Kyoto at Durban: addressing the agenda

Sep 08 2011
VERTIC Blog >> Environment

Hugh Chalmers, London

At the end of November, South Africa will host representatives from up to 194 states for the 17th Conference of Parties (COP 17) under the United Nations Framework Convention for Climate Change (UNFCCC). The first Kyoto Protocol (KP) commitment period will expire next year. There is now significant pressure from developing states for a second commitment period to extend this, the only legally-binding set of emission reductions. However if South Africa hope to realise the conference motto of ‘Working Together, Saving Tomorrow’, they must respond to this pressure with great subtlety.

The rocky road to Durban
Since the first meeting of the COP in 1994, recognition of the potential threat of climate change has grown steadily among states. However, progress in addressing this threat has not been so smooth. Fundamental disagreements within the COP have repeatedly blocked the realization of the 2007 Bali Action Plan for long term cooperation. They have also blocked the extension of the protocol itself. With Durban approaching, the achievements of the KP have started to appear transitory. Some commentators have even queried whether the UNFCCC is the best forum for addressing climate change.

However, COP 16, held in Cancun last year, rescued the credibility of the UNFCCC. It also resulted in several agreements. These agreements addressed many issues including the delivery of technical and financial support from developed states to developing states, and outlined new mechanisms for adapting to the effects of climate change. Although these results are promising, agreements over technical mechanisms and financial pledges alone cannot fully mitigate the effects of climate change. The Cancun Agreements may be a step forward in managing the effects of climate change, but they do little to formalise a legally-binding approach to one of its major causes, namely the emission of greenhouse gasses. When the KP expires at the end of 2012, the only remaining emission controls will be unilateral and voluntary. These pledges are neither legally-binding nor ambitious enough to meet the agreed climate change limit of 2⁰C.

Since 2005 a dedicated working group under the UNFCCC has been trying to develop an extension to the KP without success. The approaching expiry date is causing great concern for all parties within the UNFCCC. Developing and vulnerable states fear that an extension may not be reached in time, while developed states fear they will be forced into an inequitable agreement by the fears of others and the pressures of time. Even the business community is concerned that the markets produced by KP mechanisms could become unstable without a set of legally-binding commitments.

What might happen when Durban starts?
The UNFCCC hopes that COP 17 in Durban will not only address these fears, but also the implementation of the Bali Action Plan and the Cancun Agreements. These are many things to discuss. The conference only spans eleven days. Negotiations will definitely be difficult. On 2 and 8 August 2011, the South African Minister of International Relations and Cooperation, Ms Maite Nkoana-Mashabane, laid out her country’s preparations and priorities for the Durban COP. Speaking during a meeting discussing women and climate change, Ms Nkoana-Mashabane argued that developing a second commitment period under the KP is the most important issue for the Durban COP.

As part of the BASIC group of states and unilaterally, South Africa has often held the view that negotiating further commitments under the KP should take precedent over other negotiations at the COP. Differences over such agenda priorities played a major part in the near-collapse of COP 15 at Copenhagen. If similar disagreements emerge again in such an intense atmosphere, it is hard to predict what the result will be. Placing the extension of the KP above all other issues at Durban could be a potentially risky strategy.

A second commitment period will not spring from nothingness. As with the chicken and the egg, there are disagreements about what should come first. Should the technical mechanisms for describing and implementing emission reductions be cemented before commitments are made? Or should commitments be made to certain reductions before the mechanisms for describing and implementing them are developed? Both are needed, yet negotiating one seems impossible without negotiating the other.

Conflicting priorities
When the UNFCCC working group on the Kyoto Protocol met in Bangkok and Bonn earlier this year in preparation for Durban, it became clear that differences surrounding this issue were stark. The G-77 group, which represents developing states and includes the expanding nations of China, India and Brazil, have strongly argued that discussions over details must be secondary to securing political commitments to a KP extension. Such political commitment has been described as ‘the cornerstone of global action’ on climate change and an ‘essential’ outcome of the Durban COP. According to the G-77 group, failing to secure a commitment would be an ‘unacceptable’ outcome to the process, and the Arab Group sees a KP extension as a precondition for agreement in other areas of negotiation.

However, political commitments from developed states have varied. Japan has plainly ruled out their support for extension, while Canada and Russia are unlikely to commit. The United States never ratified the Kyoto Protocol, and are also unlikely to make their first commitments until their original concerns are resolved. Only Norway, Sweden, New Zealand, and Australia have suggested that they are prepared to commit to an extension.

Those who favour the strong legally binding targets found in the KP place their hopes in the European Union. However, EU support for a KP extension is not yet certain and rests on several conditions. According to some commentators, if the EU is sufficiently satisfied to commit to an extension, Japan, Russia and Canada may be ‘tempted back’ to the KP.

The EU is prepared to support an extension to the KP, but only as part of a ‘global framework involving all major economies’. Most major economies have made unilateral reduction pledges, but the EU believes these cannot become legally-binding in their present state. Restriction metrics must be clarified, the Cancun Agreements must be developed and properly implemented, and all rules must be set before the EU can ‘sign the contract’. For the EU, progress on technical issues forms an integral part of their response to the political question of a KP extension.

The route to a successful conference
Securing EU support for a second commitment period depends heavily on the same technical issues which developing states see as a distraction. The EU made it clear at Bonn that they were ‘very, very worried’ that there had been no discussion on large technical portions of the negotiating text for Durban. The longer these issues are relegated for the pursuit of political commitments, the less likely it is that these commitments will arise. If there is to be any hope for the KP at Durban, the hosts must skilfully guide the adoption of an agenda which suits all parties. Arguments over which aspects of the UNFCCC should take precedence over others are a serious threat to progress. Time is short at the COP, and when under pressure delegates are unlikely to accept an agenda which could prejudge the outcome of negotiations. At Copenhagen in 2009, and again at Bangkok and Bonn this year, agenda arguments represented a significant portion of the negotiations. This cannot be allowed to become a recurring phenomenon.

Last changed: Sep 08 2011 at 6:36 PM

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