Climate change is real. It is scientifically and politically accepted that greenhouse gas emissions by humans, primarily caused by the burning of fossil fuels and deforestation, contribute to warming the planet. The rising temperatures have far-reaching negative consequences, including rising sea levels, the increase of destructive weather events, such as most recently hurricane Sandy (Bloomberg Businessweek titled: ‘It’s global warming, stupid!’). At the same time, scale and speed of climate change remain controversial. There is no consensus on the urgency of the problem.

By Christina Eckes

…but that is by no means easier to answer.

The lack of agreement on urgency might be the main conclusion from the climate change negotiations in Doha, Qatar, between 26 November and 6 December 2012. Parties disagree how quickly they are willing to act and how much they are willing to invest. It would be easy to blame the negotiating parties in Doha but this lack of agreement only reflects the underlying public disagreement. Are we willing to accept short term economic disadvantages in return for the uncertain prospect of a head-start on environmental friendly technologies and an unclear impact on global warming? Many are not, particularly in times of economic crises.

The negotiations in Doha demonstrate that agreeing on the basic problem and the causality does not make it easier to agree on the way and means to tackle the problem. Doha was the stage of last minute attempts to avoid a gap between a first and second commitment period under the Kyoto Protocol – days from the definitive deadline at the end of 2012.

Climate Change and the European Union

Between the 1992 UN Conference on Environment and Development and the 1997 Kyoto Protocol Amendment to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), the Union positioned itself as a leading player in the global debate on curbing greenhouse gas emissions. It participates as a Regional Economic Integration Organisation (REIO) under the UNFCCC – a category created specifically for the EU, which however does not give it voting rights. EU Member States continue to hold these rights individually, but the Union can cast their 27 votes for them. The Kyoto Protocol was at the time of adoption welcomed as a great leap forward for international climate change mitigation. It remains the only international agreement with binding emission reduction targets.

However, the high hopes surrounding the adoption of the Kyoto Protocol have not materialized. In 2009, the Copenhagen Accord failed to include any binding targets, which led immediately to questions on the Union’s ability to take international leadership. The Union certainly did not achieve the international commitments, for which it was aiming. The negotiations only muddle forward – but at least in the right direction. The Cancun Agreements in 2010 adopted a 2 degree Celsius target as a benchmark but equally failed to include legally binding commitments. Many are convinced that the 2 degree target has become illusionary. In 2011, the Durban Platform implemented the Cancun commitments and initiated a process to negotiate a post-2020 climate regime. In Doha last week, 37 developed countries, led by the EU (27 of the 37) and Australia, signed up for a second commitment period until 31 December 2020. They account for about 15% of global greenhouse gas emissions worldwide. Whether you consider this a success depends largely on your expectations. The talks continue: new negotiations are scheduled in Warsaw, Poland at the end of 2013. Three more negotiation rounds are left before the parties are due to conclude a new agreement with binding emission reduction obligations for all.

Differentiation in Doha

The most controversial point in the negotiations surrounding the greenhouse gas reduction regime remains the question of differentiation. The Kyoto Protocol crucially applies the principle of Common but Differentiated Responsibilities and Respective Capabilities (CDRRC) set out in Article 3 UNFCCC, which aims at a differential treatment in favour of developing countries amongst others by imposing emission reduction commitments only on industrialized countries and countries with economies in transition. At the same time, it does not address the historical contributions of industrialized countries, by relating industrialized countries’ emission reduction commitments to their 1990 emission levels. This way the Protocol effectively ‘grandfathered’ historic emissions. A central question remains: What is a just and workable differentiation of mitigation commitments? Are these two aims reconcilable?

The on-going international debate has focused for almost two decades on the issue of differentiation. By contrast with the UNFCCC and the Kyoto Protocol, the Durban Platform (concerning mainly the post-2020 period) does not specifically mention the CDRRC principle. This leaves room for debate. One can argue on the one hand that it contains a reference to the UNFCCC as a whole (which sets out the CDRRC) and to the right of developing countries to emit in their path to development. On the other hand, it envisages an ‘agreed outcome with legal force’ ‘applicable to all countries’, which is widely understood to mean that developing countries should in future take on obligations of emission reduction. The Doha outcome, focusing on the period until 2020, makes explicit reference to the CDRRC principle.

The considerable difference in aggregated effect of current mitigation pledges between countries persists. Climate change mitigation, by definition, lacks direct reciprocity. The reduction of emission of one state benefits all. This requires states to make commitments to the public good without being able to avoid free-riding. All states are part of a broader game that is characterised by strong inter-dependency, in which developed countries depend on developing countries to choose a low carbon development path, while (at least some) developing countries will shoulder particularly high costs of climate changes directly related to disproportionately high emissions of developed countries. The aid for climate-related disasters agreed in Doha was carefully phrased to avoid all appearance of responsibility.

A (perceived) lack of reciprocity was also the core reason why the US withdrew from the Kyoto Protocol because China – since 2008 the greatest absolute emitter in absolute terms – did not enter into the mutual exchange of obligations. However, the fact that climate change has an ethical dimension is increasingly accepted. In the Durban negotiations, the US insisted on ‘symmetry’ of obligations between developed and developing countries. In Doha, while opposing equity and any debate on historic emissions it was willing to discuss the ‘fair’ division of mitigation obligations – whatever that will mean in practice.

The Road to Disaster…Path Dependencies and a Modest Reality

International negotiations are often cumbersome – in organisations with near universal membership (the UNFCCC has 195 parties) they appear close to impossible. The Doha Climate Gateway’s main achievement might be that it streamlines the different negotiation limbs and strengthens the framework for future action. Yet, national ratification obstacles linger in the background: it seems more than unlikely that a 2/3 majority in the US Senate could be secured for a binding multilateral environmental treaty. In despair, many people have suggested that only a major disaster could bring about an international agreement on climate change. In the end, public opinion rather than political bargaining will determine how much we are willing to do – and when.

Dr. Christina Eckes is associate professor in EU law at the University of Amsterdam. Currently, Dr. Eckes is Emile Noël Fellow at New York University for the academic year 2012/2013. Her personal page can be accessed here.

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  1. Such a question is closely aligned with “how do we stop the earth spinning”.

    Those ‘rent-a-scientists’ and others who ask such questions are the paid or brainwashed lackies of industries and governments who profit from perverted science, misinformation and disinformation. It ranks as the greatest crime inflicted on humanity.

    The whole GDP of the world for millenia to come will achieve nothing or almost undetectable changes to what is a naturally occurring, cyclical event.

    Not one more penny should be spent on this puerile nonsense and those who continue it should be charged with criminal fraud and stripped of all the income they have derived from their campaign of disinformation.

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