Reflections from the Major Economies/Emitters Forum

Surprising as it may seem, an intergovernmental forum founded by President George W. Bush – and intended as two fingers up at the UN climate change process – has evolved into something quite useful and interesting. I have just returned from the Major Emitters Economies Forum in Brussels, where the Maldives (for whom I act as climate advisor) was attending as an observer, as the big guys discussed the future of the Kyoto Protocol and other salient issues in the climate negotiations.

Bush must be fuming, because the MEF is now all about the UN process: the agenda bore a striking resemblance to the one discussed recently in Bangkok, as did many of the participants. However, this was a higher-level meeting, with ministers (or minister-level participants) in attendance from the US, China, the UK, Australia, Japan and the EU. The Chair’s Summary circulated at the end of the two-day talks was purposefully bland, but the press reports (e.g. the NYT) pretty much got the right idea – my overwhelming impression was that the prospect of a legally-binding deal being agreed at the next COP in Durban this December is not substantially higher than zero.

The major underlying theme – which arose in all aspects of the discussions, from finance to Kyoto – was how to adapt the climate regime, which was essentially set up in 1992, to today’s very different world. A head of delegation from one of the big developed countries (not a Kyoto party) produced some quite striking figures: China’s GDP is six times larger today than in 1992, whilst its CO2 emissions are four times larger, and its per-capita emissions 3.5 times higher. He was careful to say that this is to be applauded, for China’s development miracle has lifted hundreds of millions out of poverty and ranks as one of history’s greatest economic achievements. But it also casts the Kyoto Protocol – which another rich-country speaker reminded delegates now covers a mere 17% of global emissions – in a very different light.

(Background: The 1992 Climate Convention divided nations between Annex 1 and non-Annex 1, with the former being developed and the latter being developing. The problem now is that several original non-Annex 1 parties have joined the OECD (the rich nations’ club), and many more have higher per-capita incomes than many Annex 1 countries (particularly those in Eastern Europe) do today. Yet under Kyoto only Annex 1 parties took on legally-binding emissions caps.)

The need for reform has been clear for a while, which was why the Bali Action Plan of 2007 established the idea of ‘nationally appropriate mitigation actions’ (NAMAs) for developing countries. The great unsolved question of today is how far these NAMAs might evolve into legally-binding, economy-wide emissions curbs in at least major emitting countries like China, India, Brazil, Korea, Mexico and others, which Kyoto parties like Japan, Canada and Russia insist is necessary to rebalance the climate change regime. For their part, the big developing countries are fighting a tough rearguard action to protect the ‘firewall’ established in 1992 between Annex 1 and non-Annex 1 countries, and insist that their national carbon-reduction efforts are voluntary and always will be.

The MEF, whilst being a surprisingly open and forthright discussion (certainly by the standards of intergovernmental meetings) essentially made no progress on this vexed question. The big developing countries retort (rightly in scientific terms) that what counts for the climate is not annual emissions but the accumulated carbon stock currently in the atmosphere, for which developed countries still bear the overwhelming responsibility. What is not clear is that this absolves the likes of China and India from acting to reduce their future emissions – as the Maldives’ President Nasheed said in Copenhagen in 2009: “Two wrongs don’t make a right”.

We could of course go on negotiating about this for decades, rather like the trade talks, were it not for the fact that every year that passes makes the achievement of the 2 degrees global goal agreed at Cancun – still less the 1.5 degrees maximum temperature rise preferred by small island and other vulnerable countries – less and less plausible scientifically. Here you’ll find the big guys on the same side: neither the US nor China want to see an early peaking of global emissions, or an eventual stabilisation of atmospheric CO2 at the most-likely ‘safe’ level of 350ppm.

So what was new at MEF? It was certainly clearer than ever that Russia, Canada and Japan have left the Kyoto Protocol for good, certainly in terms of any new ‘second commitment period’ after the first one expires at the end of 2012. There was some talk of ‘transitional arrangements’ to keep the system on life-support and avoid a complete political car crash (or train wreck: choose your disaster metaphor) in Durban, but the timeline is clear: December is the very last chance to renew Kyoto without a gap, and it is abundantly clear that this is not going to happen. Even the EU is hardening its demands regarding progress on emissions curbs for non-Annex 1 parties.

My feeling at this point is that what happens next depends most on two major players: Europe and China. Europe is basically the only party remaining prepared to enter into a new round of Kyoto (although New Zealand and Australia remain formally committed to this option, though under even more stringent and unlikely conditions), so what the EU decides next essentially determines whether Kyoto lives or dies. This doesn’t matter much to the climate, as the EU’s emissions curbs are already binding domestically and will simply be inscribed into a new Kyoto period as they are. But it matters a lot politically, as a new round of Kyoto is the top-level insistent demand of pretty much all developing countries.

Then we come to China. As I witnessed first hand at the Copenhagen heads of state meeting, China was especially obstructive back in 2009. Since then its position has softened at least in tone if not in content. Moreover, as everyone and their dog never tires of pointing out, China is doing an awful lot in reality to curb its own future emissions with big investments in wind, solar, hydro and nuclear [Fukushima] – even if colossal amounts of coal-fired power are still getting built and even more is planned. But China’s basic position in the negotiations has changed not a jot: it still insists that the Kyoto Protocol is the be-all and end-all of the negotiations, and that its own relative poverty makes any consideration of legal parity with the likes of the US outrageous and inequitable.

That latter argument gets steadily weaker with every year of Chinese growth at or above 10%. Moreover, it is not even in China’s best interests. No-one (not even the US) is insisting that emissions curbs should be equally stringent for all countries, irrespective of their per-capita emissions and development level. China could quite easily show a more progressive attitude, win plaudits from around the world for its commitments, and unarguably expose the US as the world’s true and most intrangsigent climate laggard. In doing so, it could further cement its already handsome lead as the clean-tech workshop of the world. Indeed, the stronger everyone else’s commitments (as well as its own), the more China has to gain by selling the technology to get to true low-carbon growth.

The sooner the Chinese leadership starts to see climate mitigation in terms of opportunity, not cost, the sooner we can look for a real breakthrough in the negotiations. As one Communist leader might have said, it does not really matter whether the Kyoto cat is black or white, so long as it catches mice.

© Mark Lynas
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