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If the Durban Platform Opened a Window, Will India and China Close It?

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In my Dec. 12 essay, following the 17th Conference of the Parties (COP-17) of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), which adjourned Dec. 11, 2011, I offered my assessment of the Durban climate negotiations by taking note of three major outcomes of the negotiations: 1) elaboration on several components of the Cancun Agreements, 2) a second five-year commitment period for the Kyoto Protocol, and 3) a "non-binding agreement to reach an agreement" by 2015 that will bring all countries under the same legal regime by 2020. Subsequently, in my Jan. 1 essay, "The Platform Opens a Window: An Unambiguous Consequence of the Durban Climate Talks," I focused on the third outcome of the talks, the "Durban Platform for Enhanced Action."

Some Necessary History

The U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change, adopted at the U.N. Conference on Environment and Development (the first "Earth Summit") in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil in 1992, contains what was to become a crucial passage:

The Parties should protect the climate system for the benefit of present and future generations of humankind, on the basis of equity and in accordance with their common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities. Accordingly, the developed country Parties should take the lead in combating climate change and the adverse effects thereof. [Emphasis added]

The countries considered to be "developed country Parties" were listed in an appendix to the 1992 Convention ­-- Annex I.

The phrase "common but differentiated responsibilities" was given a specific interpretation three years after the Earth Summit by the first decision adopted by the first Conference of the Parties (COP-1) of the U.N. Framework Convention, in Berlin, Germany, April 7, 1995: the all-important Berlin Mandate, which interpreted the principle as: 1) launching a process to commit (by 1997) the Annex I countries to quantified greenhouse gas emissions reductions within specified time periods (targets and timetables), and 2) stating unambiguously that the process should "not introduce any new commitments for Parties not included in Annex I."

Thus the Berlin Mandate established the dichotomous distinction whereby the Annex I countries are to take on emissions-reductions responsibilities, and the non-Annex-I countries are to have no such responsibilities whatsoever. This had wide-ranging and profound consequences, because it became the anchor that prevented real progress in international climate negotiations. With 50 non-Annex-I countries having greater per capita income than the poorest of the Annex I countries, the distinction is clearly out of whack.

But more important than that, this dichotomous distinction means that: a) half of global emissions soon will be from nations without constraints; b) the world's largest emitter, China, is unconstrained; c) aggregate compliance costs are driven up to be four times their cost-effective level, because many opportunities for low-cost emissions abatement in emerging economies are taken off the table; and d) an institutional structure is perpetuated that makes change and progress virtually impossible.

The dichotomous Annex I/non-Annex-I distinction remained a central -- indeed, the central -- feature of international climate negotiations ever since COP-1 in Berlin in 1995. Then, at COP-15 in 2009, there were hints of possible change.

The Copenhagen Accord (2009) and the Cancun Agreements (2010) began a process of blurring the Annex I/non-Annex-I distinction. But this blurring was only in the context of the interim pledge-and-review system established at COP-15 in Copenhagen and certified at COP-16 in Cancun, not in the context of an eventual successor to the Kyoto Protocol. Thus, the Berlin Mandate retained its centrality.

The Durban Platform for Enhanced Action

The third of the three outcomes of the December 2011 talks in Durban, South Africa, the Durban Platform for Enhanced Action, eliminates the Annex I/non-Annex-I (or industrialized/developing country) distinction. In the Durban Platform, the delegates reached a non-binding agreement to reach an agreement by 2015 that will bring all countries under the same legal regime by 2020. That's a strange sentence, but it's important.

Rather than adopting the Annex I/non-Annex-I (or industrialized/developing country) distinction, the Durban Platform focuses instead on the pledge to create a system of greenhouse gas reductions including all Parties (that is, all key countries) by 2015 that will come into force by 2020. Nowhere in the text of the decision are phrases such as "Annex I," "common but differentiated responsibilities," "distributional equity," "historical responsibility," all of which had long since become code words for targets for the richest countries and blank checks for all others.

Thus, in a dramatic departure from some 17 years of U.N. international negotiations on climate change, the 17th Conference of the Parties in Durban turned away from the Annex I/non-Annex-I distinction, which had been the centerpiece of international climate policy and negotiations since it was adopted at the 1st Conference of the Parties in Berlin in 1995. In truth, only time will tell whether the Durban Platform delivers on its promise or turns out to be another "Bali Roadmap," leading nowhere, but there is a key unambiguous consequence of this development.

Durban Opens a Window

By replacing the Berlin Mandate, the Durban Platform has opened an important window. National delegations from around the world now have a challenging task before them: to identify a new international climate policy architecture that is consistent with the process, pathway, and principles laid out in the Durban Platform, namely to find a way to include all key countries (such as the 20 largest national and regional economies that together account for upwards of 80 percent of global carbon dioxide emissions) in a structure that brings about meaningful emissions reductions on an appropriate timetable at acceptable cost, while remaining within the overall framework provided by the UNFCCC.

Is India Seeking to Close the Window?

As part of the agreement to launch the Durban Platform for Enhanced Action, the nations of the world agreed to initiate a work plan on enhancing mitigation ambition. As a first step, each country was to submit its initial ideas.

On Feb. 28, 2012, the Indian government made its official submission to the UNFCCC, "Increasing Ambition Level under Durban Platform for Enhanced Action." In 17 paragraphs across three pages of text, India's submission makes absolutely clear its view that the Durban Platform is under the overall legal umbrella of the UNFCCC, and therefore that the principles of "equity" and "common but differentiated responsibilities" remain intact and must inform all commitments for enhanced action. In fact, the lion's share of India's submission talks about the responsibilities of industrialized countries, not about India's ideas for its own contributions.

India's submission actually quantifies what it sees as the necessary future commitments of Annex I ("developed") countries, by referring to the 2007 Fourth Assessment Report (AR4) of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change: "AR4 has recommended that Annex I Parties should reduce their emissions at least by 25-40% in the short term by 2020" [emphasis added]. But in truth, AR4 made no such recommendation. Indeed, the IPCC, in general, does not make any policy recommendations whatsoever. This is one of the key organizing principles under which the IPCC operates. I know this from decades of direct work with the IPCC, having served as a Lead Author in two rounds of the IPCC, and currently serving as a Coordinating Lead Author in AR5.

China Weighs In

A week after India made its submission, the Chinese government followed suit on March 8 with "China's Submission on Options and Ways for Further Increasing the Level of Ambition." Although the Chinese government did not repeat the Indians' mistaken claim about IPCC recommendations, the submission was otherwise consistent, maintaining that industrialized countries alone bear responsibility for reducing emissions before 2020: "Developed country Parties should take the lead in reducing their emissions by undertaking ambitious mitigation commitments and fulfill their obligations by providing financial resources and transferring technology to developing country Parties."

They Have a Point

India and China have a point. The Durban Platform did not supplant the Convention, so the general notions of "equity" and "common but differentiated responsibilities" do remain. But -- and here is the key reality -- the Durban Platform did replace the Berlin Mandate. And so a window has been opened to explore new, more sophisticated, subtler ways of involving all key countries in an environmentally effective and cost-effective global agreement, with a new interpretation of common but differentiated responsibilities.

For example, replacing the dichotomous Annex I/non-Annex-I distinction with a formula that generates a continuous spectrum of degrees of responsibility would be fully consistent both with the Durban Platform for Enhanced Action and the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change. Such a formulaic approach -- as developed by Professors Jeffrey Frankel and Valentina Bosetti for the Harvard Project on Climate Agreements -- merits serious consideration, along with other innovative international policy architectures.

Although some in the press and blogosphere have characterized the Chinese and Indian submissions as hitting "the brakes on Durban pledges" and "hitting the reset button on international climate change commitments," in reality the Chinese and Indian submissions refer only to emission reductions prior to 2020, whereas the Durban Platform for Enhanced Action focuses on (agreeing by 2015 on) a new international agreement that would be implemented only in 2020. Thus, there's no inconsistency.

Stay Tuned

Whether or not the submissions by China and India are part of a diplomatic dance or represent a real step backward from their positions in Durban, the fact remains that the Durban Platform, by replacing the Berlin Mandate, has opened an important window. Governments around the world need fresh, outside-the-box ideas over the next few years of a possible future international climate policy architecture that can meet the call of the Durban Platform while remaining true to the Framework Convention on Climate Change. That's the challenge, as well as the opportunity.

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