Skip to content

As the dust from Durban settles, the mountain left for world governments to climb to agree a new global climate treaty by 2015 is coming sharply into focus. The generous rhetoric of the UN climate conference last December is rapidly giving way to the defensive language of entrenched positions. China and India appear to see little role for themselves in helping to do what needs to be done to avoid dangerous climate change, the US is pussyfooting, post-Fukushima Japan is helpless and countries like Australia, Russia and Canada show no signs of wanting to step up their pledges. All this leaves international climate policy in a perilous state. Hope rests mostly on initiatives that lie outside the scope of the climate negotiations, reports Sonja van Renssen.

By 28 February, countries all around the world were supposed to submit their first follow-up reports to the last big UN climate conference in Durban, South Africa, last December. These reports have to focus on what remains the most pressing issue in global climate policy: how to close the gap between current emission reduction pledges for 2020 and the reduction levels needed to maintain a good chance of keeping global warming to two degrees Celsius. The UN Environment Programme (UNEP) last November issued a report showing that this gap (the so-called gigatonne gap) is bigger than it’s ever been, growing from 5-9 gigatonnes of CO2-equivalent in 2010 to 6-11 gigatonnes in 2011. UNEP also said the gap can still be closed at a cost of US$25-54 per tonne of CO2-equivalent, with the bulk of the extra cuts coming from a faster switch to renewables, more energy efficiency improvements and fuel switching.

In Durban, world governments postponed greater emission cuts to 2020 by agreeing that’s when a new global climate treaty would take effect. Yet they also acknowledged the gigatonne gap and agreed to start debating what to do about it. Scientists at Climate Analytics, Ecofys and the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research (PIK) warned policymakers that if current emission reduction pledges are maintained to 2020, emission cuts of 3.8% a year will be necessary until 2050, whereas if emission reductions were on the right 2°C pathway to 2020, then a reduction rate of only 2% a year to 2050 will be necessary. Yet it is the first scenario which seems more likely to come true.

Hard-line language

By mid-March only 19 countries had submitted their views on closing the gigatonne gap to the Bonn-based UN body that manages international climate negotiations, the UNFCCC (United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change). The reports make for sobering reading. Gone is the spirit of compromise, of openness, of flexibility trumpeted in South Africa last December. In its place we find a return to the hard-line language of long-held positions.

The best example of a return to the rhetoric of old is China. China was the NGO-darling of the Durban talks, earning praise for its new willingness to engage and apparent openness to taking on internationally binding mitigation commitments as part of a new global climate treaty. This was the key demand of the both the EU and US, that a new treaty must include legally binding emission reduction commitments for all countries, even if their scale is different, in line with the Kyoto Protocol’s principle of common but differentiated responsibilities.

China let the world believe it was open to the idea, although some representatives from other countries were sceptical at the time. ‘Let me hear that in the negotiating room, let me see that in the negotiating text’, Joseph Gilbert, foreign minister of Grenada and chair of the Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS), told reporters. China’s charm offensive cracked in the final plenary when it sided with India in speaking out against an apparent blurring of the distinction between developed and developing countries. ‘We are doing what we should be doing,’ China’s lead negotiator Xie Zhenhua told the plenary. ‘We are taking actions. We want to see your actions.’

India’s environment minister Jayanthi Natarajan made an impassioned accusation that the proposal on the table contravened the sacred principle of common but differentiated responsibilities.

Exactly these sentiments are echoed in the latest reports by China and India to the UNFCCC, as if the two weeks of talks in Durban and their final compromise text on a new treaty – ‘an agreed outcome with legal force’ – never happened. China in its one-and-a-half page submission emphasizes the ‘historical responsibility’ of developed countries to tackle climate change, concluding that: ‘The key to increase the level of ambitions to reduce emissions lies with the developed country parties.’ Developing countries have already undertaken the ‘greatest efforts’ with ‘contributions to mitigation… much greater than those of developed country parties’.

India stresses the principle of common but differentiated responsibilities and says the discussion for increased mitigation at global level is one for after 2020. Between now and 2020, it is developed

We’ll do what we can but don’t expect too much

countries who must increase their emission reduction pledges so that they fall within the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)’s recommended cut of 25-40% relative to 1990 levels, India says. Both China and India are prepared to discuss more action from their side only if financial and technological support from developed countries materializes, they say.

This puts these countries squarely on a collision course with the EU, which in its submission to the UNFCCC says that it wants all countries to participate in closing the ambition gap before 2020. It wants the next global climate agreement to include mitigation commitments from ‘in particular’ major economies ‘taking into account that responsibilities and capabilities are differentiated but evolve over time’. The EU, as in Durban, finds support for its position in the submissions of AOSIS and the Least Developed Countries (LDCs), which call for fast action to increase ambitions, in particular from developed countries, but also from developing countries in line with their capabilities and support.

Full story