Spotlight Durban: The Fight at the Heart of the Durban Climate Talks

Martin Khor

Another in a Triple Crisis and Real Climate Economics Blog series on the Durban Climate Change Conference.

The UN Climate Conference is reaching its climax.  Perhaps the most important decision being made is on the future of the global climate regime, and whether it will be as fair as the present one, or less so.  And also whether what is decided is enough to tackle the worsening climate situation on the ground.

The hottest topic is the fate of the Kyoto Protocol.  Japan, Canada and Russia have announced they do not want to undertake a second period of commitment, when the first period expires in 2012.

The developing countries have been fighting for the protocol’s survival and vowed that Durban shall not be the protocol’s burial ground.  All developed countries except the United States had committed to reduce their emissions by a certain percentage under this protocol.

Options have been discussed, either to amend the protocol with a new set of numbers in an annex on how much the emissions would be reduced, or a diluted form of obligation, such as a declaration or a decision.

But for this, the EU wants a concession, that all “major economies” agree to start negotiations for a new legally binding treaty that will take effect in 2020.

The United States is not keen at all on having its emissions targets bound in any treaty.  It left the Kyoto Protocol years ago, and its Congress is unlikely to agree to join any new climate treaty.

The US says it can join a new treaty but sets an unfair condition that is unlikely to fly—that developing countries which are major economies also take on similar emission-reduction commitments as the developed nations.  This goes against the equity principle of common but differentiated responsibility.

There is no agreed definition of a “major economy”.  Among developing countries, those with a large population are being targeted. But on a per-capita basis, they are still developing countries, some of them low-income.

In 2010, India was ranked a lowly 132 out of 184 countries in per capita GDP. Its level was US$1370 compared to US$46,860 for the US, according to IMF data.   India in 2008 was ranked 138 in per capita carbon dioxide emission; its level of 1.5 ton compares with 17.5 tons for the US, according to UN data.

It is “major” as an economy or emitter because of its large population (1.2 billion) for which it can hardly be blamed. To ask India to take on the same obligations as developed countries with more than 30 times higher per capita income and over ten times higher per capita emissions is simply unfair.

Even China is a rather ordinary developing country in per capita terms.  Its GNP per capita of  US$4,382 (in 2010) is ranked 92 among countries and its carbon dioxide emissions of 5.3 tons (in 2008) is ranked 77.

Thus, it is unsurprising that developing countries like India and China are not likely to bow to pressure to take on rich-country commitments as a condition for the really rich countries to maintain their present commitments.

If we want a reasonable agreement, it is staring us in the face: the faithful conclusion of the Bali Road Map launched in 2007 and which is the subject of the current round of climate talks.

Under this road map, the developed countries in the Kyoto Protocol would take on their second-period commitments that in aggregate would reach the science-based requirement of 25-40 per cent emissions cut (or more than 40% as demanded by developing countries) by 2020 compared to 1990.

The US (not a Kyoto member) would commit to a comparable effort under the Convention.  The developing countries would take on enhanced actions that would be monitored more stringently.  Rich countries would also provide adequate finance and technology transfer for both mitigation and adaptation.

However this Bali agreement began to unravel in Copenhagen in 2009 when the US proposed a pledging system in which developed countries would only put forward what it was prepared to do, instead of the “top-down” approach in which developed countries make a comparable effort to reach an overall target.

This pledge system was legitimized in Cancun in 2010.  The gross inadequacy of this pledge system was exposed by scientists showing that the present pledges are so low that the world is on track for global warming of  3-4 degrees Celsius or more.

The Europeans now propose to use Durban to launch a process to have a new treaty that includes all countries.

But an agreement mandated by Bali is still being negotiated.  It is better to conclude the present talks as soon as possible (it would not have to wait for 2020) and get as much results as possible from it than to change the mandate now and risk losing whatever is being negotiated.

The Bali road map has the top-down science-based approach as well as comparability of effort by developed countries.  There is no guarantee that a new mandate will have that.  It is better to conclude Bali and consider a new process after that is done.

In Durban’s first week, the developed countries continued their attempt to shift the burden of cutting global emissions on to developing countries.  The US did not want further discussion on how to upgrade the low ambitions in Annex I pledges.  It appeared to want to entrench the pledge system, with each country determining on its own what it can do.

But there are big pressures on developing countries to undertake new obligations for reporting on and monitoring their emissions and their actions, and being subject to international review, far beyond what was agreed in Bali on what they would do.

How the Durban talks end will be seen in the next day or two.  How it will affect the present and future frameworks will have to be analysed after that.

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