The United Nations climate change conference now under way in Durban, South Africa, has been widely dismissed, particularly in the US. Another failure looms, it is said, proving that the top-down negotiated approach to tackling climate change cannot work.
But as the talks get serious, it seems that failure is not yet guaranteed. Indeed, something looking like success could yet emerge.
Let's recall the state of play. The Copenhagen conference in December 2009 was billed as the moment when the international community would agree on a new climate change treaty to succeed the Kyoto Protocol in 2012. Under the pressure of expectation, almost every country in the world adopted new climate targets, many of them highly ambitious. But the negotiations themselves broke down and even a non-binding "Accord" could not be agreed. Then, in Cancun last year, order was restored: a series of decisions brought both the Copenhagen targets and a new framework of rules and institutions under UN agreement. For the first time, the overall goal of limiting global warming to 2ºC above pre-industrial times was enshrined, and countries committed to a review of their emissions reduction pledges by 2015.
Yet it is already clear what the latter process will show: those pledges are not sufficient to meet the 2ºC goal. Last month's Bridging the Emissions Gap report from the UN Environment Programme sets out the evidence starkly. To have a likely chance of staying below 2 degrees of warming, the world will need to be producing emissions of no more than 44 gigatonnes (GT CO2e) by 2020. But even if every country implemented its commitments to their maximum extent, emissions will be 50 GT CO2e by then. And if implementation is weak, they could be as much as 55 GT CO2e. So the emissions gap in 2020 will be at least 6 GT and could be up to 11 GT. This suggests that the world is currently on course not for a 2ºC rise but for one more likely to be 3-5ºC, which in terms of human and ecological impact would enter the terrain of the catastrophic.
The UNEP report is at pains to point out that this gap is not inevitable. It analyses a series of methods by which emissions in 2020 could be brought back to the 2ºC path -- through lower carbon energy production and transport, energy efficiency and reductions in deforestation, and by cutting emissions from international aviation and shipping, which are not counted in national pledges. But action will need to be rapid: as the International Energy Agency warned in a parallel report, also published last month, the world has only about five years to start investing in low-carbon technologies at the required rate. By 2017, if fossil fuel investment retains its current dominance, the world will have locked in future emissions so far that the 2ºC path will become unattainable. Meanwhile, global emissions rose again last year as global growth bounced back after the slump of 2009. Indeed, the IEA shows that it is not just total emissions that are increasing but, even more worryingly, emissions intensity: the world is using more energy to produce each unit of output than in previous years, not less.
With this alarming backdrop, what can the Durban conference achieve? Well, of course it won't see any countries pledging deeper cuts in their emissions. The cuts already on the table were hard-won enough, and if there were any lingering appetite for more, the West's economic crisis has eliminated it. Most of the negotiations in Durban will therefore be about implementing the decisions made in Cancun: establishing a new Green Fund to channel financial assistance from rich to poorer countries to help them tackle climate change; setting up new mechanisms for adaptation to global warming and the transfer of low-carbon technologies; and getting revenues from aviation and shipping emissions into the global funding regime.
Meaningful progress on each of these is possible in Durban; but it is on the largest and thorniest issues of all -- the future of the Kyoto Protocol and the prospect of a new legally binding treaty -- that attention is beginning to focus. And much to many people's surprise, a possible deal is beginning to emerge.
A few months ago, Kyoto seemed to be in its death throes. At Copenhagen the developed country signatories had had a chance to renew their commitments beyond their current expiry date of 2012. But they refused: repeating their longstanding complaint that Kyoto covered less than a fifth of the world's emissions (and falling), they pressed for a comprehensive treaty including all major emitters, including the United States and China. But the big four emerging economies (China, India, Brazil and South Africa -- the so-called BASIC group) rejected not merely the form of a new treaty but even the idea, deleting the ultimate goal of a "legally binding outcome" from the Copenhagen Accord's conclusions. Developing countries would not be forced into "legal equivalence" with the developed countries historically responsible for global warming: it was only the latter that must be bound by international law. Developing countries, BASIC insisted, had only voluntary obligations compatible with their right to pursue development.
For many observers, that seemed the end. With both the United States and the big developing countries opposed to a new treaty, the top-down Kyoto model of negotiated legal commitments appeared to have run its course. We were now in a world of "pledge and review," of bottom-up policies in every country, at best loosely aggregated into a global reporting system. Not long after, Japan, Russia and Canada all announced that they would not be putting their emissions reduction commitments into a second (post-2012) commitment period of Kyoto. The nails were prepared for its coffin.
Yet over the last few weeks, remarkably, the corpse has been twitching. While Canada has threatened to walk away from Kyoto altogether, the European Union has declared that it is prepared to adopt a new commitment period -- so long as the goal of a legally binding treaty covering all countries is restored to the negotiations. And it has found itself in effective alliance with the least-developed and most climate-vulnerable countries, which have begun to rebel against the stance on a global treaty taken by their richer negotiating partners in the developing country bloc.
The shift has come from a clear-eyed recognition of what the demise of Kyoto would mean. Few will mourn its targets -- a meagre 5 per cent reduction in global emissions over 1990 levels by 2012, barely enough to slow the rate of warming at all. Its binary structure -- dividing countries into two blocs, developed and developing countries, with no gradations in between -- no longer fits the modern world. The US, of course, never took part in it. But Kyoto establishes the principle of tackling global climate change through the mechanisms of international law, and that is a prize not to be given up lightly.
The advantages of a legal structure are fourfold. First, it overcomes the free-rider problem. Climate change is inescapably global, so countries need to know that if they take action then others will too. A purely bottom-up, voluntary approach to emissions reduction cannot provide such mutual confidence. Second, it offers the possibility of some degree of fairness in the distribution of effort, in which countries' commitments are negotiated in relation to one another and to their levels of responsibility and wealth. Third, it turns such commitments from the particular pledges of individual governments to the sovereign obligations of countries, enduring beyond the vagaries of elections and successive administrations. And last, international law provides for a set of common rules on how to count, monitor and report emissions which a fragmented system of purely national law -- and national incentive to falsify the figures -- cannot.
These advantages, hard-won in the original Kyoto negotiations fourteen years ago, are now at risk. As many countries have realised, if Kyoto is allowed to wither and die, it is difficult to see the circumstances in which a completely new legally binding global regime could be established. So the search has suddenly accelerated for a way to keep Kyoto alive. And the answer has been found: to agree at the same time to start a new round of negotiations towards a legally binding agreement involving all parties, the goal explicitly removed in Copenhagen. The European Union has set a timeframe for this: the details of a new agreement should be completed by 2015, and it should enter into force no later than 2020.
Both the European Union and Australia -- along with other developed country allies such as New Zealand and Norway -- are now committed to such a "Kyoto + negotiations" deal. More interestingly -- though there remain disagreements on detail and timing, with the 2020 commencement widely regarded as too late - so are an increasingly large number of developing countries. They include the least-developed bloc (including Bangladesh and many African countries), the influential small-island states such as the Maldives and Caribbean islands, and a number of middle-income countries such as Indonesia, Mexico, Colombia, Chile and Costa Rica. This is a powerful coalition, and it says much about the changing nature of international climate politics that the differences of position within the developing world are now so open.
For of course the key countries not in this coalition are the big four developing nations. China, India, Brazil and South Africa want Kyoto to continue beyond 2012: it is, a recent BASIC meeting declared, their number one priority for Durban. But they have rejected the idea that this should be achieved by simultaneously starting negotiations towards a new treaty in which they too would be required to take on international obligations. There is particular disquiet at the proposed agreement date of 2015: having barely started their own serious emissions reduction programs, Brazil and India have spoken of the next few years being a "reflection phase" or "technical/scientific period," not a negotiating one.
But just how fixed are these positions? Under its new environment minister, Jayanthi Natarajan, India seems to have reverted to a traditional hard line. But South Africa, not surprisingly, is looking to conclude a deal from the conference: as host of the Durban meeting, President Jacob Zuma will not wish to see the death of Kyoto pronounced on African soil. Brazil, too, is under its own global spotlight as host of the Rio+20 Summit next June, marking twenty years since the original Earth Summit established the UN climate regime. Having committed to ambitious plans to cut deforestation in the Amazon rainforest, it prides itself on being a progressive influence in climate negotiations. Meanwhile, there are signs that China may be in a surprisingly flexible mood. Domestically it has embarked on a concerted program to slow emissions growth, including a trial of emissions trading. And though Beijing has been firmly opposed to any suggestion that it should take on international legal obligations, its relentless global expansion in search of commodities over recent years has left it highly sensitive to its relations with the rest of the developing world: it knows it is now widely seen as an economic superpower which by 2020 will have to take on responsibilities to match.
And then, of course, there is the United States. Its position is straightforward: it wishes this whole subject would go away. In a pre-election year, facing a Republican Party in which climate scepticism has become an article (literally in some cases) of faith, the last thing President Obama wants is to drag global warming back into the domestic debate. So American negotiators are happy to hide behind the BASIC position, insisting on a series of tough conditions before they can agree to a new round of legal negotiations -- effectively forming an unlikely alliance with India. But they have not altogether closed the door: and as several observers have slyly pointed out, four years ago, at the equivalent conference negotiating point in Bali, even the Bush administration caved in when it found itself the last country holding out.
So the next week on the South African coast could yet prove more interesting than originally anticipated. The odds remain stacked against a deal: climate negotiators have a special way of breeding mistrust among themselves and forcing their ministers into last-minute dramas, and any number of grenades can still be thrown into the process. But nevertheless, it's a space worth watching. The prize at stake is much bigger than the doom-mongers have thought.
An earlier version of this article appears in Inside Story