09 Dec 2011
Durban draws to a close
2598 view(s)

As the Durban COP enters the homestretch it is worth stepping back a few years – to COP-13 at Bali in 2007. For it is the Bali COP that led to the creation of the Ad-hoc working groups for Long-term Cooperative Action (AWGLCA) and for the Kyoto Protocol (AWGKP), which have been the main arenas for negotiation since then.

The situation that faced countries in Bali was not very different from what it is today. The IPCC AR4 had just come out, with some of the strongest conclusions till date regarding the magnitude of the climate change problem and the urgency of response. The need to bring the US on board in any global regime was felt, as was the need to reflect the changing economic circumstances in the world. Developing countries were keen to stay close to the principles of the UNFCCC that also form the basis for the Kyoto Protocol, particularly the principle of common but differentiated responsibility (CBDR); while the developed world wanted to dilute or remove the differentiation and bring *all* major emitters into a post-2012 regime.

The compromise reached at Bali was the two-track Bali Action Plan, where the developing countries agreed to a weaker formulation of differentiation in the AWG-LCA track; with mitigation obligations of the developing world paralleling rather closely those of the developed; in return for the expectation that the Kyoto track would lead to a strong 2nd commitment period for the Kyoto Protocol. It was hoped, and perhaps foolishly as time now suggests, that this two-track approach could be the basis for a post-2012 regime. Unfortunately, as events have subsequently revealed, there has been virtually no progress on the Kyoto track, with even Parties to Kyoto like Japan indicating their unwillingness for a 2nd commitment period. Clearly the political mandate for converting the BAP into a binding agreement has not been able to produce much of a result. At least in part this is because it was always the expectation of the developing countries that progress in the AWGLCA was contingent on the AWGKP process also producing an acceptable outcome with regard to the 2nd commitment period of the KP.

In fact, the political mandate since Copenhagen has been to further relax the differentiation and boundary conditions for actions of countries and create a more “universal”, “non-differentiated” architecture, where differentiation between countries is more a matter of degree rather than one of principle. The other element of this mandate is the “pledge-and-review” approach, where countries do what they can, with the hope that a more rigorous review process can provide the “ratchet” for countries to keep doing more. This appears to be the current direction in which the AWGLCA track is headed, while at the same time the KP track appears to have reached a dead-end. While this approach certainly seems to meet the test of political feasibility, the evidence is much less clear with regard to the equity implications or environmental effectiveness. With regard to equity, a pledge-and-review approach essentially grandfathers the historical occupation of carbon space by the developed world, and consequently, much more of the mitigation burden would fall on the developing world, if, in fact, we are to meet the 2 C climate target agreed in Cancun. With regard to environmental effectiveness many studies (including the just released “Bridging the Gap” report from UNEP) have pointed out the large gap between where emissions would be if the Copenhagen pledges were implemented, and where emissions need to be in 2020 for the 2 C target.

There is, of course, another approach to a more “universal”, “non-differentiated” regime in which *all* countries participate, and that is a global per-capita based allocation of emission rights consistent with an agreed stabilization target. Such an approach is superior both with regard to environmental effectiveness and equity, though, of course, its political feasibility appears quite remote.

Consequently, Durban presents a rather critical point of divergence with regard to the future of global action on climate change. On the one hand, a pledge and review system and a carbon budget-based approach present two quite divergent visions of an undifferentiated regime. On the other hand, we may have reached the boundary of what is possible while staying within the letter and spirit of the UNFCCC and the Kyoto Protocol. Perhaps Durban could resurrect the Bali compromise between a pledge and review system with weak differentiation and the top-down, CBDR-based architecture of Kyoto?