UN climate talks
Diplomacy ahead of the UN climate conference in Durban augurs little progress
Sep 3rd 2011 | from the print edition
NEVER has the UN’s Kyoto protocol looked sorrier. In 2012 the five-year “commitment period” it brought into being—in which developed countries took on legally binding responsibilities to cut their industrial greenhouse-gas emissions against 1990 levels—will end. Already Japan, Russia and Canada have refused to repeat the exercise. America was never part of it. Of the important rich countries, only the Europeans, responsible for around 13% of global emissions, will consider a second go. If cutting global carbon emissions was its aim, the UN scheme has failed.
Yet it refuses to die. A UN climate conference will be held in Durban at the end of November, and the protocol’s future will dominate it. This was stressed in a recent statement from several powerful developing countries—Brazil, South Africa, India and China—who have formed a block called the “BASIC Group”. At a meeting in Brazil on August 26th-27th, “agreeing on the second commitment period” was apparently the main issue they discussed. It was hardly likely, they noted sharply, that a country would leave the Kyoto protocol because it wished to cut emissions faster.
As far as the rich world goes, they are right. Canada will fail in its emission-curbing commitment (as will, possibly, Japan). Quitting the UN scheme is a way to avoid the punitive burden that would be carried over into a second round. Nor do the other, non-Kyoto, parts of the UN process look promising just now. Negotiators at last year’s climate summit in Cancún promised up to $100 billion a year to developing countries by 2020 to help them deal with climate change, plus arrangements for monitoring the voluntary mitigation efforts of developing countries. But little has been done since—and, in hard times for the rich world, little of the promised money is likely to be forthcoming in Durban.
The BASIC countries’ attachment to Kyoto is rooted in self-interest. As developing countries, albeit major emitters, they need undertake no mitigation commitment. This was America’s biggest objection to the UN scheme and is, above all, what they seek to preserve. This underpins their show of unity, despite big differences in the size and nature of their emissions. China is the world’s biggest polluter. Its reliance on coal-fired power stations means its emissions per head—at around six tonnes of carbon equivalent a year—are also closing on west European levels. India’s, though large and rapidly rising, are well below two tonnes a head. Brazil’s, largely caused by farming practices and deforestation, should be cheaper to curb.
These distinctions are reflected in the climate-related actions each country volunteered in Cancún. For instance, whereas China promised to reduce the carbon intensity of its output by 40% by 2020, Brazil, with the right assistance, is sworn to reduce its expected emissions by over 36%. These, though hard to monitor, could mean a lot if they work. Yet if the BASIC countries are to persuade the European Union to keep Kyoto alive, they, and especially China and India, must promise more. What this might mean is now being debated in Beijing and Delhi; the EU countries are watching, sceptically.
That European countries, alongside Asia’s rising giants, have emerged as the main hinge of an important international process must please them. Yet whatever promise the BASIC countries offer for a post-2018 dispensation will be modest. And even the most ardent European believers in the sort of “top-down”, legally binding mitigation effort that Kyoto represents are belatedly realising that America and probably China would not join such a scheme. In that case, the world’s climate problem would remain unsolved.
And moreover, if the EU can be persuaded to undertake a second commitment under Kyoto, it is likely to accept a more modest target than it has already offered. It has promised a 20% curb in its emissions by 2020—or 30% if America and others show comparable progress. In making a legal commitment, the EU would perhaps enter the lower figure, perhaps leaving the higher one to be forgotten. Hot air aplenty. Pity about the carbon.