Friday, December 9, 2011

Durban 2011: Can Europe salvage a deal on climate?


After talks that went on until four in the morning, delegates at the UN climate talks in Durban woke up upbeat that a deal can be done that would, for the first time, commit the majority of the world's developing nations to legally-binding emissions targets.
The bad news is the targets wouldn't kick in till 2020. With a decade-long free-for-all in the meantime, it could by then be too late to stop dangerous climate change.
European environment commissioner Connie Hedegaard said this morning that more than 120 nations were now on board for an historic accord being promoted by the EU. "Agreement is within reach," she said.
But with China and India still undecided, and the US administration giving conflicting signals, she warned that "if there is no further movement, I don't think we will have a deal. Everyone can see where the deal could be. The question is if countries want to be part of it. In Copenhagen, in the end the political will was not enough to do a deal. Here, we shall see."
In the balance
In the past two days, Brazil and South Africa have agreed, in principle, to accept legally binding targets on their emissions from 2020. Hedegaard now hopes that India and China - the two other members of the influential "BASIC" group of large developing countries - will be persuaded to do the same. India has taken a particularly hard line against this, while China has hinted at a change. "We are not there yet," said Hedegaard this morning.
The targets being discussed are not absolute cuts in emissions. Rather, under a future agreement, most developing nations would accept targets in other forms, such as deviation from a "business as usual" growth in emissions, or a reduction in the carbon intensity of their economies. Many of them, including China and Brazil, have already adopted such targets as domestic policy. The question is whether they will accept a formal commitment in international law.
The EU plan receiving widespread support here would see a deal done on legally binding targets by 2015, coming into force in 2020.
As part of the proposed agreement, the EU would endorse an extension of the Kyoto Protocol covering its own emissions and those of some other industrialised countries, notably Australia. The existing protocol targets expire at the end of the next year. The EU would do this even though other existing protocol members - Russia, Japan and Canada - have said they won't join in.
US confusion
The US appears confused by the turn of events. It has always said it would only accept legally binding emissions targets if major developing nations like China did too. Yesterday, Todd Stern, its chief negotiator, appeared to stay consistent with this and accept that his government would join in an all-embracing treaty that included major developing nations. But last night the Department of Defense in Washington DC issued a "clarification" backtracking on accepting legally binding targets.
"I thought the US was in favour of a legally binding deal if others were too," said Hildegaard in response.
One explanation is brinkmanship: neither China nor the US wants to commit before the other. Meetings later today may discover if the US's bluff has been called.
The deal, if agreed, would end the divide - created in previous agreements on greenhouse gas emissions - between developed nations that accept targets and developing nations that do not. In future "all will be legally bound to deliver," Hildegaard said. It was a "recognition of the reality of emissions in the 21st century", in which developing nations now emit the most.
She hopes that, before sunrise on Saturday, China and India will be forced into line with Brazil and South Africa; that the US will have little option but to join in - and a deal will be done.
As for the climate: with the Kyoto Protocol covering only 15 per cent of global emissions, and almost a decade of mostly voluntary emissions targets ahead for the rest, that's another matter.

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