What the World Needs from the Climate Talks in Durban

Written by Duncan Marsh on . Posted in COP17, The Wonk Room

As governments gather in Durban, South Africa this week for the annual U.N. climate negotiations – which run through December 9 – they will face the essential business of advancing the Cancun Agreements of last December.

Cancun reached some important breakthroughs on climate finance, technology, adaptation, and protecting forests, but left many of the finer details to be worked out. This has all been happening throughout the past year, and is indeed important work, even if it does not yet reflect the ambition needed to keep our global temperature from increasing beyond 2 degrees Celsius – a dangerous threshold for climate impacts.

What has already begun grabbing the headlines from Durban, however, is the question of what is to be done about the Kyoto Protocol and whether it will live on past its current 2012 expiration date.

When it was negotiated in 1997, Kyoto represented a pioneering effort to assign responsibilities and establish cost-effective mechanisms for corralling global emissions of greenhouse gases – the gases that are radically changing the composition of the earth’s atmosphere. It remains the only legally-binding global instrument in place to set targets for curbing carbon pollution, though these targets only apply to developed countries. Kyoto’s adoption of market mechanisms – like emissions trading – was effectively an attempt to put state-of-the-art environmental economics into practice at the global level.

However, with the withdrawal of the United States a decade ago, the treaty only includes about 30 percent of the world’s carbon emissions. A debate has thus raged between many developing countries that insist that developed countries sign onto a second Kyoto period, and developed countries that seek movement toward a more inclusive framework. Japan, Russia and Canada have indicated they will not join a second period of Kyoto; Australia is on the fence at best. Pressure is thus focused on the European Union. If only the EU among developed countries goes forward into a second commitment period, however, Kyoto will shrink to less than 15 percent of emissions. Clearly, such a framework alone is not going to do enough to protect us from climate change.

Kyoto may have been ahead of its time in terms of an agreement that all developed countries were prepared to implement, but it does contain fundamental architectural elements that should be part of any future global agreement. These include:

  • Emissions trading and other cost-effective “market mechanisms” that put a price on carbon and promote cooperation between countries.
  • Inventory and carbon accounting systems that promote transparency and support the implementation mechanisms.
  • Reporting systems on actions and emissions inventories
  • Compliance systems that seek to ensure nations do what they commit to, and apply preventive measures to facilitate compliance

The extension of Kyoto would ensure that this architecture continues in an international legal framework. Yet even if that fails to happen in Durban, these elements must not only be preserved, but continue to be strengthened and refined through the negotiating process. Some of these elements are further enhanced in the Cancun Agreements that negotiators are fleshing out. In other words, Durban must continue to build the foundation for a stronger and broader agreement, and the Kyoto question is only a small component of that.

Kyoto, with its artificial split of action between developed and developing countries, was never intended to be a permanent paradigm, rather an important – and groundbreaking – early step in the world’s effort to devise effective responses. It has been evident for nearly a decade, at least since the U.S. withdrew from Kyoto in 2001, that the world would need to establish a more comprehensive framework than Kyoto did, one that includes all major emitters taking action.

The world looks very different in 2011 than it did two decades ago. Developing countries now emit most of the world’s greenhouse gases, and China, which overtook the U.S. as the largest emitter only in 2007, is seeing such soaring emissions growth that it may double U.S. output by the end of this decade. Furthermore, emerging developing economies have a far greater role on the international economic and political stage today. The bulk of historical responsibility still lies with the industrialized world, but the lines are blurring and there is a need for all to be acting.

Last year’s Cancun Agreement, and the Copenhagen Accord which preceded it in 2009, were notable because they cracked open the door to such broader frameworks. Governments have not yet found the political will to create a broader legally binding framework, but all major emitters – both developed and developing countries – have now pledged to act to reduce emissions. And some of the developing countries’ pledges, such as those of Brazil and Indonesia, are quite a significant and impressive departure from business-as-usual emissions trajectories. Support – financial, technological, and political – for such moves will be critical, and Durban must show progress in these areas, such as in the establishment of the Green Climate Fund. The multilateral spirit that was so crucial in the final stages of Cancun a year ago will again be essential in Durban.

Duncan Marsh is the director for international climate change policy at The Nature Conservancy

Photo by: Flickr user Adopt a Negotiator (The Durban Climate Change Conference/COP17/November 30th). Used under a Creative Commons license.

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