Kyoto is Dead-Long Live New Climate Change Arrangements

By David Hodgkinson
Associate Professor, School of Law, University of Western Australia
Posted on 30 November 2011
Filed under Carbon Reduction, Governance

Failure at the Copenhagen and Cancun climate change conferences in 2009 and 2010 can be put down, broadly, to two reasons: concerns by developing countries about what binding emission reduction targets might mean for their economic development, and the deadlock over post-2012 targets for developed countries.

And it seems unlikely that, for the present, major emitters – developed or developing – will enter binding agreements to reduce emissions. 

The core issue, raised by Todd Stern, the US climate change negotiator, is a struggle between those developed states who want to continue the UNFCCC/Kyoto separation between developed countries with targets and developing countries without them, and ‘those who believe we can only address climate change with all major economies accepting responsibilities.’

As Stern notes, the need for all major emitters to shoulder climate commitments is clear –‘just do the math,’ he says. ‘Developing countries account for around 52% of emissions, now, and are projected to account for approximately 66% by 2030. They will produce some 97% in the growth of emissions between now and 2030.’

This is brought home through the latest IEA statistics on global CO2 emissions. In 2009 China and the US (both without Kyoto targets) counted together for 41% of the world’s emissions.  Two-thirds of global emissions came from just 10 countries – with, of course, China and the US surpassing those of all the others.

Yet Japan, Russia and Canada have said they will not extend cuts beyond December 31, 2012 unless all major emitters – led by China and the United States – sign up for a binding deal.  And that won’t happen at either Durban in the weeks ahead or anytime soon.

Perhaps an alternative approach to moving forward would be to break the climate change problem up into different pieces. If the UNFCCC deadlock continues – and all signs suggest that it will – perhaps contemplating a regime in which groups of like-minded countries address particular issues, and in which countries and regional groupings take action on their own, might be possible.

As one commentator said recently, ‘since an agreement among the major emitters is unlikely anytime soon, we should seek progress where we can, through whatever means and in any forums that are available.’

Two US academics propose a climate change ‘regime complex’ – a loosely coupled set of specific regimes. They say that efforts to ‘build an effective, legitimate, and adaptable comprehensive regime are unlikely to succeed,’ and argue that a climate change regime complex has advantages in terms of adaptability and flexibility. And others refer to a ‘building blocks’ approach.

And there is state-based action, both actual and proposed, on which to build. US states and Canadian provinces collaborate on action to address climate change. California will have an ETS from 2013. South Korea plans an ETS in 2015. China has reduced the amount of carbon dioxide produced per unit of GDP faster than any other major economy.

Perhaps momentum favours a ‘bottom-up’ outcome.  Perhaps, post-Durban, we will see a shift away from a top-down, ‘Kyoto-style’ architecture for international climate action, to a more bottom-up approach. As Posner and Weisbach (from the University of Chicago) argue, ‘Copenhagen showed the futility of addressing poverty, past injustices and climate change in a single negotiation … no principle of justice requires that these problems be addressed simultaneously or multilaterally.’

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