How Negotiators at Durban Can Agree on Emissions Targets

The parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change are meeting once again in Durban, South Africa, from November 28 to December 9. The period covered by the Kyoto Protocol ends in 2012 and the clock is running out on negotiations for a successor agreement. Progress at Copenhagen two years ago and Cancun one year ago was slow. Negotiations have been blocked by a seemingly insurmountable obstacle. The United States is at loggerheads with the developing world, especially China–now the world’s largest emitter of greenhouse gases (GHG)–and India.

Fortunately, there might be a way to break through this roadblock. A formulas-basedapproach, building on existing commitments, could attain desired mitigation of concentrations of Greenhouse Gases, while yet avoiding the imposition of disproportionate economic costs on any single country or group of countries. The political feasibility of our proposal has been borne out over the last year, in that the specifics have turned out to be consistent with positions recently taken by the important players. This despite what appears to be a Gordian knot too big to be untied.

On the one hand, the leaders of India and China are clear: They won’t cut emissions until after the United States and other developed countries have cut theirs first. After all, the industrialized countries created the problem of global climate change, and got rich in the process. Developing countries shouldn’t be denied their turn at economic development, they argue. As the Indians point out, Americans emit more than 10 times as much carbon dioxide per person as they do.

On the other hand, the U.S. Congress is equally clear: It will not impose quantitative limits on U.S. GHG emissions if it fears that emissions from China, India, and other developing countries will continue to grow unabated. Indeed, that is why the Senate was unwilling to ratify the Kyoto Protocol ten years ago. Why should U.S. firms bear the economic cost of cutting emissions if energy-intensive domestic aluminum smelters and steel mills, for example, would just migrate to countries that have no caps and cheaper energy (a problem known as leakage)? Global emissions would simply continue their rapid rise in a different part of the world. Emission cap legislation will not pass the Senate as long as major developing countries haven’t accepted quantitative targets of their own.