This commentary was originally published by Nature
A preoccupation with binding commitments blocks progress in the global effort against climate change. It’s time to correct course, says Elliot Diringer.
When governments gather for another round of United Nations (UN) climate change negotiations later this month in
Although it has been obvious for some time that most of the developed world is unwilling to one-sidedly assume new binding targets, many developing countries will arrive in
The more sensible course is an incremental one. Modest successes were achieved at last year’s climate-change negotiations in
The 1992 UN Framework Convention on Climate Change took a first stab at both. On fairness, it established the principle that countries should act “in accordance with their common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities.” Applying that principle, it set specific obligations for developed countries only – returning their greenhouse-gas emissions to 1990 levels by 2000. But this was simply an “aim”, not a binding target. As to the ultimate shape of the regime, the Convention left the door wide open.
It soon became evident that most developed countries would miss this goal, and in 1995 the parties launched a new round of talks that led to the 1997 Kyoto Protocol. They agreed right off that new commitments would apply to developed countries only. And, inspired in part by the success of the Montreal Protocol on ozone-depleting substances, they decided that this time the targets would be legally binding. (The prescribed consequences for non-compliance, however, are technically not binding – illustrating the many shades of grey associated with the ‘binding’ concept.)
It took until 2005 for
Against this backdrop, it is no surprise that countries such as
Yet for many, binding commitments remain a holy grail. This produced a near disaster two years ago at the
A key premise of the
Where ambitious national efforts have emerged, two other drivers appear more influential: political will and economic self-interest.
The mercantile motive, meanwhile, is nowhere more evident than in
In most cases, economic motive and political will both play a part.
If the principal drivers of action are domestic, do international commitments matter? Yes. In the long term,
Fortunately, if governments are prepared to look beyond
This time, the numbers were set unilaterally, not negotiated as in
As yet, it is hardly adequate. To begin with, the 2020 pledges are too weak to put countries on track towards limiting warming to
In Durban, parties should indeed set their sights towards eventual binding commitments. But they should focus primarily on the more prosaic nuts and bolts of strengthening transparency and support for developing countries. However incremental, such steps will get us further than a recurring cycle of false expectation and failure.
For the Kyoto Protocol itself, the likely outcome is some sort of half-measure. A leading option is to set new emission targets through a ‘political’ second commitment period, which can be approved outright by ministers gathered in Durban, rather than a legally binding amendment to the protocol, which would have to be brought home and ratified, a long and difficult process for many governments. Even if joined by only the EU and a handful of others, such a life-support mechanism would avert a blow-up, and buy time to build a sounder alternative.
Looking across the multilateral landscape, it is clear that strong, durable agreements don’t typically spring forth fully formed – they evolve over time.
Elliot Diringer is Executive Vice President of the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions, formerly the