Policy Update #7

Dark Clouds, Silver Linings

The past week has brought discouraging news for climate activists. The US Senate's decision on 22 July to put climate legislation on ice until at least 2011 had been widely anticipated. Even so, when the official announcement finally came, it was greeted globally with dismay, even anger. American experts from civil society lined up to condemn the action. Internationally, even politicians got in on the act, with ministers from South Africa and India expressing disappointment.

A Domestic Decision…

The decision reflects political realities on Capitol Hill, where a narrowing window of opportunity prior to the mid-term elections in November has led to some tough decisions. Higher domestic priorities such as persistent unemployment, fears over a double-dip recession, and conservatives' assault on big government now fill the radar screen. Perhaps the drop in public interest following ClimateGate also played its part in pushing the issue down the list of priorities.

…with Global Consequences

The reasons behind this decision all seem logical in the national context. However, there is no denying its global consequences. In the short-term, it is unclear what the US may be able to bring to the table in Cancún to break through the existing negotiating impasse. Trying to find a silver lining to such a dark cloud, a few climate veterans are saying the US decision will finally force everyone to be more realistic about what Cancún can achieve, and to lower their expectations. This is a good thing, they say, because those closest to the negotiations acknowledged months ago that it would not be possible to conclude a credible agreement until COP 17 in Johannesburg in 2011, at the earliest. “If this message hits home and everyone accepts that Cancún is a staging post and not a destination, we can start planning how to use it most effectively,” a friend close to the process told me recently. In fact, most insiders now seem to be playing up Johannesburg while selling Cancún as an important but less “critical” meeting.

This may well be true. A healthy dose of realism can be invaluable if it leads to a more achievable deadline and, ultimately, a good outcome. However, this assumes that the prospects for legislative progress in the US will be brighter in 2011 than they are now. Based on current polls, such assumptions look naïve. Of course, a lot can change in the next three months. But if what some have labeled the largest oil spill disaster in US history cannot galvanize the US public's attention to rethink their energy consumption patterns, and Republicans make the inroads they are projecting to make, then the prospects for new climate legislation in 2011 or even 2012 could be dim. The US may still have a few options to reduce its emissions, through regulation of mercury emissions from power plants for example. But this approach would not signal the leadership and commitment that would inspire other UNFCCC parties to match US actions. Following this argument to its logical conclusion, it is hard to see other major economies bringing a lot to the negotiating table in the next few years in the absence of a strong legislative outcome in the US.

BASIC: Not So Simple?

The US Senate was not alone in generating headlines this week. Reports that the BASIC group had been unable to agree on a unified plan at their meeting in Rio last weekend also raised eyebrows. According to media reports, ministers from Brazil, China, India and South Africa had been trying to agree a maximum limit for developing country emissions. Their inability to do so was hardly comforting, although these countries agreed to meet again in October in an attempt to move forward.

Should I Stay or Should I Go… on Vacation?

Next week's negotiations in Bonn will provide some early signals and reactions from the diplomatic community to these recent events. Some observers expect strong statements and the occasional “verbal firecracker.” Few are expecting any major substantive breakthroughs, though. Indeed, several sources predict a relatively low turnout given where the meeting falls in the negotiating cycle, and that it conflicts with many negotiators'' summer vacation plans. The meeting will not make or break negotiations, and some smaller delegations are expected as a few officials stay away or send subordinates.

New Chair's Text

The Bonn agenda still has plenty of meat in it, though. Delegates will be expected to make progress in both the Ad Hoc Working Groups on the Kyoto Protocol (AWG-KP) and on Long-Term Cooperative Action under the Convention (AWG-LCA). Under the AWG-LCA, delegates will consider a revised Chair's text designed to help them reach a strong outcome in Cancún. The text continues the focus on key issues agreed under the Bali Action Plan in 2007, with sections on a shared vision, adaptation, finance, technology transfer, capacity building, and an extensive section on mitigation. An earlier version did not receive a rapturous response at the June meeting. Developing countries said it failed to give weight to the needs of least developed countries, small island states and Africa. Some said it gave tacit support to a “pledge and review” approach that they felt could put the future of the Kyoto Protocol at risk. One developing country even warned it could spell the “gradual death” of the Protocol. On the other hand, countries such as the US seemed to view the text quite differently, balking at elements it said were lifted from the Protocol. Since June, the text has been revised and lengthy discussions are expected next week, particularly on the mitigation and finance sections.

Emissions Targets and the Commitment Gap

In the AWG-KP, discussions should continue in three contact groups. These groups will focus on emissions from industrialized countries (the “Annex I” group); land use, land use change and forestry; and legal issues. The legal group has started to grapple with questions of how to avoid a gap between the Kyoto Protocol's first commitment period for Annex I emission pledges—which runs from 2008-2012—and any subsequent commitment period. Avoiding a gap between the first and second commitment periods requires three-quarters of parties to the Protocol to ratify any new agreements by 3 October 2012.

No one should expect any firm answers just yet to the tricky question of how to avoid a gap. But the fact that this is now under consideration does reflect a growing concern that there is little time to waste in setting future goals under the Protocol or some other arrangement.