Climate talks: the year that was

Another year has passed, another round of negotiations is about to begin, but what has been achieved and what direction are we heading in? A roundtable of experts helps chinadialogue find its bearings.

Editor’s note: this weekend, officials, policymakers and activists will gather in Durban, South Africa, for the next round of UN-led climate talks. Two years ago, the much-hyped Copenhagen summit turned into a crushing disappointment as it failed to deliver the hoped-for global deal on emissions reduction. Last year, a downplayed conference at Cancún ended with a standing ovation for the Mexican hosts, after consensus was reached on issues including technology transfer and the creation of a new fund to help developing countries adapt to global warming.

Now, as we approach 2012 – the year the first commitment period of the Kyoto Protocol expires – has the world built on that applause or returned to paralysis? And what can we expect from the negotiations this time round? We collected some views from Chinese, European and US experts.

chinadialogue: What progress have you seen since the last round of international climate negotiations in Cancún?

Li Yan, climate campaigner, Greenpeace East Asia
Rather than seeing any progress, I would say we’ve moved backwards. At Cancún, a commitment was made to set up the Green Climate Fund and, on the request of developed nations, it was decided that that would be managed by a transitional committee rather than the World Bank. The last year should have seen that organisation set up, so that it could start operating. But in preliminary talks, the United States indicated that its obligations should be symmetrical with those of other major emitters, insinuating that if developing nations that are also major emitters do not take on more responsibilities, the US will refuse to provide more funding. That was a confusing message that obstructed negotiations.

Mark Lynas
, UK-based environmental activist, journalist and author
This year since Cancún, we have seen very little progress on the key sticking point of legal form [of the post-2012 climate regime], backed up by slow but steady progress on the slightly less difficult questions like finance, adaptation and technology. It was depressing to see the whole negotiating session in Bangkok in April taken up by an agenda fight, but the Panama session later in the year was much more positive, at least in terms of the atmosphere, if not the outcomes. There is text on the table now in many agenda areas, making an eventual compromise more likely.

Yang Fangyi, climate change programme manager, Shan Shui Conservation Center
Discussions have focused on funding details, such as systems for fund management, the make-up of the management committee and sources of funding. But when compared with the negotiations over the legal form of the second commitment period of the Kyoto Protocol and the Long-Term Cooperative Action (LCA) agreement, these are all minor details.

Jake Schmidt, international climate policy director, Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC)
We’ve seen three critically important dynamics this year. First, countries have made important progress in implementing laws and policies to reduce their global warming pollution to meet their commitments. While not at the pace and the scale that we need, we’ve seen some important follow through that is changing the dynamics on the ground. Australia finally passed their climate law to put a price on carbon, the US adopted aggressive vehicle standards and put on hold the tar sands pipeline project Keystone XL and China has started to outline the detailed rules and regulations for meeting its energy and climate binding commitments in its 12th Five-Year Plan.

Second, we’ve seen clean energy continue to grow at an extraordinary pace. Last year new clean energy investments skyrocketed by 30% to US$243 billion. Non-fossil fuel energy accounted for about 50% of the world’s new electricity capacity added last year. That is a huge shift.

Lastly, we’ve seen very promising movement to define the guidelines and institutions to support efforts to improve transparency, develop a new fund to help developing countries take action to reduce emissions and adapt to the impacts and build stronger mechanisms to help deploy low-carbon technologies. Of course, there are technical differences at this stage, but the differences are much smaller than I had expected. Countries can find the path to get agreement on these pieces in Durban.

chinadialogue: What challenges have emerged this year?

Zhang Haibin, professor of international studies, Peking University
The major challenge is a lack of political will. The biggest difference between talks today and talks in the past is that now we have the European debt crisis. In earlier negotiations, the leadership role of the European Union did a lot to move things forward. But now the EU is bound up with its own problems and that leadership role has weakened. And so the negotiations have become leaderless.

Mark Lynas
It is a cliche that every single COP is pitched beforehand as a make-or-break. Durban is make or break for the Kyoto Protocol… or perhaps it will simply continue the legal limbo of the past couple of years as the clock ticks towards the end of the first commitment period on December 31, 2012, and nothing is agreed to replace it.

In my view, Kyoto has symbolic and political significance but little else: without Japan, Canada and Russia it will cover less than 15% of global emissions. This means the main theatre of mitigation action shifts into the Convention track – the so-called LCA – although major developing countries in that arena insist on another round of Kyoto as a precondition to anything else, whilst the US stands on the sidelines offering nothing. And so the show goes on.

Yang Fangyi
The two most important issues are keeping alive the second commitment period of the Kyoto Protocol, and the legal form of the LCA. Each party has explicitly expressed its stances on these, there are clear disagreements and there has been no progress.

Jake Schmidt
This year, global emissions have continued on an upward trajectory and if we don’t make significant changes in the coming few years we’ll get very close to locking ourselves into a path that makes solving global warming more expensive and even more challenging. As we speak, we are literally building the power plants, cars, buildings and other infrastructure which is shaping our energy and carbon pollution trajectory for this century. The recent analysis from the International Energy Agency puts this in sharp context: they found that global fossil fuel carbon dioxide emissions rose by over 5% last year and they point out in the next couple of years we’ll “lock-in” investments which would use up all the remaining carbon space.

Li Gao, director of climate change negotiation department, China’s National Development and Reform Commission
The biggest problem is that developed nations are still not sufficiently willing to cut their emissions. There is a lack of political will – that is the biggest issue facing the negotiations.

chinadialogue: What are your expectations for Durban and beyond?

Li Gao
My expectations for the conference are realistic; there may not be an overall legally-binding agreement. China hopes that Durban will implement the Bali Roadmap and the Cancún Agreements and solve the problems that Cancún didn’t – notably, securing arrangements for the second commitment period of the Kyoto Protocol. Both the Bali Roadmap and the Cancún Agreements explicitly require that there should be no gap between the first and second commitment periods.

The Durban meeting should yield something on the management framework and transparency of funding mechanisms. How do we move from a quick start-up for the fund to having US$100 billion of funding annually in 2020? We need clear and explicit measures and roadmaps that will assure funding support from 2013 to 2020 – that is a very important outcome for Durban.

Yang Fangyi
Durban can provide a schedule for the negotiations on the second commitment period, preventing negotiations dragging on indefinitely.

Zhang Haibin
Any progress is likely to happen under the following three circumstances: one, the fifth report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change is published and makes worse climate change predictions; two, the financial crisis ends; and three, we see other changes in international circumstances. Reaching consensus on the length of the time gap between the Kyoto Protocol’s first and second commitment periods would also count as an achievement.

Jake Schmidt
At Durban, it is essential that countries turn their applauses into guidelines and institutions that can help countries move effectively towards low-carbon societies. We can’t one year agree with multiple standing ovations and then the next year fail to follow through. The world will lose confidence in our ability. I hope that countries can find ways to agree and not hold hostage progress for something that isn’t achievable at this point.

More importantly, over the next year we need countries to come to the Earth Summit in Rio and make new commitments for actions that they’ll take to reduce emissions, such as phasing-out inefficient light bulbs, increasing renewable deployment, adopting mandatory vehicle-efficiency standards and establishing laws to stop buying products that are driving deforestation. By taking these and other steps countries will then prove that they are “walking the walk”. They’ll show that they are prepared to follow through with their international climate commitments with real changes to their laws and policies. By doing this, we’ll create momentum for more action as countries will find that taking action on climate change spurs job creation, saves consumers money, reduces pollution and saves the planet at the same time.

Li Yan
On the issue of transparency, a lot of obstacles have been removed in negotiations since China’s positive attitude at Cancún. Success at Durban is most likely to come in this area.

Mark Lynas
It has been sad to see the gradual massaging downwards of expectations for Durban, by the South Africans as much as anyone. They certainly don’t want to get caught up in any Copenhagen-type hype. But talk from the major emitters – the Russians, Japanese, Americans, plus the Indians and Chinese, is now all about what might come into force post-2020 in terms of a new legally binding single agreement. That we should hold on for another nine years is unacceptable to environmentalists, small island states and anyone else who is interested in keeping the climate in a tolerable state.

I see 2015 as an absolute end-date, because a new treaty could incorporate the new global goal identified by the review process due to take place between 2013 and 2015. We then need to find ways to ensure that it comes into force or is applied immediately.

Zhang Haibin and Li Gao’s views were taken from speeches at Tencent’s 2011 UN Climate Change Negotation (COP17) Conference.

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