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VIDEO: The Quest for a Global Climate Deal

27 Apr 2013

Ahead of a critical UNFCC climate change conference in Bonn in April 2013, this new video considers a dilemma that currently faces world leaders: How can a global deal be reached to tackle climate change? It explores some of the key choices to be made in the context of the Durban Platform, for example on the level of ambition and burden-sharing, and looks in particular at the role of the EU in negotiating a new deal.

International climate negotiations are expected to intensify this year after something of a post-Durban hiatus. The European Commission recently launched a consultation paper, which opens the debate within the EU on the design of a new 2015 international climate change agreement. 

The failure of the Copenhagen Conference in 2009 was superseded to some extent by the modest success for the EU at Durban in December 2011. The Durban Platform for Enhanced Action set in motion a process - to be completed by 2015 - with the ultimate objective of delivering a top-down, legally binding emissions reduction agreement to cover all countries, which will come into force in 2020. The agreement will have to bring together “the current patchwork of binding and non-binding arrangements under the UN climate convention and the Kyoto Protocol into a single comprehensive regime,” according to the European Commission.

It is no surprise that, following Durban, the core components of the EU’s approach are intact, albeit with hints of flexibility built into various dimensions.

In its consultation, the European Commission acknowledges the usefulness of the ‘bottom-up’ pledge-making process agreed at Copenhagen in 2009. For the first time, the US, China, India, Brazil, South Africa, the EU and others committed at international level to specific domestic climate policies as part of the same initiative. The pledges were, however, voluntary, conditional and wholly insufficient to avoid dangerous climate change. 

The Commission continues to argue in its consultatation paper that only a legally binding treaty will drive the necessary level of ambition, and the global transition to a low carbon economy. This is a position that it more or less coaxed its negotiating partners into at Durban, albeit at the cost of delaying real action.

The consultation asks nine questions of stakeholders. Some of these, which offer particular insights into the Commission’s thinking, are explored below.

The first question asks how the ambition gap can be filled. With the world’s poorest countries now accepting emissions cuts, there will be increasing pressure on the US, China, India and others to do likewise. Interestingly, the consultation acknowledges that the required step-up in ambition is unlikely to be achieved as early as 2015. The Commission seems to envisage a more organic agreement which could be adjusted dynamically, “enabling the regular review and, inevitably, strengthening of ambition”. This seems a wise approach. It is a useful flexibility to enable countries to come in on the ground level of an agreement, and perhaps in light of technological progress (in the areas of shale gas and renewables, for example) to facilitate a further step up in ambition in due course.

The third question requests input around how an agreement could “encourage complementary processes and initiatives, including those carried out by non-state actors”. The international process has been often been criticised for ignoring the efforts of stakeholders, citizens and government at sub-national level. In addition to formal mitigation pledges, the EU and a number of other countries are proposing to enhance ambition through 'international cooperative initiatives' (ICIs) involving governments, civil society and the private sector (see this blog by Ryan Meade on the failure of ICI’s to achieve recognition at Doha in 2012). These initiatives could involve sectoral approaches focused on the aviation and maritime sectors, or on F-gases, for example. Innovative thinking about how these efforts could be better tapped and integrated into the international process is required. It is certainly a departure from Kyoto to envisage an international treaty that could combine targets for countries with cross-sectoral and sub-national initiatives. 

The fourth question pertains to developing criteria and principles for establishing what is an equitable and fair distribution of the emissions reduction burden. As the IIEA previously illustrated, this is another thorny issue. There are various conceivable criteria, each with their champions. An interesting point made in the consultation is that thirty-two countries that are considered ‘developing countries’ under the UNFCCC have a higher per capita GDP than the EU Member State with the lowest per capita GDP! It also points out that China’s per capita CO2 emissions in 2010 were almost on par with those of the EU. Engaging with these new realities will not be easy. 

The seventh question asks how countries can be held accountable if they fail to meet their commitments. This is a key question. A legally binding treaty which countries can withdraw from without sanction to avoid fines (as was the case with Canada) is of questionable value. On the other hand effective enforcement procedures are likely to make the agreement of a treaty more intractable.

The Commission also addresses the shortcomings of the UNFCCC process itself in the eighth question. Here it raises issues around the way decisions are reached at Conferences of the Parties (COPs), and indeed the wisdom of hosting an annual COP; the role of the UNFCCC secretariat; and the more effective integration of expert and stakeholder voices. 

While the EU is therefore pushing ahead with its preferred top-down, legally binding approach, there is room for a radical new kind of agreement in several respects. The agreement that may eventually emerge has the potential to be far more complex, multi-faceted and comprehensive than its predecessor. And yet, somewhat contradictorily, this could make it easier to come to an agreement. 

In a similar move to the pre-Copenhagen setting out of stalls, the Commission also launched a Green Paper on its own internal 2030 package, which proposes an emissions reduction target for 2030 (a approach supported by the European Parliament). If agreed this would be something for the EU to put on the table at in 2015 negotiations. According to European Commissioner for Climate Action, Connie Hedegaard, “It would be a mistake to wait till after that and arrive to the international negotiations empty handed.”

There is a concern in some quarters that the 2030 package will be more difficult to agree than the 2020 package. Commissioner Hedegaard has faced resistance both within the Commission and from Member States such as Poland. Critics argue that new targets should only be set once new international emissions reductions are made at UN level in 2015.  

It is true that without EU leadership – and this probably involves arriving to 2015 negotiations with a target in the back pocket – talks may flounder. On the other hand, it was evident at Copenhagen that playing your hand fully before you have arrived runs the risk of making yourself irrelevant. It would seem wise that the EU therefore keeps a few tricks up its sleeve for 2015, including room to maneuver on emissions pledges, arrangements for climate finance, technology transfer, and REDD (Reduced Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation). 

The European Commission consultation will run until the end of June 2013.


This content forms part of the Environment Nexus project, which is co-financed bDG Communication of the European Parliament.

As an independent forum, the Institute does not express any opinions of its own. The views expressed in the article are the sole responsibility of the author.

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