Representing the Obama Administration at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, Jonathan Pershing, senior US climate negotiator at the State Department, took a more positive view of the 17th Conference of the Parties in Durban, South Africa, than CSW has in our earlier posts (here and here).  The outcome of the Durban climate summit may have been the most that was politically achievable, but labeling it as successful, or equitable, is at best premature.

Pershing, Climate Change Envoy for the State Department, delivered a post-Durban briefing last Tuesday January 24 at an event hosted by the Center for Strategic and International Studies.  He described the conference as a success for the US in terms of the creation of an inclusive emissions reduction agreement and an increase in flexibility and transparency.

However, we think Pershing and CSW could agree that these partial diplomatic solutions, even if they might be moving in the right general direction, are too little and potentially too late in the face of increasing greenhouse gas emissions and atmospheric concentrations.  And we would add that, at least if viewed in something other than a parochial US-centric perspective, the results of Durban leave unresolved essential issues of international equity in dealing with the causes and consequences of global climatic disruption.

Three main accomplishments can be said to have resulted from COP-17 in Durban, as succinctly summarized in Robert Stavins’s December 2011 blog post for the Harvard Environmental Economics program. These include elaborations on the Cancun Agreements, a second commitment period to the Kyoto Protocol, and the Durban Platform for Enhanced Action.

1. Elaborations on various components of the Cancun Agreements, essentially a package of bottom-up steps toward the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change goal of avoiding dangerous anthropogenic influence in the climate system.  This includes the progress made to the structure of the Green Climate Fund.

Pershing’s experience as a climate negotiator since the 1992 United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change made his insight especially valuable, and is perhaps the reason why he prefaced the briefing with an emphasis on the need to understand Durban in the context of a long history of climate change negotiations.

For example, the first item on our list of accomplishments, the Cancun Agreements, adopted in 2010 at COP-16, must be viewed as a sort of extension to the 2009 Copenhagen Accord.  The vague language of the Accord, which stated that 25 nations should “adopt” and “report” on national mitigation efforts to reduce greenhouse gases, was exacerbated by its equally unclear legal status. Member nations were only required to “take note” of the agreement, so the broad outline was never translated into concrete actions.

Where the Accord provides a skeletal framework for international action on climate change, the Cancun Agreements are much more detailed, providing a distinct course of action for implementing its key provisions.  The progress made in the design and management of the Green Climate Fund, meant to transfer money from the developed to the developing world for adaptation and mitigation assistance, is a clear step forward when viewed in comparison to the sparse agreements made during COP-15 in Copenhagen.

The Green Fund is intended to reduce investment risk in developing nations while (speaking aspirationally now, with no actual funding mechanism or revenue stream yet in sight) ramping up to making $100 billion per year available to support adaptation, mitigation, technology transfer, and capacity building.  The Green Fund represents the  beginning of this much-needed financial mechanism.

However, this Fund as the COP-17 contribution to international climate finance presents far more questions than answers.  What portion of the yearly pledge will come from governments? What portion will come from the private sector?  Of the portion coming from public sources, how will the money be raised?  (The High Level Advisory Group on Climate Change Financing provided a well-intentioned but similarly vague document that attempted to answer these questions).  How much of the funds should be dedicated to mitigation, and how much to adaptation?  How will an adaptation project be defined in order to make sure funds are not double-counted?

Pershing said he believes the private sector will ultimately provide the bulk of the $100 billion/year (or whatever) commitment.  But this assumption carries the serious implication that companies from those developed nations that created the climate change problem – notably including the US, of course – would take advantage of the climate change crisis as a business opportunity and seek to profit from the plight of poor and vulnerable populations in lower-income countries that will experience the impacts of climatic disruption. This eventuality would be less progressive than Pershing would seem to suggest.  As Nancy Birdsall, director of the Center for Global Development, argued in her recent presentation at the Brookings Institution, there are fundamental issues of international equity, economic justice, and moral obligation here. Developed nations have an obligation to take up the burden of payment, and to ensure that the benefits of payment are shared equitably within low-income countries. This is likely a matter that cannot be left to the for-profit market and will require public funding.

2. A second five-year commitment to the Kyoto Protocol.

Pershing pointed out that securing a second commitment period of the Kyoto Protocol is a significant step considering the last decade of Kyoto participation in which many developed countries were far off their reduction targets.  Its continuation can be attributed primarily to the efforts of the EU and emerging economies; its benefits, like the Clean Development Mechanism and emissions trading schemes will continue.

Of course, the US never signed the protocol so did not participate in any reductions efforts.  Canada (perhaps thinking of its tar sands-fueled agenda for economic growth), Japan, and Russia have pulled out of the treaty.  However, the EU has agreed to set commitments equivalent to those it had already agreed to under the European Union Emissions Trading Scheme, and developing nations stood firmly behind the treaty for its “common but differentiated responsibilities” language that would exempt huge emitters like India and China from the reductions that developed nations would have to undergo.

3. The Durban Platform for Enhanced Action, a non-binding agreement to reach an agreement by 2015 that will bring all countries under the same legal regime by 2020.

That many developed nations would not commit to reduction targets under Kyoto, Pershing pointed out, raises the question of how to “balance” the contribution of non-participants.  The answer at COP-17 was the Durban Platform, which follows through with the previous attempts of the Copenhagen Accord and Cancun Agreement to break down the divisions between Annex 1 (industrialized) and non-Annex 1 (developing) parties under the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change and the Kyoto Protocol.

The Durban Platform instead requires a pledge from all parties to create a system of reductions by 2020.  The US was the main promoter of this agreement – having argued for decades that the climate change problem cannot be solved without global commitments on emissions.

Whether the Durban Platform should be legally binding sparked intense debate between an unusual set of players, namely between the EU and India.  Europeans, concerned with the enormous damages implied if emerging economies are given a free pass on emissions targets, hoped to require developing nations to sign on to a legally binding treaty to lower emissions by 2020. India, concerned with equity and maintaining its development agenda, would not consent to a legally binding agreement, especially when most developed nations have not met previously agreed emissions reduction targets.

The US, according to Pershing, became a facilitator of compromise, hoping to get the basis of an agreement finalized.  In the end, the Durban Platform requires all major players to negotiate “an outcome with legal force applicable to all parties.” Without any more specific content, the statement is sparse, lacking legal commitment, content, and structure of reductions measures.

Still, Pershing presented the outcome as a definite improvement over Kyoto’s outdated characterization of Annex 1 vs. non-Annex 1.  After all, he stressed, under Kyoto, economic powerhouses like South Korea are still considered “emerging nations” and not subject to the same emissions reduction requirements as developed nations.

It is in some ways understandable that the US would not be favorable to the Kyoto arrangement where the technology transfer and finance mechanisms benefit countries some of which are seen from the US perspective as economic competitors.  After all, China, India, and Brazil took the vast majority of all Clean Development Mechanism projects under Kyoto, China getting over half of the total.

But the arrangement fails to consider the differences in per capita emissions and standards of living between the richest nations and the emerging economies. At that, it seems ridiculous that the least developed island and African nations, which are being hit the worst by the effects of climate change, should bear responsibility for emissions reduction as parties under the Durban Platform. In this respect, jettisoning the “common but differentiated responsibilities” framework of the Kyoto Protocol in shifting to the Durban Framework could be seen as a setback for international distributional equity – depending on how future negotiations proceed.

One cannot escape the fact that another round of negotiations has passed and the US has refused to commit itself to a binding emissions reduction plan.  It is unjust that such a powerful and wealthy nation that has helped to create the climate change problem is still refusing to lead the developed world and certain emerging economies in emissions reduction, when so many developing nations are being hit by the effects of climate change while having done little to create the problem.

As we have previously argued, departing from “common but differentiated responsibilities,” while logical in that it will shift some responsibility to the emerging economies which can afford to reduce their emissions independently, also results in a shift in the burden of payment to nations that do not bear primary responsibility for the climate change problem.  This may be a political inevitability, but labeling it as “progress” seems a bit too optimistic.

To the extent that the US is part of the problem in making demands on developing countries while itself making no real commitments, we are into a realm that cannot be discussed candidly by a US State Department representative.  No doubt Mr. Pershing could represent well a more progressive US position, if the US had one, but as a diplomat he must defend the current US position with its shortcomings.

Earlier posts:

On the Durban climate conference, Part 1: US hard-nosed conservative negotiating position essentially prevails

On the Durban climate conference, Part 2:  The problem of international distributional equity

The American ‘99%’ as part of the global ‘1%’ in contributing to climate change