A single binding international climate agreement will remain a chimera

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

Eberhard Rhein argues that Copenhagen and Cancún-style UN climate conferences should be discontinued in favour of more regular meetings of the most polluting countries.

Eberhard Rhein is a former official in the European Commission's external relations department, responsible for the Mediterranean and Arab world.

He gives a course on economic policy at the Mediterranean Academy for Diplomatic Studies in Malta.

This commentary was first posted on blogactiv.eu.

"The international community is once again preparing for an international climate conference, the 17th meeting of the contracting parties of the UNFCCC to take place in Durban (South Africa) in December. Like the two preceding ones in Cancún (2010) and Copenhagen (2009), it will hardly produce more than declarations.

The preparatory meetings held so far in Bangkok and Brussels do not augur well. And we should not expect much more from the next meeting in Bonn in early June. More than ever the positions of the parties remain widely divergent as to the format, objectives and substance of a climate agreement.

The USA, China, India, Brazil, Russia and South Africa are vigorously opposed to any type of legally binding commitments. They refuse to have their hands tied by international rules.

The EU is the only group that continues to favour a legal binding text. There is therefore very little chance of reaching a consensus on this point. Considering the impossibility of enforcing national commitments concerning climate and energy policies, it really does not matter to have a legal binding text.

The USA and the EU insist on major emerging countries also taking commitments for limiting and progressively reducing their C02 emissions. This position is based on considerations of effectiveness: China has overtaken the USA as the biggest emitter country; and jointly the emerging countries will soon emit more C02 than all OECD countries.

Effective action against climate change therefore requires all major emitters to participate in the effort. Having been responsible for the accumulation of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere throughout the 20th Century, the OECD countries must, of course, go faster and deeper in cutting their emissions, by 80% until the middle of the century.

By signing the Kyoto Protocol in 1997 the developed countries have, in principle, accepted their historical responsibility. But it has never been a meaningful instrument: it commits only 37 countries, above all the EU and Japan, [with] Australia, Canada and [the] USA having refused to put it into force.

It does therefore not make much sense to extend the Kyoto Protocol for another commitment period beyond 2012. The EU and Japan should rather apply its provisions autonomously.

Wide divergences exist as to the depth of commitments. Only the EU insists on reducing emissions below 1990, the reference chosen as the date at which the international community first started to address the issue of climate change.

All developing countries remain strongly attached to an international climate agreement under UN aegis and supervised by UN agencies. They consider themselves severely threatened by droughts, floods and rising sea levels caused by climate change and entitled to financial compensation from developed countries.

At Durban, their main interest is a commitment to have the 'Green Climate Fund' fully operative after 2020 with a volume of $100 billion. Whatever the slim chances of a meaningful climate agreement in the foreseeable future, political realities push the world community to pursue what appears as a fight against windmills.

Since the Rio de Janeiro Conference on Sustainable Development in 1992, the fear of climate change has helped create an international climate bureaucracy that keeps the ball rolling from one conference to another, elaborating papers, draft resolutions and publishing documents.

No country, [and] certainly not the EU, [which] has done more to promote an effective climate policy than any other country, will want to attract the opprobrium of quitting mostly useless and costly rounds of negotiations.

They all find advantages in being present, if only to defend their posture or economic interests. And they are right: the protection of the global climate can only be achieved by all countries working side by side, in a momentous effort of sharing responsibility.

The issue is therefore not about the need [for] a global effort but about its nature and the most effective methods to curb climate change. Can this be done by a single international agreement that imposes binding commitments [on] all countries for reducing greenhouse gas emissions?

The answer can only be negative. Doubts about the feasibility of a single international climate agreement have been mounting in the last [few] years. So have the doubts about the nature of the commitments to be taken by the contracting parties. Climate change is the consequence of many economic and cultural factors, from demographic growth to power generation, transport of goods and people, etc.

In view of successfully fighting climate change it is necessary to influence these factors through incentives and penalties, abolishing subsidies [for] fossil energies, subsidising investments in energy efficiency, renewable energies or alternative technologies, imposing energy efficiency standards, etc.

With appropriate incentives private investments in 'green technologies' will come forth, both in developed and emerging countries. Recent developments in the USA and many European and Asian countries are ample proof of this.

It is therefore imperative to turn the international negotiations away from non-operational targets for the reduction of C02 emissions or containing the rise of global temperatures within two [degrees] centigrade.

To make them operational the main energy-consuming countries should take the lead, and:

  • Adopt appropriate measures for reducing the use of fossil energies through incentives for energy efficiency, renewable energies and technologies facilitating the use of renewable energies (storage, CCS, intelligent grids, etc.).
  • Submit their policies to regular in-depth peer reviews.
  • Share the results of their work with all interested countries.

The 'Major Economies Forum on Energy and Climate' (Brazil, China, EU, India, Japan, USA) should become the core body for the future international cooperation on energy and climate. Its members account for three quarters of global energy consumption and C02 emissions, and possess the necessary skills and capacities for an ambitious energy agenda.

Their first priority should be to establish an atmosphere of mutual confidence and cooperation. To that end, they should regularly compare notes of their respective policies (peer review). That process has started, with the EU and USA laying open their strategies, including the difficulties they encounter in obtaining domestic acceptance.

Once a minimum of confidence established they should try to agree on simple targets like the phasing out of subsidies on fossil energies and  imposing a minimum share, say 20%, of renewable energy in power generation by 2020/25.

I draw these conclusions for future energy and climate policy:

  • Focus on energy policies that have a positive impact on climate change.
  • Discontinue annual climate 'messes' like Cancún or Copenhagen for reasons of ineffectiveness. These should take place only every three years for taking stock of global energy and climate developments and giving political guidance, especially on fighting emissions from deforestation, air and maritime traffic as well as adaptation to climate change.
  • Substitute them [with] more frequent meetings of the main fossil energy-consuming/producing countries for intensive exchanges of views on the most effective policy tools and national energy policies.
  • Cooperation among the 'Major Economies Forum on Energy and Climate' will not be able to reverse the rapid acceleration of climate change. But it can set a positive example of climate-effective policies to be followed by other countries.
  • Organise regular meetings between forest and donor countries for a review of the most effective preservation measures.
  • Push the international Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) to enhance fuel efficiency and introduce bio-fuels in view of stopping the unsustainable rise of C02 emissions from air traffic.

An international political framework can only serve as a catalyst and accelerator for national policies, but not substitute failing political will of national governments. Governments will only act if their interests are at stake.

They will do so even autonomously if political leadership realise the long-term risks and opportunities. Such assessments have led China and USA to encourage  renewable energy and energy efficiency. The EU is continues to be the foremost example of a go-it-alone strategy. The EU should therefore reflect on how to make international energy and climate policy more effective and take appropriate initiatives.

In the final analysis, societies seem incapable of acting against risks that lie far away in the future. Humanity will need a series of devastating climate catastrophes to wake up to the looming dangers. But then it might well be too late: Climate change will have become an unstoppable self-perpetuating process."

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