Key question is whether US and China are willing to accept reduction targets


DESPITE DIRE warnings from the International Energy Agency and the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development that the window of opportunity to prevent catastrophic climate change is narrowing fast, hardly anyone expects that the current round of UN talks in Durban – which conclude at the end of next week – will produce anything approaching a breakthrough.

“Expectations of significant progress are extremely low,” according to Thomson Reuters Point Carbon, which provides market intelligence and analysis on energy and environmental issues. Quite apart from the complexity of the issues involved, much of the world’s attention has been focused elsewhere, on the economic and financial crisis.

“The key question is still whether the US and China are willing to commit to reduction targets within a legally binding framework,” said Stig Schjølset, the agency’s head of EU carbon analysis. “But we do not expect China to be willing to take on absolute reduction targets by 2020 unless there is a clear commitment from the US to do the same.”

Which, of course, the US will not do. As Schjølset noted, it would be “impossible” for the Obama administration to commit to such targets at this stage because there is “simply no support in Congress for legally binding reduction targets”. And so, “the current deadlock on this issue will persist” – irrespective of the EU’s willingness to set targets.

The Kyoto Protocol on Climate Change is due to expire at the end of next year, and its fate looms large over Durban. The main issue is whether there will be a “second commitment period” from 2013 onwards, involving EU member states and other developed countries; this is one of the key demands of all developing countries.

“The Kyoto Protocol is a cornerstone of the climate change regime, and nothing will be achieved unless it can be adopted in Durban,” said Jorge Argüello of Argentina, chair of the G77 group of 132 developing countries, ranging from China to Chad. “The establishment of . . . the second commitment period is the central priority for Durban.

“Much as some rich countries like to repeat that discussing scenarios that they oppose is not ‘realistic’ or ‘practical’, they must recognise that there is no point in insisting on a solution outside of the Kyoto Protocol when 132 parties have strongly declared they can only accept a second commitment period as a meaningful outcome,” he declared.

Consequently, the EU will have to decide whether it can take on a second Kyoto period without any preparedness from other major carbon emitters to be included in such a legal framework. “We do not expect the EU to do so, and we maintain our view that there will be no second commitment period under the Kyoto Protocol,” Schjølset said.

UN climate chief Christiana Figueres agreed that “Durban will have to resolve the open question over Kyoto and what that means for a future global climate agreement”. But, she said, “many technical issues related to this have already been brought to conclusion and there is a strong desire from all sides to see a final political decision made”.

Jennifer Haverkamp, climate programme director of the Washington-based Environmental Defense Fund, said reaching a new mandatory agreement was “looking like a heavy lift”. But she felt the prospect of a collapse of the existing legal framework should “strengthen the resolve of countries that actually want to tackle this problem to move forward”.

Some progress was made at interim talks in Panama last month. According to Haverkamp, there was “less rancour and obstructionism than we had come to expect this year, and some progress on teeing up negotiating texts , but these glimmers of progress are eclipsed by the unresolved question of the Kyoto Protocol’s future.”

In Bangladesh earlier this month, 19 of the countries most vulnerable to climate change adopted what they called the Dhaka Declaration calling for the “urgent adoption of a comprehensive and legally binding global agreement capable of fully attaining the objectives of the UNFCCC” (the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change).

The 19 signatories of the declaration were: Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Costa Rica, Ethiopia, Ghana, Kenya, Kiribati, Madagascar, Maldives, Nepal, Philippines, Rwanda, Saint Lucia, Tanzania, Timor-Leste, Tuvalu, Vanuatu and Vietnam. Eleven other members of the Climate Vulnerable Forum were also expected to give their support.

Bangladesh prime minister Sheikh Hasina blamed climate change for causing more than 300,000 additional deaths last year. “We, the vulnerable countries, suffer the most for our limited coping capacities,” she said, adding that Bangladesh “could not wait” and was now “implementing 134 climate change adaptation and mitigation action plans”.

UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon, who inaugurated the Dhaka conference, said developed countries must lead the way to mobilise the $100 billion a year from public and private sources by 2020 that was pledged in aid to help developing countries cope with the impacts of climate change, at last year’s UN conference in Cancún.

“Climate finance is crucial for the survival of the world’s poorest countries and people,” said Gambian negotiator Pa Ousman, who chairs the Least Developed Countries group. This was to come in two tranches – new and additional “fast-start” funding of $30 billion for the 2010-2012 period, and a ramping up of commitments thereafter.

The shape of this aid package was outlined by US secretary of state Hillary Clinton, in a dramatic effort to break the deadlock at the Copenhagen climate summit in December 2009. But she gave no indication of where the money would come from or how it would be disbursed, apart from stressing the need for “transparency”.

Ironically, having agreed in Cancún to the Green Climate Fund being established, the US is now “refusing to sign off” on it, as the Financial Times reported last Thursday, and this could scupper any deal in Durban. According to former Costa Rica president José María Figueres, “vulnerable countries are insulted by the finance default”.

The African Climate Policy Centre, which is under the UN’s wing, said its research showed that as little as 10 per cent of the $30 billion in “fast-start” funding pledged in Copenhagen is genuinely “new and additional”, with the rest either pledged previously or double-counted as official development aid – “funny money”, in other words.

It has been estimated that at least $17 billion will be needed every year to fund a landmark agreement on reducing deforestation in developing countries (known as “REDD+”), but so far only $5 billion has been pledged to cover the short-term until 2012, in support of countries taking initial steps to implement the programme. “It’s time for rich countries to do what they promised last year,” said said Fiona Napier, associate director of the Global Witness campaign.

As for where the money for the Green Climate Fund might come from, development aid advocacy organisations such as Oxfam favour a levy on carbon emissions from aviation and shipping or a tax on international financial transactions; even at a low rate of 0.05 per cent, such a “Robin Hood” tax could generate as much as €400 billion a year.

European Commission proposals for an EU-wide tax on financial transactions are supported by France and Germany, but opposed by Britain and Sweden. Ireland is nominally in favour, but Minister for Finance Michael Noonan fears that it could be “very onerous on our financial services industry” without a similar tax being applied in Britain.

Durban 2011: The key issues

1Future of Kyoto Protocol, the only international legal instrument setting limits on greenhouse emissions by developed countries. Canada, Japan and Russia will not renew the protocol after it expires at the end of 2012, while the US never ratified and China is outside it. The EU would be prepared to continue, but only if other major economies agree to a “roadmap” leading to a new climate treaty by 2015.

2Transparency, which developed countries see as essential if cuts in emissions are to be “measurable, reportable and verifiable”. Major developing countries such as China are still reluctant to submit themselves to the same scrutiny by the UN as developed countries.

3Green Climate Fund, which is meant to raise $100 billion a year by 2020 to help poorer nations cope with climate change. Developing countries favour the creation of a UN-controlled fund to distribute the aid, but richer nations prefer to rely on the World Bank.

4Protecting forests, which act as “carbon sinks” to offset up to 20 per cent of emissions and whose loss would aggravate the problem. Agreement was reached in Cancún last year on “Redd+”, under which developing countries would receive aid to protect tropical rainforests.