Is it time to drop legally binding climate targets?

As the IPCC releases its latest round of reports, proposals for a more flexible climate regime are gaining popularity

It’s now just 19 months until the UN climate meeting in Paris at which climate campaigners are still hoping a legally binding global deal on cutting greenhouse-gas emissions can be agreed.

One of the biggest hurdles is the seemingly intractable national positions of the US and China, the world’s two largest emitters. While they have pledged to work more closely on climate change and set up a joint working group to boost cooperation on low-carbon cars, smart grids and more, the two countries remain divided on how the burden of climate action should be split between rich and developing countries. Neither is prepared to sign up to legally binding emissions without concessions from the other.

A standoff between the two was widely blamed for the disastrous failure to reach a global deal in Copenhagen in 2009, and many fear old tensions will prevent a breakthrough next year too.

For some, the current quagmire means the world should pull away from the established idea of externally mandated, legally binding emissions cuts and replace it with something more flexible. Getting a deal is the most important thing, the logic goes, and so you need to find a deal that the key parties can accept.

James Cameron, non-executive chairman of low-carbon investment firm Climate Change Capital and advisor to a raft of bodies including the UK Treasury, is a proponent of such a move. A lawyer by background, Cameron helped to negotiate the UNFCCC and Kyoto Protocol, but now believes a more realistic approach is needed. “You’ve got to visualise the agreement through the eyes of the Chinese – what is the agreement they could sign? And then make it the best possible version of that agreement for the world.”

Cameron has done this visualisation exercise and come up with a proposal, on which he has already lobbied EU climate commissioner Connie Hedegaard. He believes the world should agree to a broad set of principles on tackling climate change – including commitments to establish a value for carbon, progressively remove barriers to trade in emission-reduction technologies and phase out fossil fuel subsidies – but crucially leave individual countries to translate these principles into domestic law, execute and monitor them.

There would be no specific emissions quotas for countries, just an overarching recognition that greenhouse gases should be cut – as per Article 2 of the 1992 Climate Change Convention which would remain a cornerstone of the new deal – and a commitment to report back on progress each year. The treaty would include detailed performance metrics and standards for measurement so that different parties were reporting on the same thing, such as a tonne of carbon reduced, in the same way.

Cameron believes this would not only get obstinate countries on board, but allow them to trumpet the successes they have already made outside of the UN system and, in so doing, trigger new waves of virtuous action.

Letting polluters off the hook?

Such proposals enrage many in the climate change world who remain committed to the key features of the Kyoto Protocol, including legally binding emissions reductions and codified distinctions between the obligations of rich and developing countries.

Writing on chinadialogue in March, Chukwumerije Okereke, a climate change expert at Reading University said developing countries were unhappy about “a wholesale shift in emphasis of the emerging UNFCCC regime towards voluntary national actions rather than a top down target based agreement with clear implementation plans.”

Li Shuo, climate campaigner at Greenpeace China, calls it a “wild west” scenario. “Instead of yielding more, I am afraid this will let all the big fish off the hook and move us into a downward spiral. The scientific nature of climate change is so critically important that we need sufficient clarity on who commits to do what. If the international process prescribes so little, I would question the meaning of having it at all.”

But for those who doubt the efficacy of his approach, Cameron points to precedent in another field: “It’s much the same as we’ve done with the human rights agreements, which are very general in character, but they’re not any less legal because they are general. Everyone knows you have to translate a human rights commitment into something more specific in your national laws, otherwise it’s just rhetoric, it can’t be applied in a court of law. At the very least, it needs interpretation and practice before it becomes of real value.

“Well here again we’re going to get a universal agreement to respond to climate change with a set of general principles. And those principles will inspire all sorts of domestic actions.”

An end to the UN?

Whether or not climate change action should be coordinated within the UN or be left to a more disparate and organic mix of domestic action, bilateral agreements and business initiatives, is an argument that’s been raging since the disappointment of Copenhagen.

Cameron believes there is a third way. He envisages the annual UN climate gathering becoming a “show and tell”, where governments come to describe what they’re doing to meet common objectives, and businesses also gather to display technologies and solutions. “That’s a creative atmosphere and it stops people thinking this is a sort of all or nothing process, where the world is either saved or doomed depending on the outcome of some negotiating. The climate change problem just doesn’t fit well with that model, it’s too complex, too dispersed.”

There should also be recognition that some other international institutions may be better placed to enforce agreements made between states, he says. Negotiations between the EU and US on removing trade barriers to environmental technology would be best done through the World Trade Organisation, for instance.

While Cameron’s particular proposal may be more radical than anything articulated officially, a subtle shift in language in UNFCCC reference material suggests it might not be too far from current thinking within the UN itself and national governments.

Another sceptic of the UN process in its current guise is David Victor, international relations professor at UC San Diego and author of Global Warming Gridlock. He agrees that there is a positive movement towards a more flexible approach: “Even countries most committed to Kyoto, including Japan and the EU, are already looking at alternatives. The more serious we get about climate change mitigation, the more important it is to be flexible. I think the outcomes in Paris are going to be more flexible frameworks like these and not binding like Kyoto.

“Many will see this as taking the pressure off historical polluters. Many will see this as the wrong approach because it’s not legally binding, but if we’ve learned anything over the last decade it’s that bold policies to be binding, to hold historical polluters to account, don’t actually deliver results.”

Whether or not results can be delivered this time partly depends on a party that is still keeping its cards close. Cameron is betting that China will agree to a more flexible deal, but for the moment, it is sticking to old lines.

“China will not change its principle of protecting its own interests and those of developing nations,” says Li Junfeng, director of China’s National Centre for Climate Change Strategy and International Cooperation. “The government work report to the 18th National Congress was clear: China will stick to fairness, to the principle of common but differentiated responsibilities. Anything else can be discussed, but there’s little chance of shifting China’s bottom line.”