The global climate-change deal reached in Durban, South Africa, over the weekend could help break a long-standing impasse on climate policy in Washington in the coming years.
In terms of advancing toward the goal of a major new international climate treaty, the Durban deal did little more than inch along. Essentially, United Nations negotiators simply sketched out, in broad terms, the contours and steps toward a climate treaty to be signed in 2015 and enacted by 2020. The deal pointed the way toward a future agreement but didn’t bind any nation to new carbon cuts. It launches a process “to develop a protocol, another legal instrument, or an agreed outcome with legal force under the Convention applicable to all Parties.”
But the outline that negotiators agreed to appears to fundamentally change the dynamics that have governed the embattled global climate-change talks for nearly two decades. Those old dynamics, representing the 20th-century economy, were enshrined in the world’s first climate treaty, the Kyoto Protocol, which required that the industrialized countries cut their greenhouse-gas pollution but exempted developing nations, including China and India, from taking action. That dichotomy—which would have forced the U.S. to curb emissions from its coal plants, cars, and factories while not demanding the same from China—was the chief reason the Senate refused to ratify the Kyoto Protocol, and it remains one of the key that reasons many U.S. lawmakers oppose passage of domestic climate-change legislation.
Under the Durban deal, all major economies—including the U.S., China, India, and the European Union—would eventually sign on to a treaty requiring emissions cuts from each of the signatories. The insistence that all major polluting economies, particularly China, now the world’s largest greenhouse-gas emitter, be grouped in the same category, has been for years the central sticking point between U.S. and Chinese negotiators.
“This is a big development by any measure,” Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and lead author of a major climate-change bill that failed in the Senate in 2010, said in a statement.
“It removes two stumbling blocks that have led to political paralysis here at home because it underscores we can't tackle this challenge without multilateralism and trust.”
Experts say the Durban deal has opened a new chapter in the long-running efforts to forge a truly effective global treaty that could stave off the most disastrous effects of climate change. But they warned that the Durban language also includes plenty of legal ambiguity and loopholes and that it’s far from certain that the agreement signed this weekend will lead to a legally binding treaty by 2015.
“This deal helps ensure that any future treaty would meet the demands of Byrd-Hagel by putting developed and developing in the same category,” said Elliot Diringer, executive vice president of the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions, in a phone interview from South Africa, referring to the Senate’s 1997 vote declaring that it would not ratify any climate treaty that required pollution cuts from developed nations unless it also includes cuts from developing nations.
But, Diringer added, “there is some squishiness. It's going to be very tough going. All this does is provide initial framing and a process. It creates the potential, but it doesn’t mean there’s going to be a treaty coming out the other end.”
There has long been something of a Catch-22 in the tension between the U.S. position on climate-change policy at home and abroad. The U.S., which is the world’s largest historic greenhouse-gas emitter, has come under increasing criticism from the rest of the world for failing to enact domestic policy to cut its carbon pollution—especially as ever more countries, including those in the European Union and Australia, enact climate-change laws, while countries like China, India, Mexico, and South Korea are moving steadily toward enacting domestic climate laws. The U.S. has repeatedly brought global climate negotiations to a standstill by insisting that no new treaty can move forward without a legal commitment to cut emissions from other economies—but its position is undermined by its own lack of action at home. Meanwhile, many U.S. lawmakers say they can’t take action at home on a policy that could curb domestic economic growth without a legally binding treaty guaranteeing that other economies are doing the same.
The Durban deal could represent the first crack in that standoff.
Still, there are plenty of other obstacles ahead. It’s a sure bet that many U.S. lawmakers won’t like another key element of the Durban deal, which keeps intact the divide between rich and poor countries—and sets up a flow of money from the former to the latter. The deal establishes a global Green Climate Fund, which would mobilize $100 billion annually in aid and private financing from rich countries to poor countries, to help the latter adapt to the ravages of climate change, such as increased droughts and floods and rising sea levels. While nations aren’t yet committed to provide specific amounts, experts estimate that the U.S. share of that at about $20 billion, an all but impossible figure to swallow in a political environment focused on cutting government spending.
Meanwhile, industries that oppose climate-change policy—especially the U.S. coal and oil industries—seem set to continue aggressive campaigns to fight the policy, spending millions on advertising and lobbying campaigns opposing the rules, and funneling money into a new crop of political action committees aimed at electing lawmakers who will fight any curbs on industry.
And many Republican lawmakers—including some presidential candidates—continue to question the science of climate change. That view is excoriated in the international community: United Nations scientists say that in order to stave off the worst climate disasters, a treaty must be put in place to prevent the global average temperature from rising by more than 2 degrees Celsius. But environmentalists say that at the current speed of negotiations, it will be impossible to prevent a greater—and more catastrophic—rise in temperature.
Samantha Smith, leader of WWF’s global climate and energy initiative, said, “The U.S.—afraid of the politics at home—fought over a few words, but missed the bigger story: limiting dangerous climate change.”