‘Binding’ treaty obsession still ties up climate action

Since the outset of global climate negotiations in the 1990s, the United Nations and European diplomats have perpetuated the collective fantasy that the only standard for success is a “legally binding treaty” under international law. Well intentioned, initially, this has always been impractical.

Yet, nearly 20 years after the talks started, the inevitable failure to meet this standard has year by year doomed the political reputation of global climate action, even as real progress has been made behind the scenes.

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This year, in Durban, South Africa, leaders had a golden opportunity to end this self-delusion, in part by dismissing a so-called “second Kyoto compliance period” being pushed by the European Union. They could have injected a much-needed dose of reality, helped restore the reputation of climate negotiations and exerted more effective political pressure on climate laggards, including the United States. Instead, diplomats perpetuated the Kyoto chimera and self-defeating “legal framework” language as part of the “Durban Platform for Enhanced Action.”

In fact, the world is making significant — although insufficiently rapid — progress in slowing emissions. Pledges by the United States and by China, India and other developing countries made in Copenhagen are profoundly ambitious. At their highest range, these reductions will total as much as 75 percent of cuts needed to limit warming to 2 degrees Celsius by 2020, the amount scientists believe is needed to prevent runaway climate impact.

Despite this, the political reputation of the U.N. process is in tatters. The reporting of “failure” at Copenhagen perpetuated this, notwithstanding the fact that critical reduction pledges were made there, for the first time in history. It was only against the impossible “binding treaty” standard that Copenhagen could be labeled a failure, and it is only an obsession with a “legal treaty” that allows Durban, which did not really require any additional emissions cuts, to be called a success.

Some major nations have finally woken up to the binding treaty trap. Japan, historically the country most dedicated to emissions reductions, along with Canada and Russia, firmly opposed being included in a second Kyoto round. This left the EU — representing less than 15 percent of global emissions — as the only major emitter willing to make binding commitments, exposing the utter pointlessness of a Kyoto 2 approach.

The chances of China, India or the United States agreeing to “legal” commitments of emissions reductions, even by 2015, as called for by the Durban Platform, are slight. Likewise, the Durban dream of “legal” status will impose no more effective penalties on those who will miss their targets than the current pledge and review process.

Moving forward, a coalition of developed and developing countries, led by the United States and, in time, the EU and China, has the opportunity to make a new start in climate action. Existing pledges from Copenhagen in coordination with action on hydrofluorocarbons, black carbon and other non-CO2 emissions, present the opportunity for the world to meet its near-term target to avoid a 2 degrees Celsius temperature gain and, crucially, demonstrate to the United States and others that domestic emissions reductions can actually matter as part of an effective global response.

A recent study from the ClimateWorks Foundation called “Policies That Work” outlined 10 policies in place in various countries now — from energy efficiency to support for R&D and innovation — that taken together can begin to address successfully climate change. Likewise, a report last week by the U.N. Environment Program found that cutting non-CO2 emissions would cut the rate of warming in half in the near term.

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Diplomatic dangers will continue to abound, of course, as the Durban result made clear. The Chinese, not required to cut any emissions by the legal framework that emerged from Durban, have gamed the talks for years, leading developing countries down the proverbial primrose path with the illusion of a final treaty, to delay China’s own “legal” obligation. Chinese diplomatic efforts are spent trying to get the United States blamed for the inevitable “failure” of the treaty talks, and vice versa, rather than working together.

No mitigation scenario can be effective without China. Equally, the developing country and EU insistence on legally binding language is a death knell for truly effective long-term U.S. action.

Rarely has the injunction “don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good” been so apt.

Bledsoe is a senior adviser at the Bipartisan Policy Center, but these opinions are his own. He served as a staff member on energy and climate change in the Clinton White House.