Bureaucrats clash on shape of climate deal

The devil is in the detail ahead of next month's summit, as representatives of 192 countries struggle to reconcile their often conflicting priorities. Michael McCarthy reports

Bureaucratic detail should be the last thing that prevents an agreement to save the planet from climate change. After all, the outline of the issue is simple: every government in the world now accepts that the amount of carbon dioxide being emitted from human sources will lead to a disastrous overheating of the atmosphere, if it is not checked.

But argument over bureaucratic detail may yet prevent a new global climate deal being struck in Copenhagen next month: the nature of the agreement itself is still subject to sharply variant views among the 192 countries who are coming together to negotiate it.

For even if the imperative is clear, and recognised by all, national self-interest guides a different response to it in different nations, and the great trick to pull off in the Danish capital will be for all countries to put aside just enough self-interest to agree.

The problem they face – in bureaucratic terms – is how exactly a new climate treaty should be structured, and the issue in everyone's minds, so far unresolved, is how it should relate to the present treaty, the Kyoto Protocol, signed in 1997, and due to run out (if it is not renewed) on 31 December 2012.

Kyoto has great strengths and great weaknesses. Its strengths are that it commits the rich industrialised countries to quantified cuts in their carbon emissions by a given date, and that it is legally binding in international terms.

Its weaknesses are that these cuts are nowhere near big enough to get a hold on the expected warming, that the developing countries, led by China and India, are not required under Kyoto to cut their own now-burgeoning emissions, and that the United States, the world's leading carbon emitter until China recently overtook it, is no longer part of the protocol. George Bush withdrew the US from Kyoto in 2001, because his administration considered it gave an unfair advantage to China and other US economic competitors.

These weaknesses are enough to ensure that Kyoto now represents an inadequate response to the heightened climate threat which was made clear in the fourth report of the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), published in the spring of 2007.

The IPCC report said that warming of the atmosphere was now "unequivocal" and that there was a better than nine of out 10 chance that human actions were causing it; if it continued, the report said, the global average temperature could rise by as much as 4C (or even in the extreme case, 6C) by 2100, which would, in effect, make human life on Earth impossible.

The response to this warning was hugely significant. First, it was accepted by the Americans; even the Bush administration, for so long climate sceptics supreme, felt unable to deny the science any longer, and formally endorsed the report (at Valencia, in November 2007). Second, the world community as a whole realised that a new beginning had to be made, and this was done in the subsequent UN climate conference held in December 2007 in Bali, Indonesia.

The Bali conference agreed to negotiate a renewal of the Kyoto Protocol when it ran out, providing a "second commitment period" for member states to undertake emissions cuts, from 2013. But also, in response to Kyoto's obvious weaknesses, it agreed to work towards a wholly new climate treaty, which would a) involve the US; b) oblige China, India and the other developing countries to cut their own emissions; c) compensate the developing countries for doing this; and d) set a very ambitious level of new medium-term targets for the rich countries, in an attempt to hold the warming to below the danger threshold of C above the pre-industrial level.

The IPCC told the conference that the medium-term targets should be cuts in CO2 of 25 to 40 per cent below 1990 levels by 2020, and although this was not written into the Bali declaration, it is generally accepted as the "ballpark" figure of the cuts that the rich countries need to make.

For the past two years, these two aims – a renewed version of the Kyoto Protocol, and a wholly new agreement involving the US, developing country cuts, developing country compensation and tough new targets – have been negotiated, side by side, in separate but parallel streams of talks, with the work for the new treaty generally known as the Bali Action Plan, or the Bali Road Map.

The issue is, what happens now? What is next month's Copenhagen agreement to consist of? A new version of Kyoto, plus something else? The dropping of Kyoto, but the incorporation of its best features into a new, Bali-road-map climate treaty? Or a new climate treaty without any reference to Kyoto whatsoever?

Mind-numbingly abstract as these three choices might seem to any of us going about our daily lives, the argument over them is very real, and its resolution is key to the success of a Copenhagen climate deal. The developing countries, collectively known as the G77+China, are insistent that the Kyoto Protocol be renewed, and its rich country member states sign up for new emissions cuts from 2013 onwards.

They like it because it is legally-binding internationally, with compliance mechanisms which mean errant states can be forced back in line, and with internationally agreed ways of counting carbon (for example, how much carbon is in an acre of forest?). They feel it will stop rich countries backsliding from their commitments.

The EU states, including Britain, want to move on from Kyoto to a new treaty based on the Bali action plan, which would keep Kyoto's essence, that is, it would be legally binding internationally, with a compliance mechanism and international rules for carbon accounting.

The USA wants nothing to do with Kyoto or its architecture. It has put forward a wholly new model for a climate deal in which countries would set out what they are going to do without being bound by international compliance regimes, or international carbon accounting. The US was never going to come back into Kyoto after President Bush withdrew from it – such a move would not be accepted by the US Congress – but it is now clear it wants nothing even vaguely resembling the protocol. The US, we may remember, has always had an aversion to subjecting itself to international law.

So what is the Copenhagen deal to consist of? Who is to give way? When the last session of negotiations before the Danish summit closed on Friday evening in Barcelona, and the last delegate had eaten his last tapas and drunk his last glass of rioja, the question remained unresolved.

There are a number of other potential deal-breakers looming for the meeting which begins on 7 December. As we indicated last week, the gap on financial help for climate change, between what the developing world wants and the rich world is prepared to give, is enormous. And President Obama's willingness to commit the US to an ambitious mid-term target for CO2 is crucial.

But if the bureaucratic part of it all, the boring old bureaucracy, cannot be resolved, the Copenhagen deal is going nowhere.

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