Kicking the Can on Climate Change

Surprise! Nations agree to keep talking about emission reductions for another year.


The new climate change agreement arduously reached in December at the 17th Conference of the Parties (COP-17) of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) was widely hailed as a "historic breakthrough." The Durban Platform for Enhanced Action commits all countries for the first time to cutting their greenhouse gas emissions, chiefly carbon dioxide. 

To achieve this goal the signatories have agreed to negotiate "a protocol, another legal instrument or an agreed outcome with legal force" by 2015. Whatever deal is reached then will have five years to be ratified so that it can come into force by 2020. On its face, this appears to be a significant step in climate change diplomacy. In reality, it's not.

First a bit of history. Under the Kyoto Protocol of 1997, only industrialized countries were required to cut their emissions, by an average of 5 percent below the levels they emitted in 1990. Meanwhile, developing countries such as China, India, and Brazil could continue to emit carbon dioxide by burning coal, gas, and oil to produce the energy needed to fuel their economic growth and reduce poverty.

President Bill Clinton never submitted the Kyoto Protocol to the United States Senate, which had passed a resolution, by a vote of 95 to 0, declaring that it would not ratify any treaty that did not cover emissions from competitors like China. On this point American climate diplomacy has never wavered, not even under Barack Obama's administration. 

In fact, the 2009 climate conference in Copenhagen fell apart precisely because the Obama administration refused to agree to any new treaty governing greenhouse gas emissions that did not impose requirements on the big emerging economies, whose emissions are skyrocketing. Obama knew that trying to get such a treaty ratified back home was a political nonstarter. China refused to make the commitment, so the Copenhagen conference collapsed.

As a face-saving measure, both developed and developing countries made nonbinding pledges with regard to their greenhouse gas emissions. For example, the U.S. set the goal of cutting its greenhouse gas emissions by 17 percent below the levels emitted in 2005, and China offered to reduce its carbon intensity (the amount of carbon dioxide emitted per dollar of GDP) by 40 percent to 45 percent from its 2000 level by 2020. Washington's 17 percent emission cut would amount to a reduction of about 4 percent below 1990 levels. Under the Kyoto Protocol the U.S. was supposed to have reduced its emissions by 7 percent below its 1990 level by 2012.

The Copenhagen Accord process was made official at the 2010 Cancun climate change conference, where countries ultimately made promises pertaining to 85 percent of global emissions. By contrast, the Kyoto Protocol applied to around 15 percent of global emissions. The Obama administration has been trying to reach its emission goal by imposing higher vehicle fuel efficiency standards and requiring the abatement of carbon dioxide emitted by power plants.

During the recent negotiations in Durban, U.S. chief climate change envoy Todd Stern made it clear at press briefings that the American position remained steadfast on the point that "legal parity" must apply to big emerging economies under any new greenhouse gas treaty. That is, China, India, and Brazil would have to cut their emissions in the same way that industrialized countries would be required to do. Until that happened, the U.S. would stick with the voluntary process set up in Cancun for cutting greenhouse gas emissions.

Meanwhile, the world's only legally binding climate treaty, the Kyoto Protocol, has been faltering. Three signatories—Canada, Russia, and Japan—had all declared before the Durban conference that they were not going to make further emission-reduction commitments. The European Union's flawed market for carbon emission permits, called the Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS), was at risk of collapsing unless the Kyoto Protocol's reduction commitments were renewed and increased. 

At Durban the E.U. demanded that all countries, especially developing countries, agree to a negotiations "roadmap" that by 2015 would lead to some kind of global emission reduction scheme binding both developed and developing countries and coming into force by 2020. Otherwise, the E.U. would essentially kill off the Kyoto Protocol by not making additional reduction commitments. 

After grueling hours of late-night negotiations, the Durban Platform was adopted, and the European "roadmap" was launched. The Europeans were keen to agree on language endorsing the phrase "a protocol or other legal instrument" as the ultimate goal of the "roadmap." That phrase had been used in the 1995 Berlin Mandate, under which countries agreed to accept a legally binding treaty in the future requiring them to cut their greenhouse gas emissions. The Berlin Mandate led to the Kyoto Protocol in 1997.

The U.S. ended up supporting the E.U. in Durban, and why not? The Durban Platform appears to conform to the central goal of American climate change diplomacy, i.e., forcing the big emerging economies to make legally binding commitments to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions. But does the new agreement actually do that?

At Durban, China and India managed to water down the Berlin Mandate terminology to include the phrase "or an agreed outcome with legal force." The Chinese and Indians apparently believe that whatever climate negotiations achieve by 2015, the result will still mean fewer obligations to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions than developed countries.

After the Durban conference adopted its "roadmap," the European Union agreed to keep a rump version of the Kyoto Protocol alive by imposing further greenhouse gas emission reductions on its taxpayers through 2017. As a side note, a November report by the Swiss bank UBS found that implementing Europe's carbon market under the Kyoto Protocol has resulted in almost zero low-carbon innovations in energy production while imposing about $280 billion in additional costs on European consumers.

Looking toward 2015, what is likely to happen? If global average temperatures begin rising steeply between now and then (after a pause of more than a decade), or if weather-related disasters increase dramatically, that might lend impetus to some kind of binding emission reductions. Assuming that no compelling global warming signals emerge, the new roadmap is supposed to follow a path similar to the one laid out in 1995.

But that 1995 plan did not turn out the way its backers hoped. While the U.S. accepted the Berlin Mandate, it ultimately refused to join the Kyoto Protocol. If the Durban Platform results in a 2015 treaty that the U.S. Senate or president dislikes, Washington will presumably ignore this new commitment too, with other countries likely to follow suit.

So the only Durban "breakthrough" was that 20 years of climate change diplomacy did not totally implode. What was achieved in South Africa was little more than an agreement to continue talking. 

Ronald Bailey is reason's science correspondent.