A week from Durban talks, wide differences remain among nations

The United States is resisting calls from Europe and others to begin discussing a legally binding climate change treaty that could take effect by 2020, diplomats said this week.

Negotiating a post-2020 agreement for all major emitters to lower greenhouse gas emissions is one element that has been raised as part of the U.N. climate talks that begin Nov. 28 in Durban, South Africa. But analysts say the American negotiating team is setting a high bar for even starting to talk about such a deal. The Americans want assurances in advance that China, India and other major developing economies would be bound by the same legal commitments as industrialized nations in any such pact.

"That's true," U.S. Special Envoy for Climate Change Todd Stern said of the characterization. The United States is not "automatically allergic" to negotiating a legally binding climate treaty, Stern said, but he added, "it's premature to decide what the ultimate legal form might be until you have a better sense of what the content would be."

Decisions about a future legally binding agreement are intimately tied to the future of the Kyoto Protocol, which requires industrialized countries to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions. Developing countries may do so voluntarily. The United States never ratified Kyoto because it feared not being required to curb emissions would give China a competitive advantage.

Now the 1997 treaty hangs by a thread, because Japan, Russia and Canada have explicitly said they will not submit new carbon reduction targets when the first phase of Kyoto ends next year. They want to see a treaty that includes both the United States and major emerging economies. Developing countries, meanwhile, say ensuring the future of the Kyoto Protocol is their top priority.

Europe has emerged with a compromise position: The European Union will commit to a second phase of Kyoto, it says, as long as countries build a clear road map for a legally binding treaty that covers all the major emitters. Some want that to be a legal mandate signed in Durban to negotiate a deal by 2015 that could take effect by or before 2020. Others say a more informal agreement to negotiate could also work.

Europe wants a road map


"It is a question of parallelism in between the second commitment period of the Kyoto Protocol and a new mandate. For Europe, it is very important to have a road map to go toward a legally binding agreement," said Ambassador Serge Lepeltier, France's lead climate change negotiator.

Yet the discussion seems to be going in circles, with China leery of becoming legally obligated to cut carbon and the United States unwilling to start talking about a road map until it knows the final destination will look starkly different from Kyoto.

"There is an opposition to engage in that discussion, both by the U.S. and some of the developing countries," said Mexican Ambassador Luis Alfonso de Alba.

"The positions of the big countries are still wide apart," agreed Ambassador Kenji Hiramatsu, Japan's lead climate change negotiator. He noted that China is stressing the importance of countries first making good on past agreements.

"It is too early for China to pledge themselves in a very concrete time," Hiramatsu said, calling the notion of a legally binding agreement "difficult" for China to accept. Japan, he said, "would like to see a new framework as soon as possible."

Su Wei, the deputy head of China's climate change delegation, sidestepped questions about when China would be ready to commit to emissions cuts. China, he said, wants a "balanced package" that follows a 2007 framework known as the Bali Road Map that set out a path for developing a treaty based on the notion that developing countries have common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities.

U.S. lacks leverage

"It's a package that covers everybody," Su said. Xie Zhenhua, vice chairman of China's National Development and Reform Commission, added: "We hope that the second commitment period of the Kyoto Protocol will be well advanced in Durban."

Environmental groups have criticized the United States for its position. Alden Meyer, international policy director at the Union of Concerned Scientists, described the demands as "hard-line" and asked: "How would the U.S. react if India said that as a precondition for us to enter the negotiations, everyone would have to accept our view of historical per capita emissions as a basis?"

Meyer argued that the United States doesn't have much leverage, given that Congress is eager to slash climate funding and the Obama administration has not provided any proof of how it plans to meet its pledge to cut emissions 17 percent below 2005 levels by 2020.

"At the end of the day, there's a lot of doubt about the administration's ability to deliver the Senate on ratifying anything that comes out of the negotiations," Meyer said. "It's a huge concession in return for questionable U.S. action."

Stern, meanwhile, said he always negotiates with the memory of the Senate's allergic reaction to the Kyoto Protocol.

"Clearly, if we ever get to the point where we have a new agreement that would be brought to Congress, it would need to be parallel" in the way it treated major emitters, Stern said. Negotiating something that Congress will simply reject, he said, is "not something we want to do."

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