Prospects for climate change in the fourth quarter

With several interim meetings concluded without major progress, international climate policy negotiators are preparing for this November's annual UN climate conference in Durban, South Africa. The Kyoto Protocol's commitment period expires in 2012. This meeting will be a final opportunity for the international community to decide how or whether to renew it, or approach the problem of climate change differently.

Strategic summary

  • Climate change is unlikely to solve itself, and will challenge individual nations and the - international community in coming decades.
  • This challenge is partly technological, in that reducing impact severity will come from substantial global emissions reductions.
  • Challenges also are institutional, in establishing an approach that will be effective in a sufficient number of countries.

What next

Looking beyond Durban, the UN process is likely to develop a few approaches simultaneously, and some agreement might be reached on smaller components. However, none of these are likely to be revolutionary, so those wishing for a more aggressive international response will have to wait a few years for political winds to shift.


The Cancun meeting in late 2010 set up a situation for international climate negotiations that essentially established two parallel tracks for the future evolution of climate policy. The primary reason for this schism derived from disagreements about whether:

  • the Kyoto Protocol (KP) should be remain the primary institution through which commitments were negotiated; or
  • a new approach, based on the older UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), should be taken.

Negotiation confusion

The roots of this divide account for some of the confusion besetting negotiations heading into Durban. Currently, the UN negotiation track has resulted in two major treaties in the climate regime:

  • UNFCCC. The UNFCCC in 1992 established a governing structure, called for regular meetings and a few other elements of basic governance. It is akin in some ways to the UN Charter in essentially establishing the institutions to carry out discussions.
  • KP. Five years after the UNFCCC was negotiated, the KP emerged, calling for specific greenhouse gas emissions reductions from some member countries (at that time, essentially developed countries), and established a few institutional mechanisms to allow emissions trading between countries and the crediting of certain emissions reduction projects in developing countries and economies in transition. The KP institutionalised a vision of the world as developed versus developing, and with it an expectation that developed countries should reduce emissions more quickly and earlier than developing countries.

2012 deadline?

Because the commitments embedded in the KP expire in 2012, many stakeholders have argued that this represents a deadline. Delegates could either preserve the KP and its approach by negotiating a new set of emission reduction targets (called a second commitment period), or a new treaty would need to replace it.

However, there has not been consensus on this point. Indeed many countries have not felt particularly compelled to continue with the Kyoto approach. For example, the United States lately has been pushing for a structured system of voluntary reporting and verification of national emissions reduction targets and means for achieving them. This approach first was codified in the hastily assembled Copenhagen Accord and, later, in Cancun, embedded in the UNFCCC framework.

However, in addition to this new UNFCCC track, the Cancun meeting also fed the hopes of some countries that the KP would be kept alive, and with it the institutions and philosophy dear to many developing countries but not some key emitters.

Two tracks

Accordingly, two tracks have been operating in parallel:

  • A first seeks to renew or revive a Kyoto approach, or new treaty to replace it.

  • A second sees most of the important work as having already been agreed in Cancun.
    The easiest decision was not to decide between them, so both approaches are being pursued simultaneously:

  • After having vacillated, Japan seems to have been persuaded to sign up for a second commitment period of some kind.

  • The United States has consistently said that it views a second commitment period -- or even a replacement 'binding' international agreement -- as unnecessary and counterproductive.
    This confusion, combined with international attention being focused elsewhere, has meant that climate policy negotiations have continued without significant direction, consensus, leadership or political pressure.

Low expectations

Expectations thus are low to zero for a major new treaty to emerge from this November's UN climate conference. On the other hand, given that no country is actively seeking to veto an extension of the Kyoto Protocol, it is likely that it will be renewed, but with essentially meaningless commitments. This is not as negative as it might seem, since there are a few small programmes embedded in Kyoto that might usefully be retained (such as the Clean Development Mechanism, which allows for emissions reduction projects in developing countries). In addition, extending the Kyoto Protocol would please a number of smaller developing countries that have made it a central point of negotiations, and thus could be used to build support for other initiatives.

For example, beyond the major headline question of treaties, there are a number of smaller initiatives under discussion within the UNFCCC framework that could see some agreement emerge from Durban. The Cancun Agreements -- which retain broad support from all key players in the international community (including the US, China and India) -- have called for:

  • a new 100-billion-dollar funding mechanism;
  • a system to reduce emissions from deforestation; and
  • a new set of institutions to encourage technological innovation.

Each of these has a narrower mandate, requires less political initiative, and is more amenable to negotiations than are the bigger philosophical questions of treaty formation and governance approach.


Oxford Analytica
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