A Mexican standoff at Cancún

«The price of resignation is far too high.»

Robyn Eckersley er årets Arne Næss-gjesteprofessor, og oppholder seg i Norge til over nyttår. Tirsdag deltar hun under stormøtet på Folkets Hus kl 19.30, med videolink fra Cancún.

Eckersley er en av verdens ledende tenkere i krysningsfeltet mellom politisk teori og økologi. Hennes nåværende forskning fokuserer på klimapolitikk, med vekt på internasjonale forhandlinger, rettferdighetsspørsmål knyttet til kvotemarkedet, og WTOs rolle i et klimaperspektiv.

Denne artikkelen, som hun har skrevet i dag, beskriver den geopolitiske bakgrunnen for stillstanden i klimaforhandlingene. Maktbalansen mellom Kina og USA gjør framskritt vanskelig. «It falls to others,» skriver Eckersley, «such as other states, scientists and civil society, to put this crucial question back on the agenda.»


Agenda setting is one of the most powerful ways of shaping politics, and this is true not only for politicians and international negotiators but also for grassroots political movements. As the Cancún negotiators head into their second and final week, it is timely to reflect not only on what is on the agenda, but also what has been kept off.

The multilateral climate negotiations have taken place over a period of significant geopolitical transition.  In 1992, when the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) was signed, the US stood as the sole superpower and pre-eminent western leader after the collapse of the Soviet Union.   Today, the US shows many of the hallmarks of a declining power.  Faced with a more assertive developing country bloc, headed by China, the US is more preoccupied with maintaining its relative power than with exercising leadership of the kind it provided in the aftermath of the Second World War.  Instead of leading in the provision of the global public good of climate protection the US is arguing that others should do more.  The EU, not the US, is the recognized climate leader.

A tragic and dangerous stalemate between the world’s two biggest emitters frames the climate negotiations at Cancún.  In the classic Mexican standoff, both parties face each other with guns drawn, waiting to see who will make the first move.  At Cancún, the stand-off is playing out a little differently.  The US and China are standing at yet another cross-roads in the long and arduous climate negotiations, but neither is prepared to take the rapid and steep mitigation path that will hold global warming below two degrees.  Instead, they are opting for relatively easy routes and have spent the last year lowering international expectations about what can be achieved at Cancún. Their Copenhagen pledges, if translated into a common metric of emissions intensity targets, are uncannily similar. It is as if the G2 decided to reach a private draw on their general level of climate ambition while publicly issuing taunts such as: ‘I won’t go further if you don’t go further’.

One of the hopes of the Cancún meeting is that the pledges made after the Copenhagen meeting will be formally adopted as a decision of the Conference of the Parties (COP).   In diplomatic speak, this would be a considerable achievement.  But for our children, this is nothing short of a tragedy because even if all Copenhagen pledges were to be fully implemented, they would not hold temperatures at 2 degrees.  They are more likely to usher in 3-4 degrees or higher.  This is entering the realm of dangerous climate change that will usher in untold human suffering for vulnerable communities, increasing insecurity for rich and poor, and a major wave of species extinctions.

The primary purpose of the climate regime is to prevent dangerous climate change, yet the question of whether the Copenhagen pledges are likely to achieve this basic goal has been kept off the official Cancún agenda.   Instead, what is on the agenda for the negotiating track on long-term cooperative action are nuts and bolts issues like the financial commitment of the rich countries, how to ensure individual country commitments are ‘measurable, reportable and verifiable (MRV), adaptation, reduced emissions from deforestation and forest degradation (REDD), technology transfer and capacity building.  The best that diplomats hope for is a ‘balanced package’ of commitments on some or all of these items.   These commitments will serve as building blocks towards a more comprehensive agreement that may, if all goes well, be concluded a year later when the parties meet in Durban, South Africa.

However, hopes for an agreement on a second commitment period to the Kyoto Protocol are looking increasingly unlikely following Japan’s bombshell announcement in the middle of the first week that it will never agree to inscribe its Copenhagen pledges in Annex B of the Kyoto Protocol.  If Kyoto’s very own host now wishes to disown the agreement it presided over in 1997, then the future of integrated carbon markets, including the Clean Development Mechanism, is now looking shaky.  Japan has clearly aligned itself with the US in focussing its energy on a single-track negotiation of an agreement on long-term cooperative action that moves beyond the Kyoto framework. However, the US’s preferred ‘bottom-up’ pledge and review approach simply leaves it to individual countries to pledge what they can manage.  This approach is guided by domestic political constraints and geopolitical rivalry, not science, and therefore cannot deliver a safe climate.  China and the G77 wish to uphold the Kyoto Protocol because its places the onus of mitigation on developed countries.  The EU is caught in the middle of this stand-off and is desperately looking for ways to break or bridge the impasse. But this will not be easy, because the stand-off between the US and China is longstanding and deep-seated

The most fundamental source of disagreement between the G2 relates to the meaning and operation of the UNFCCC’s burden sharing norms of ‘common but differentiated responsibility’, which impose a legal obligation on developed states to take the lead owing to their greater historical responsibility, capacity and per capita emissions.  On these eminently fair criteria, the US bears the biggest responsibility to lead the way. Whereas China has led the G77 in steadfastly holding the developed world to these principles, the US has always contested them.  It rejected the Kyoto Protocol because it absolves developing countries of mitigation obligations.  According to the US framing of the problem, it is about mathematics, not morality.  The US has insisted that the world has changed since the UNFCCC was negotiated, and that the Copenhagen Accord’s aspirational goal of preventing warming of more than 2 degrees cannot be achieved without significant mitigation commitments from both the developed world and the major emerging emitters in the developing world, particularly China. The EU also recognizes the maths, but unlike the US, it also acknowledges its moral obligation to lead.

The problem for the Obama administration is that it has its hands tied by a hostile Congress.  US legislators have been unable to pass an emissions trading scheme, or even a narrower energy bill.  The Obama administration will therefore have to find other ways of reaching the US’s relatively modest Copenhagen pledge if it wishes to convince China that it is shouldering some responsibility even according to its own muted rendering of the burden sharing principles.  One card up the administration’s sleeve is the US EPA’s power under the existing Clean Air Act to regulate CO2 emissions for utilities and transport. However, President Obama has never made climate change a number one priority. Nor has he employed his significant oratory skills to change the hearts and minds of Americans so they can respond to climate change as a moral challenge.  That will have to change if the US expects China to do more.

For its part, China says it has already undertaken ambitious national policies to reduce its emissions intensity and energy efficiency, for which the US has not given it due credit.  However, it will not commit to mandatory emissions reduction targets, and at Copenhagen it refused to commit to a 2050 global emissions reduction target or a timetable for the peaking of global emissions because of its unfulfilled development needs.  China also made it clear that it would not allow its national climate policies to be the subject of international inspection on the grounds that it is not obliged to undertake international, as distinct from nationally appropriate, commitments.  The US has argued that it will not commit funding to those developing countries that are not prepared to ensure that their national actions are ‘measureable, reportable and verifiable’.  The problem was papered over in the Copenhagen Accord and there are signs that a compromise may be reached at Cancún.

When expectations are lowered, even modest agreements can be hailed as a breakthrough.  However, if the G2 have succeeded in keeping off the agenda the crucial question concerning the adequacy of mitigation commitments, then it falls to others, such as other states, scientists and civil society, to put this crucial question back on the agenda.  The price of resignation is far too high.

Robyn Eckersley

Oslo, 5 December 2010






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