The Great Escape

Or “How they help us help ourselves lose the fight”

by Anjali Appadurai

Is the climate regime unraveling before our eyes in Durban?

There are some scary indications that it is. Some Parties are “cautiously optimistic” (India), some are “reasonably optimistic” (Brazil) and some believe that this is all going down the drain (a different Indian negotiator). The truth is, expectations are all over the place at this particular COP. So much hangs in the balance – the future of the Kyoto Protocol, the establishment of a Green Climate Fund, the launching of a new Technology Mechanism, a new Adaptation Committee , the founding principles of the Convention itself – and negotiators have so much at stake that they could really go either way on these issues.

The biggest topic on the table at the moment is the question of the “Durban Mandate”, a phantom whose two-faced visage hangs over the negotiations, gaining strength by the day. Like Samuli wrote,  there are several shapes this Mandate could take. The idea I’ll deal with in this post is that developed countries would sign an entirely new treaty under the LCA, leaving the Kyoto Protocol behind and starting afresh, while developing countries would take on their own commitments as per their abilities. The US has expressed that in order for them to sign this treaty, it would have to include all “major emitters” – namely India and China. India has all but blocked this prospect, eliciting backlash from various groups (more on that later).

What are the problems with such a new treaty? Well, there are several. First off, as AOSIS, Africa Group and BASIC emphasize – we already have a treaty. The Bali Action Plan is a COP decision, which under the UNFCCC is legally-binding in the fullest sense of the word. The BAP, intended to supplement the KP,  seemed to be a fair deal – Annex 1 (developed countries) would continue with the KP and reduce emissions by 40%, the US would do something comparable but not as binding under the LCA (this is called ‘shared vision’) and developing countries would act according to their abilities. Ditching the Bali Action Plan in favour of something new would simply be a way for A1 countries to be let off the hook while appearing to be committed to emission reduction action. The key here is that any new treaty would be based upon a “pledge and review” (PAR) system, which removes binding obligations based upon historical responsibility (one of the foundational principles of the Convention). Is it worth it to abandon our existing frameworks (BAP, KP)? Does it not send the message that we have failed in what we set out to do? There are four developed-country scenarios for the PAR system – they range from “low-end pledges with loopholes” (the worst) to “high-end pledges without loopholes” (the best). Under the first scenario, pledges could be as low as -6% emissions reductions. That’s an increase in emissions by 6%! Even if developed countries didn’t use the loopholes and kept to their pledges, it would still be very difficult to achieve global peaking of GHG emissions by 2015, which is what we want. The PAR system could work in some type of world in which countries understood the scope and urgency of the problem, but in this world, the pledges are too low, the action too weak, and the system ineffective.

The Durban Mandate – the way it’s being talked about – is a great escape. It opens the back door for A1 countries to run away from their commitments completely, while still maintaining face.

On a parallel track – the future of the Kyoto Protocol is the future of the mitigation regime as a whole. This is inextricably linked to the issue of the Durban Mandate. The second commitment period of the KP is not negotiable – when countries signed onto the KP back in ’97, it was directly implied that they would continue their commitments through a second commitment period. Furthermore, in the original negotiations about the KP second commitment period, all countries agreed to adopt the IPCC science-based reports that called for 25-40% reductions as an aggregate target.

A misconception was spread prior to this conference that the KP “expires” in 2012. Terms like “post-Kyoto” have been floating around in various places, subtly shaping expectations for the outcome in Durban. There was talk (and still is) of a “political second commitment period”, which would comprise a period of time resembling a commitment period during which PAR would be the basis for emissions reductions. At this point in the negotiations, it would be embarrassing for A1 countries to abandon the Protocol altogether (although Canada, Japan and Russia don’t seem to mind). It looks like they’ll put it on life support for a little while – a way to showcase its haggard face as a success of Durban: Look! We kept the KP alive! We are the heroes of the climate regime.

The form this takes is the “EU roadmap”: take on a second commitment period, but with huge conditions. Involve the “major emitters”. We’ll talk about further steps in 2015 or 2020 when it’s too late.

This shaping of expectations, then grand unveiling of a roadmap that seems great but is really the biggest sellout of the conference is particularly harmful because it affects the perception of civil society as well. NGOs have started to support the EU roadmap and call for BASIC countries (who are for the most part opposed to it, especially India) to support it. In a press briefing with India just a few days ago, several different members of civil society (from environmental groups or the press) asked the same question in an accusatory tone: why won’t India comply with the EU’s “legally-binding treaty”? India’s reply was consistent: perhaps we haven’t made ourselves clear enough, but we are not major emitters – we are an enormous country with a very small per-capita carbon footprint, and to put us at the same level as A1 countries is to undermine the very principles of the Convention and to shift the focus of obligation to developing countries.

And right they are.

To push forward the idea that the purpose of Durban is to create a new treaty is a grand sellout. It’s a great escape because the strategy employed is that of “divide and conquer”, wherein countries sell out one by one like dominoes, upending any consolidated effort from groups such as the G77.

It’s a great escape because cleverly disguised policies convince our “own” people to help us lose the fight. Misinformation, lopsided media attention and subtle messaging get across ideas that are harmful to the support we should be giving – as civil society – to constructive, responsible, ambitious policies. I’m sure we are victims of the same game in many ways. I know that my understanding of these issues is not whole or complete or as well-informed as I’d like it to be. But as civil society we must make it our imperative to acknowledge that and strive to support the fairest, most ambitious actions being taken at the UNFCCC today.

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