Trends by Martin Khor
Monday 5 December 2011
Durban battle on climate regime’s future
The climate conference in Durban enters its final week with many issues
unsettled, chief among them the future of the global climate change
The two-week UN Climate Conference taking place in Durban is at mid-point
and its prospect for success is not looking bright.
The political leaders arrive this week to confront a range of problematic
issues. It is likely that compromises will be worked out and a few
successes will be claimed. The reality is that they won’t be enough
to tackle the worsening climate situation on the ground.
The hottest topic is the fate of the Kyoto Protocol. Global Trends
broke the news in October 2009 on how rich nations were plotting to
get rid of this protocol. Since then, Japan, Canada and Russia have
announced they do not want to undertake a second period of commitment,
when the first period expires in 2012.
The developing countries have been fighting for the protocol’s survival
and vowed that Durban shall not be the protocol’s burial ground.
All developed countries except the United States commit to reduce
their emissions by a certain percentage under this protocol.
In last week’s talks, the European Union came up with some ideas to
keep Kyoto just about alive, through a decision or a declaration,
rather than what it should be -- an amendment of the protocol to reflect
emission reduction targets for a new period from 2013.
But even for this, the EU wants to extract a huge concession, that
all “major economies” agree to start negotiations for a new legally
binding treaty that will take effect in 2020.
The United States is not keen at all on having its emissions targets
bound in any treaty. It left the Kyoto Protocol years ago, and its
Congress is unlikely to agree to join any new climate treaty.
The US says it can join a new treaty but sets the impossible condition
that major developing countries also take on similar emission-reduction
commitments as the developed nations.
There is no agreed definition of a “major economy”. Among developing
countries, those with a large population are being targeted. But on
a per-capita basis, they are still developing countries, some of them
In 2010, India was ranked a lowly 132 out of 184 countries in per
capita GDP. Its level was US$1370 compared to US$46,860 for the US,
according to IMF data. India in 2008 was ranked 138 in per capita
carbon dioxide emission; its level of 1.5 ton compares with 17.5 tons
for the US, according to UN data.
is “major” as an economy or emitter because of its large population
(1.2 billion) for which it can hardly be blamed. To ask India to take
on the same obligations as developed countries with more than 30 times
higher per capita income and over ten times higher per capita emissions
is simply unfair.
Thus, it is unsurprising that developing countries like China, India
and Brazil are not interested to bow to pressure to take on rich-country
commitments as a condition for the really rich countries to maintain
their present commitments.
How this story of Kyoto’s sad fate will end is to be seen. A quick
death is now unlikely, given the protests it will generate and the
bad name this will give the perpetrators. Putting it on life support
is the alternative.
In Durban’s first week, the developed countries continued their attempt
to shift the burden of cutting global emissions on to developing countries.
The original agreed idea, that all developed counties would collectively
cut their emissions by a target (the numbers being negotiated were
25-40% or over 40% by 2020 ) and that each would make a comparable
effort with the others, is all but gone, not even mentioned in a draft
conclusions of the conference released on 3 December. It has been
replaced by a voluntary pledge system.
But there are numerous pages on how developing countries will undertake
new obligations for reporting on and monitoring their emissions and
their actions, and being subject to international review.
The Durban conference is also debating how to operationalise a new
Green Climate Fund. Disputes remain on the fund’s governance. If
there is agreement, it may be Durban’s visible success. However, many
are worried it will be a rather empty structure at first, as funding
from developed countries is getting scarcer with the impending economic
Three other key issues – equity in sharing sustainable development
space, the intellectual property-technology transfer link, and dangers
of unilateral trade measures – also figure in Durban.
They had been central to the discussion before, but last year’s Conference
in Cancun marginalized these issues. It is a sign of how badly the
talks have gone that many developing countries led by India are now
doing major battle just to ensure they are back on the agenda.
The Conference will become more intense and complex as the political
leaders arrive early this week. It is scheduled to end on 9 December.