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


Why Cancun Trumped Copenhagen

As we begin the year 2011, a look back at 2010 confirms that the greatest environmental achievement of the past year was the success that was achieved at the Sixteenth Conference of the Parties (COP-16) of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) in Cancun, Mexico, in early December.  I wrote about this in some detail in my December 13th essay, “What Happened (and Why): An Assessment of the Cancun Agreements.”

The challenges awaiting delegates later this year (December, 2011) at COP-17 in Durban, South Africa, will be tremendous, particularly in regard to trying to negotiate the massive divide that exists between most Annex I countries and virtually all non-Annex I countries on the fate of a second (post-2012) commitment period for the Kyoto Protocol.

However, on this first day of 2011, it may be helpful to reflect again on the recent success in Cancun, and ask – in particular – why it occurred, because understanding that could provide some valuable lessons for the organizers and hosts of COP-17 in Durban.  This was the question I addressed in a brief December 20th Op-Ed in The Christian Science Monitor, and so rather than attempting to summarize or expand it, I simply reproduce it below.

The Christian Science Monitor

Why Cancun trumped Copenhagen: Warmer relations on rising temperatures

By Robert N. Stavins
December 20, 2010

Boston —

After the modest results of the climate change talks in Copenhagen a little more than a year ago, expectations were low for the follow-up negotiations in Cancun last month. Gloom-and-doom predictions dominated.

But a funny thing happened on the way to that much-anticipated failure: During two intense weeks of discussions in the Mexican resort that wrapped up at 3 AM on Dec. 12, the world’s governments quietly achieved consensus on a set of substantive steps forward. And equally important, the participants showed encouraging signs of learning to navigate through the unproductive squabbling between developed and developing countries that derailed the Copenhagen talks.

Unprecedented first steps

The tangible advances were noteworthy: The Cancun Agreements set emissions mitigation targets for some 80 countries, including all the major economies. That means that the world’s largest emitters, among them China, the United States, the European Union, India, and Brazil, have now signed up for targets and actions to reduce emissions by 2020.

The participating countries also agreed – for the first time in an official United Nations accord – to keep temperature increases below a global average of 2 degrees Celsius. Yes, that goal is no more stringent than the one set out in Copenhagen, but this time, the participating nations formally accepted the goals; a year earlier, they merely “noted” them, without adopting the accord.

Other provisions establish a “Green Climate Fund” to finance steps to limit and adapt to climate change, and designate the World Bank as interim trustee, over the objections of many developing countries. And new initiatives will protect tropical forests, and find ways to transfer clean energy technology to poorer countries.

The Cancun Agreements on their own are clearly not sufficient to keep temperature increases below 2 degrees Celsius, but they are a valuable step forward in the difficult process of constructing a sound foundation for meaningful, long-term global action.

Small steps vs. global accords

The progress was as much about changing the mindset of how to tackle climate disruption. Significantly, the Cancun agreement blurs the distinction between industrialized and developing countries – a vital step to break through the rich-poor divide that has held up progress for years. The 1997 Kyoto Protocol assigned emission targets only to the 40 countries thought to be part of the industrialized world, which left the more than 140 nations of the developing world without any commitments. But today, more than 50 of those so-called developing countries have higher per capita income than the poorest of the countries with emission-reduction responsibilities under Kyoto.

Implicitly, the process in Cancun also recognizes that smaller, practical steps – some of which are occurring outside the United Nations climate process – are going to be more easily achievable, and thus more effective, than holding out for some overarching thunderclap in a global accord.

The parallel processes of multilateral discussions on climate change policy, including the G20 meetings and the Major Economies Forum, have been useful. For the first time at Cancun, the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, under the new leadership of Executive Secretary Christiana Figueres, offered a positive and pragmatic approach toward embracing these parallel processes.

Fixing the past (and future)

The Kyoto Protocol, which essentially expires at the end of 2012, is fundamentally flawed, especially in dividing the world into competing economic camps. At Cancun, it was encouraging to hear fewer people holding out for a commitment to another phase of the Kyoto Protocol. It was politically impossible to spike the idea of extending the Kyoto agreement entirely, but at least it was punted to the next gathering in Durban, South Africa, a year from now. Otherwise, the Cancun meeting could have collapsed amid acrimony and recriminations.

Usefully, the Cancun Agreements recognize directly and explicitly two key principles:

1) All countries must recognize their historic emissions (read, the industrialized world); and

2) All countries are responsible for their future emissions (think of those with fast-growing emerging economies).

This also helps move beyond the old Kyoto divide.

A better dialogue

An essential goal in Cancun was for the parties to maintain sensible expectations and develop effective plans. That they met this challenge owes in good measure to the careful and methodical planning by the Mexican government, and to the tremendous skill of Mexican Foreign Minister Patricia Espinosa in presiding over the talks.

For example, at a critical moment she took note of objections from Bolivia and a few other leftist states, and then ruled that the support of the 193 other countries meant that consensus had been achieved and the Cancun Agreements had been adopted. She pointed out that “consensus does not mean unanimity.” Compare that with Copenhagen, where the Danish prime minister allowed objections by five small countries to derail the talks.

Mexico’s adept leadership also made sure smaller countries were able to contribute fully and join any meetings they wanted, avoiding the sense of exclusivity that alienated some parties in Copenhagen. That’s a sign that Mexico is one of the key “bridging states” that have credibility in both worlds. Another is South Korea. They will need to play key roles going forward.

It’s also vital to note that China and the United States set a civil, productive tone, in contrast to the Copenhagen finger-pointing. From the sidelines in Cancun, I can vouch for the tremendous increase in openness of members of the Chinese delegation.

The acceptance of the Cancun Agreements suggests that the international community may now recognize that incremental steps in the right direction are better than acrimonious debates over unachievable targets.


Chaos and Uncertainty in Copenhagen?

Earlier today, I was asked by the Financial Times, “who is responsible for the chaos and uncertainty” at COP-15 in Copenhagen?  I’m not sure those are the words I would have chosen to characterize the situation at the climate negotiations in the Danish capital, but here is my response for the FT’s Energy-Source Climate Experts panel — with some elaboration.

There are two aspects to what has been characterized as the “chaotic and uncertain” nature of the COP-15 conference at the Bella Center in Copenhagen.  One is the substantive process and eventual outcome, which remains uncertain as of this hour, and the other is the shocking logistical failure.

An Uncertain Outcome for the Negotiations

It should not be surprising that the outcome remains in doubt, because of some basic economic realities.  First of all, keep in mind that climate change is the ultimate global commons problem, because greenhouse gases uniformly mix in the atmosphere.  Therefore, each country incurs the costs of its emission-reduction actions, but the benefits of its actions are spread worldwide.  Hence, for any individual nation, the benefits it receives from its actions are inevitably less than the costs it incurs, despite the fact that globally the total benefits of appropriate coordinated international action would exceed the total costs (and for many countries the national benefits of coordinated international action would exceed their national costs of action).

This creates a classic free-rider problem, and is the reason why international cooperation – whether through an agreement under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change or through some other multilateral or bilateral arrangements – is necessary.

Second, addressing global climate change will be costly and it raises profound distributional implications for the countries of the world.  In particular, addressing climate change at minimum cost (i.e., cost-effectively) requires that all countries take responsibility for their emissions going forward, and indeed necessitates that all countries control at the same marginal abatement cost.

On the other hand, addressing climate change in an equitable fashion clearly requires taking account of the dramatically different economic circumstances of the countries of the world, and may also involve looking backwards at historic responsibility for the anthropogenic greenhouse gases which have already accumulated in the atmosphere.   These are profound issues of distributional equity.

This classic trade-off between cost-effectiveness (or efficiency), on the one hand, and distributional equity, on the other hand, raises significant obstacles to reaching an agreement.

So, I place the fault for the substantive uncertainty in the negotiations neither on the industrialized countries (including the United States, for insisting that China and other key emerging economies participate in meaningful and transparent ways), nor on the developing countries (for insisting that the industrialized world pay much of the bill).

The key question going forward is whether negotiators in Copenhagen today and tonight, or in Bonn several months from now, or in Mexico City a year from now, can identify a policy architecture that is both reasonably cost-effective and sufficiently equitable, and thereby can assemble support from the key countries of the world, and thus do something truly meaningful about the long-term path of global greenhouse gas emissions.  There are promising paths forward, and – if you’ll forgive me – I will remind readers that many have been identified by the Harvard Project on International Climate Agreements.

Rather than pointing fingers at who is to blame for the current uncertainty at this hour, I can attribute credit to a number of countries and institutions for having brought the negotiations to the point where it appears at least possible that a successful outcome will be achieved in Copenhagen or subsequently.

First of all, tremendous credit must be given to the national leaders and the negotiating teams of the seventeen major economies of the world who together represent about 90% of global emissions, because these countries have worked hard to produce what each considers a sensible outcome over the months and years leading up to COP-15.

This includes not only the European Union, Australia, Japan, New Zealand, and Canada, but also the United States, which at least since January of this year has been an enthusiastic and intelligent participant in this international process.  It also includes many of the key emerging economies of the world – China , India, Brazil, Mexico, Korea, South Africa, and Indonesia, among them – as well as a considerable number of poor, developing countries, which likewise take the problem seriously and have been trying to find an acceptable path forward.

Finally, credit should be given to the Danish government and its leadership, the Secretariat of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, and UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, who have worked tirelessly for months, indeed years, to prepare for the substance of these negotiations at COP-15 in Copenhagen.

That’s the “good news,” but now I should turn to the other aspect of the “uncertainty and chaos” in Copenhagen.

Chaos at COP-15’s Bella Center

As I noted at the outset, there are two aspects of the “chaos” in Copenhagen, and for the second aspect it is (sadly) possible to identify the apparently responsible parties.  I am referring to the fact that the organizers – the Secretariat of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) and the hosts, the Danish government – apparently approved a list of some 40,000 observers from 900 official, accredited organizations around the world, knowing that the Bella Center could accommodate at most 15,000 persons at any one time.  The result is that thousands of people – including not only NGO representatives, but also government negotiators – stood in line outside of the Bella Center in the bitter cold on Monday and Tuesday of this week waiting 8-10 hours to get inside to receive their credentials.  Thousands of others never got inside to receive their credentials, despite having waited up to 8 hours, standing in the cold.  These are not exaggerations.  It is remarkable and very fortunate if no one died in the process.

Then, on Wednesday through Friday, the Bella Center was essentially closed to all representatives of civil society, despite the fact that side-events had been organized by them months in advance with the approval of the COP-15 organizers.

The result is that thousands of people, who had been informed by the COP-15 organizers many months ago that they were approved to attend, had flown to Copenhagen from all over the world, incurred those costs plus the costs of their accommodations, yet never were able to get inside the Bella Center to carry out any of the work they had planned, and flew back home having wasted their time and resources (and having contributed to the COP-15 carbon footprint in non-trivial ways).

Now, I have never been an enthusiast of what some people have described as the annual “circus” of the COPs, a circus – if it is that — which is largely due to the fact that the actual government negotiators are vastly outnumbered by the civil society representatives (“official observers” in the UNFCCC language) and the press.  However, if the participation of civil society representatives is going  to be encouraged (as required under the original UNFCCC agreement), and if the attendance of those representatives is going to be approved in advance, then surely they should not be denied admission when they arrive, nor forced to stand in line outside in the cold for 8 hours waiting to be admitted.

No doubt, both the UNFCCC and the Danish government will point fingers at the other, but ultimately the responsibility must be shared.  In seventeen years of these annual conferences, going back to the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, there has never been such a disastrous logistical failure.  It could have been anticipated.  And it should have been prevented.

A Final Word

Of course, as of this hour, I — along with millions of others — hope that the negotiators in Copenhagen will achieve agreement on some truly meaningful steps forward in this important process.