy had grown to represent 3.14% of the global economy and was expected to continue rapid growth—and the United States Senate signaled that it was not prepared to ratify the Kyoto Protocol in a 95-0 vote on the Byrd-Hagel Resolution, which explicitly cited the exclusion of developing countries as a fundamental obstacle to US participation.

Today, China’s GDP is 10% of the global figure and is expected to reach 12.26% by 2015, by which time delegates in Durban agreed to negotiate a new deal with “legal force.” China’s greenhouse gas emissions already exceed America’s now. Thus it is difficult to imagine how any new agreement could have been reached—or can be effective—if it excludes China. While India’s economy remains smaller, and is growing more slowly that China’s, India is likewise emitting a rapidly expanding share of the world’s greenhouse gases. The critical political alignment in Durban was an alliance between the European Union, on one hand, and poorer developing nations, on the other, to pressure China and India to surrender the protection of “common but differentiated responsibilities.” Once they had done so, the US delegation was prepared to accept the goal of a new binding agreement, slated to take effect by 2020.

Nevertheless, two enormous problems remain.

First, it is becoming increasingly apparent that climate change is already happening. Global average temperatures have already increased by 1.4 degrees Fahrenheit, with temperatures up as much as 7 degrees Fahrenheit in northern Russia. Because of this, the Earth’s climate system has already established substantial momentum that will be extremely difficult to reverse; the world’s oceans are just one component of this and have a combined volume of about one and one-third billion cubic kilometers, or 1.34 billion cubic meters. Once changes begin to occur on this scale, humanity has limited tools to stop them.

Second, Durban’s deal is nothing more than an agreement to negotiate even as the climate warms and further momentum builds. Discarding “common but differentiated responsibilities” clears the way for those negotiations but does not resolve the two fundamental issues: what emissions limits will China’s leaders, and the United States, agree to accept?

While US climate envoy Todd Stern expressed satisfaction with the “symmetry” in the Durban agreement, actual American and Chinese commitments haven’t been negotiated. Moreover, it is far from clear that the Obama administration will be doing the negotiating; a Romney or Gingrich administration could end up determining US positions in the talks. And whichever US administration is in charge, it will have very limited flexibility in new negotiations if the US Congress has not passed domestic climate legislation—something that still appears far off. President Obama himself experienced this problem two years ago in Copenhagen, where he attempted to reach a deal in the absence of a domestic consensus.

In the final analysis, for all its good intentions, “common but differentiated responsibilities” has served primarily to delay international action on climate change. This delay may ultimately prove fatal; the US Senate would very likely have accepted less from China in the 1990s than it will if presented with a new treaty two decades later, when public concern about China and public skepticism about climate change have both increased. Moreover, while Obama administration officials may be congratulating themselves for ensuring that the Durban Platform commits to an agreement with “legal force,” rather than a treaty, no American president can meaningfully reduce US emissions without a congressional mandate in one form or another.

Far more urgent than another round of international wrangling to determine who will reduce emissions by what modest amount is rapid action to develop new energy technologies that break or reduce the link between energy, economic growth, and greenhouse gas emissions. With commercially viable technologies that accomplish this, globally negotiated emissions limits are unnecessary. Without them, emissions limits won’t matter.

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