15 December, 2011

The Durban Platform: a political analysis

Sergio Abranches

Why the Durban Platform is a political breakthrough, but a dismal outcome in the light of climate science?

The second part of the question is far easier to answer. Negotiators in Durban have agreed to review the pledges for emissions reductions in the second commitment period under the Kyoto Protocol and Cancun Agreement by 2015 in the light of the fifth assessment report on the state of science, to be released by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change from September 2013. However, as the IPCC said on a press statement about COP17, “in its fourth assessment report published in 2007, the IPCC showed that a temperature increase of 2 degrees Celsius could have a damaging effect on water supplies, biodiversity, food supplies, coastal flooding and storms and health.”

Additionally, the IPCC also states that:

“The fourth assessment report shows that emissions of the greenhouse gases that contribute to global warming must fall by 2050 by 50-85% globally compared to the emissions of the year 2000, and that global emissions must peak well before the year 2020, with a substantial decline after that, in order to limit the growth in global average temperatures to 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels.”

From the standpoint of science Durban has decided on too little too late.

In the political realm, though, COP17 was a watershed. First of all, it closes a whole chapter of negotiations on commitment periods under the Kyoto Protocol. There will be only a second one, with fewer ratifiers than the first. COP18 will still have to decide whether it will end by 2017 or 2020. There has been no consensus on the end date, and the alternatives ended up within brackets. But the main point has been resolved: it will be replaced by a new “protocol, another legal instrument or an agreed outcome with legal force under the Convention applicable to all Parties”, no later than 2020. That’s the core decision contained in the Durban Platform.

The above expression is a political breakthrough, one that has been progressively taking shape since COP15, in Copenhagen. There, for the first time ever, the United States and the BASIC countries (Brazil, South Africa, India and China) have agreed to offer quantified pledges for emission reductions under the United Nations Climate Convention (UNFCCC). They were voluntary, not legally binding, but they have been formally registered with UNFCCC”s Executive Secretariat. It was a major first step and, at the same time, a frustrating decision.

Much more was expected from the leaders of both developed, and emerging world powers. Besides, the leaders left abruptly, creating an authority gap, between the political summit and the official Conference of the Parties. A weak COP presidency and the resulting authority gap led the plenary to only “take note” of what the leaders had agreed. The Copenhagen Accord was noted as a political decision, but did not become an “official” agreement under the track of the Convention.

The second step towards the breakthrough was made in Cancun. The pledges under the Copenhagen Accord were adopted by the Cancun Agreement, that has also made official several other decisions made in Copenhagen, as well as some that were left to be finalized by COP16, in Mexico. In Cancun, the voluntary commitments became official ones, under the umbrella of the Climate Convention.

In Durban, negotiators from the United States, the BASIC group, and the European Union underlined the official nature of the Cancun Agreement, as a preparation of the groundwork for the Platform to launch the process leading to the new universal agreement with legal force applicable to all parties to the Climate Convention. In a nutshell, it was acknowledged by all relevant parties that these commitments are legal, although not binding. The difference: the Kyoto Protocol, besides being a legal instrument, explicitly states that the targets for the countries (“industrialized countries”) listed on its Annex I are mandatory. The Cancun Agreement is part and parcel of the Climate Convention, therefore it has legal status, but the commitments registered by the parties are voluntary, not mandatory.

Finally, the Durban Platform takes the decisive step: it commits all major emitters outside the Kyoto Protocol to the negotiation of a new agreement with legal force, under which all commitments will have the same legal treatment, although they could be quantitatively differentiated on the basis of each party’s capacities.

This is not an easy decision to make. Even before it is formally adopted it is likely to cause the countries to start planning domestic actions to enable them to meet the targets yet to be defined. It is unrealistic to imagine, as some environmentalists do, that a “top down approach”, by which a decision under the Climate Convention would bind countries to take actions, would ever work.

Even the Kyoto Protocol praised for its “legally binding” status has no enforcement mechanism. What enforcement mechanism could lead Canada to meet its targets for the first period of commitment next year? None at all. Even with UN officials stating that although outside the Protocol it still has the obligation, Canada will likely fail to meet its Kyoto target, and there will hardly be any consequence to its noncompliance.

Politics hardly moves ahead of the facts. It is not a proactive process. It is a responsive one. Politics responds to active interests in economy and society. It seldom reflects even the “inactive majority” or the majority of “public opinion”. Political decisions respond to “active interest groups”, to economic constraints and inducements, and to the domestic correlation of power. Countries that show greater ambition of emissions reductions also have greater active political support from domestic economic and social forces to policies aiming at coping with climate change. Their domestic policies are usually more ambitious than their multilateral commitments.

If one looks at China’s domestic policies to reduce emissions and other forms of pollution, one will easily see that they are far ahead of what Chinese lead negotiators are willing to commit to at the Climate Convention.

Politics, in this sense, consolidates what countries are ripe to commit to at the multilateral level. The approach that really counts, and leads to progress in the negotiations under the Climate Convention is the bottom up one.

What is meaningful and relevant about the Durban process is that over the last three years major developed and emerging countries have become readier to admit to the possibility of a single climate change regime encompassing them all. The US, China, India, and Brazil said that much several times during COP17, and signed into it at the end. This outcome was not guaranteed at the outset of the climate talks. It was the result of intense negotiation and consultation. Negotiators have likely had to obtain a specific mandate from their leaders, in mid-game, to go as far as they’ve gone.

What will happen next will depend on what happens inside each of these countries. The focus of pressure should be domestic politics, rather than diplomatic undertakings. Not that the COP process doesn’t matter. It does, very much. But its main function is not to shape climate change policies to be adopted domestically. It is to consolidate progress on domestic climate change policies at the multilateral level, adding cross-country constraints and global transparency to the agreed actions. This enables, for instance, a network of domestic and global civil society organizations to join forces to act as watchdogs, to ensure that policies are in line with targets. It does make a difference to have a global accounting system for greenhouse gas emissions, and to have a global registry for quantitative targets for emission reductions. These outcomes would strengthen the multilateral regulatory system, and would also give more punch to domestic pressure from civil society and opposition parties in overseeing their government’s implementation of climate change policies.

The year 2015 has become a new milestone for global climate change politics. Two crucial decisions shall be taken at COP21, if the Durban Platform is to be completed. Firstly, the review of the emission reduction commitments to seek coherence with the 2 degrees Celsius target. As pointed before, it is absolutely sure that the new IPCC report will show a serious gap between committed actions and warming trends. If parties are to take their commitments seriously, they’ll have to revise their targets upwards for the period 2015-2020. Secondly, they’ll have to decide on the new “protocol, another legal instrument or an agreed outcome with legal force under the Convention applicable to all Parties” to be adopted no later than 2020.

The political engine is set to move. The pace and destination it will take will depend on the evolution of domestic economic and social forces over the next three years. Another important factor will be the domestic interplay of interests, and the power of pressure and advocacy groups. Bilateral and multilateral politics do have a role, but never a dominant one. Competition and coalition among nations and groups of nations, also help in shaping decisions. They’ll help to pave the way to future outcomes. But they do so by responding to domestic interests and projecting them on the global arena.

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