Can the Durban Climate Negotiations Succeed?

Two weeks of international climate negotiations begin today in Durban, South Africa.  These are the Seventeenth Conference of the Parties (COP-17) of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC).  The key challenge at this point is to maintain the process of building a sound foundation for meaningful, long-term global action, not necessarily some notion of immediate, highly-visible triumph. In other words, the answer to the question of whether the Durban climate negotiations can succeed depends — not surprisingly — on how one defines “success.”

Let’s Place the Climate Negotiations in Perspective

Why do I say (repeatedly, year after year) that the best goal for the climate talks is to make progress on a sound foundation for meaningful, long-term global action, not some notion of immediate triumph?  The reason is that the often-stated cliche about the American baseball season — that it’s a marathon, not a sprint — applies even more so to international climate change policy.  Why?

First, the focus of scientists (and policy makers) should be on stabilizing concentrations at acceptable levels by 2050 and beyond, because it is the accumulated stock of greenhouse gas emissions — not the flow of emissions in any year — that are linked with climate consequences.

Second, the cost-effective path for stabilizing concentrations involves a gradual ramp-up in target severity, to avoid rendering large parts of the capital stock prematurely obsolete.

Third, massive technological change is the key to the needed transition from reliance on carbon-intensive fossil fuels to more climate-friendly energy sources.  Long-term price signals (most likely from government policies) will be needed to inspire such technological change.

Fourth and finally, the creation of long-lasting international institutions is central to addressing this global challenge.

For all of these reasons, international climate negotiations will be an ongoing process, not a single task with a clear end-point.  Indeed, we should not be surprised that they proceed much as international trade talks do, that is, with progress only over the long term, building institutions (the GATT, the WTO), yet moving forward in fits and starts, at times seeming to move backward, but with progress in the long term.

So, the bottom-line is that a sensible goal for the international negotiations in Durban is progress on a sound foundation for meaningful long-term action, not some notion of immediate “success.”  This does not mean that there should be anything other than a sense of urgency associated with the work at hand, because it is important.  But it does mean that we should keep our eyes on the prize.

How Can the Durban Negotiators Keep their Eyes on the Prize?

The keys to success — real, as opposed to symbolic success — in Durban depend upon four imperatives.

1.  Embrace Parallel Processes

The UNFCCC process must embrace the parallel processes that are carrying out multilateral discussions (and in some cases, negotiations) on climate change policy:  the Major Economies Forum or MEF (a multilateral venue for discussions – but not negotiations – outside of the UNFCCC, initiated under a different name by the George W. Bush administration in the United States, and continued under a new name by the Obama administration, for the purpose of bringing together the most important emitting countries for candid and constructive discussion and debate); the G20 (periodic meetings of the finance ministers – and sometimes heads of government – of the twenty largest economies in the world); and various other multilateral and bilateral organizations and discussions.

The previous leadership of the UNFCCC seemed to view the MEF, the G20, and most other non-UNFCCC forums as competition – indeed, as a threat.  Fortunately, the UNFCCC’s new leadership under Executive Secretary Christiana Figueres (appointed by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon in May of 2010) has displayed a considerably more positive and pragmatic attitude toward these parallel processes.  That’s a positive sign.

2.  Consolidate Negotiation Tracks

There are now three major, parallel processes operative:  first, the UNFCCC’s KP track (negotiating national targets for a possible second commitment period – post-2012 – for the Kyoto Protocol); second, the LCA track (the UNFCCC’s negotiation track for Long-term Cooperative Action, that is, a future international agreement of undefined nature); and third, the Cancun Agreements from COP-16 a year ago (based upon the Copenhagen Accord, negotiated and noted at COP-15 in Copenhagen, Denmark, in December, 2009).  Consolidating these three tracks into two tracks (or better yet, one track) would be another significant step forward.

The primary way for this to happen would be for the LCA negotiations to focus on the ongoing work of putting more meat on the bones of the Cancun Agreements, which — along with the Copenhagen Accord — marked an important step forward by blurring for the first time (although not eliminating) the unproductive and utterly obsolete distinction in the Kyoto Protocol between Annex I and non-Annex I countries.  (Note that more than 50 non-Annex I countries have greater per capita income than the poorest of the Annex I countries.)

In particular, the UNFCCC principle of  “common but differentiated responsibilities” could be made meaningful through the dual principles that:  all countries recognize their historic emissions (read, the industrialized world); and all countries are responsible for their future emissions (think of the rapidly-growing, large, emerging economies of China, India, Brazil, Korea, Mexico, and South Africa).

As I’ve said before, this would represent a great leap beyond what has become the “QWERTY keyboard” (that is, unproductive path dependence) of international climate policy:  the distinction in the Kyoto Protocol between the small set of Annex I countries with quantitative targets, and the majority of countries in the world with no responsibilities.  A variety of policy architectures — including but not limited to the Cancun Agreements — could build on these dual principles and make them operational, beginning to bridge the massive political divide that exists between the industrialized and the developing world.

At the Harvard Project on Climate Agreements — a multi-national initiative with some 35 research projects in Australia, China, Europe, India, Japan, and the United States — we have developed a variety of architectural proposals that could make these dual principles operational.  (See, for example:  “Global Climate Policy Architecture and Political Feasibility: Specific Formulas and Emission Targets to Attain 460 PPM CO2 Concentrations” by Valentina Bosetti and Jeffrey Frankel; and “Three Key Elements of Post-2012 International Climate Policy Architecture” by Sheila M. Olmstead and Robert N. Stavins.)

3.  Make Progress on Narrow, Focused Agreements

A third area of success at the Durban negotiations could be realized by some productive steps with specific, narrow agreements, such as on REDD+ (Reduced Deforestation and Forest Degradation, plus enhancement of forest carbon stocks).  Other areas where talks are moving forward, although somewhat more slowly, are finance and technology, particularly in the context of adding meat to the bones of the Cancun Agreements.

4.  Maintain Sensible Expectations

Finally, it is important to go into these annual negotiations with sensible expectations and thereby effective plans.  As I said at the outset, negotiations in this domain are an ongoing process, not a single task with a clear end-point.  The most sensible goal for Durban is progress on a sound foundation for meaningful long-term action, not some notion of immediate triumph.  The key question is not what Durban accomplishes in the short-term, but whether it helps put the world in a better position five, ten, and twenty years from now in regard to an effective long-term path of action to address the threat of global climate change.

Wait, What About the Kyoto Protocol?

Those who follow these international negotiations closely — including my colleagues on the ground in Durban — are no doubt wondering why I haven’t said something about the 900-pound gorilla in the closet:  the fact that the Kyoto Protocol’s first (and so far only) commitment period runs from 2008 through 2012, and so a decision needs to be reached on a possible second (post-2012) commitment period for the Protocol.

Yes, in addition to the LCA (Cancun) track, the Kyoto Protocol (KP) track of negotiations remains.  A decision regarding a possible extension (and presumably an enhancement) of the Kyoto Protocol’s emission-reduction targets for the industrialized (Annex I) countries has been punted annually to the next set of negotiations — from Bali in 2007, to Poznan in 2008, to Copenhagen in 2009, to Cancun in 2010, and now to Durban in 2011.  It can’t be delayed any longer, because the necessary process of ratification by individual nations would itself take at least a year to complete.

Keeping the Kyoto Protocol going (and with more stringent targets for the Annex I countries) is very important to the non-Annex I countries, sometimes referred to — inaccurately — as the developing countries.  I don’t blame them.  An approach that provides benefits (reduced climate damages, as well as financial transfers) for the non-Annex I countries without their incurring any costs is surely an attractive route for those nations.

Is a Second Commitment Period for the Kyoto Protocol Feasible?

Putting aside the possible merits of a second commitment period for the Kyoto Protocol, we can ask simply whether it’s in the cards:  is it feasible?

Japan, Russia, and Canada have formally announced that they will not take up targets in a second commitment period.  Australia, despite its recent domestic climate policy action, seems unlikely to make a significant commitment.  Is Europe (plus New Zealand) on its own credible or feasible?  Maybe yes, maybe no.

The “yes” part of the answer comes from the fact that Europe has already committed itself to serious emissions reductions through the year 2020 under the European Union Emission Trading Scheme (EU ETS).  This will go forward — barring a change of heart by the EU — with or without a second commitment period for the Kyoto Protocol.  That said, Europe’s compliance costs under the EU ETS will be much less than otherwise if offsets continue to be made available from non-Annex I countries under the Kyoto Protocol’s Clean Development Mechanism (CDM).  This might suggest that the EU has a significant motivation to keep the Kyoto Protocol going.

But international law scholars — such as Professor Daniel Bodansky of Arizona State University‘s Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law — maintain that the Kyoto Protocol (and its CDM) continues as an institution of law whether or not a second commitment period is put in place.  Hence, it’s conceivable that the EU could have its cake and eat it too:  an ongoing Kyoto Protocol without a second commitment period.  And the political pressure on Brussels from the EU’s member states — and from European businesses — might make it difficult for the EU to sign up for a new series of commitments given the obvious absence in such an arrangement of the United States, Russia, Japan, Canada, and — of course — China and the other emerging economies.

A Forecast

This highly contentious issue of a possible second commitment period for the Kyoto Protocol may come to dominate the talks in Durban.  This would be unfortunate, because it would simultaneously reduce the likelihood of the negotiators making progress on a sound foundation for meaningful, long-term global action.  It would probably also have the effect of producing some drama in the form of highly-charged debates, and possible threats by some delegations to walk out of the negotiations.  For this reason, despite the weather, Durban may come to resemble Copenhagen more than Cancun.


Further Reading

The Harvard Project on Climate Agreements has pulled together an archive of relevant publications, which we call “The Durban Branch” of our climate library.  We hope it will be helpful for those gathered in Durban or watching from afar.

Also, a number of previous essays I have written and posted at this blog will be of interest to those who wish to follow developments at the Seventeenth Conference of the Parties of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change in Durban.  Here are links, in reverse chronological order:

Canada’s Step Away From the Kyoto Protocol Can Be a Constructive Step Forward

A Wave of the Future: International Linkage of National Climate Change Policies

Why Cancun Trumped Copenhagen

What Happened (and Why): An Assessment of the Cancun Agreements

Defining Success for Climate Negotiations in Cancun

Three Pillars of a New Climate Pact

Can Countries Cut Carbon Emissions Without Hurting Economic Growth?

Approaching Copenhagen with a Portfolio of Domestic Commitments

Defining Success for Climate Negotiations in Copenhagen

Only Private Sector Can Meet Finance Demands of Developing Countries

Chaos and Uncertainty in Copenhagen?

What Hath Copenhagen Wrought? A Preliminary Assessment of the Copenhagen Accord

Another Copenhagen Outcome: Serious Questions About the Best Institutional Path Forward

Opportunities and Ironies: Climate Policy in Tokyo, Seoul, Brussels, and Washington

Author: Robert Stavins

Robert N. Stavins is the Albert Pratt Professor of Business and Government, John F. Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University, Director of the Harvard Environmental Economics Program, Director of Graduate Studies for the Doctoral Program in Public Policy and the Doctoral Program in Political Economy and Government, Co-Chair of the Harvard Business School-Kennedy School Joint Degree Programs, and Director of the Harvard Project on Climate Agreements.

2 thoughts on “Can the Durban Climate Negotiations Succeed?”

  1. In your blog, in the context of discussing why this is a marathon, not a sprint, you write
    “Second, the cost-effective path for stabilizing concentrations involves a gradual ramp-up in target severity, to avoid rendering large parts of the capital stock prematurely obsolete.”

    This is misleading.

    The current capital stock is already to some extent obsolete when the potential for catastrophic damages its emissions produce is recognized and priced appropriately. Pricing emissions below that level does not increase societal utility; it causes society to produce too much risk.

    The appropriate path for carbon emissions prices is an immediate jump to the current expected discounted value of the future damages, where that discount rate includes an appropriate risk premium.

    Installing an appropriate capital stock for future generations is exactly why it is vital to price emissions appropriately, immediately.

    There is no economic justification for smoothing emissions prices.

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