Signs of New Life as U.N. Searches for a Climate Accord

Signs of New Life as U.N. Searches for a Climate Accord

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WASHINGTON — Critics and supporters alike agree that the U.N. forum for negotiating international climate change policies is an ungainly mess, its annual gatherings marked by discord, disarray and brinkmanship.

Ruth Fremson/The New York Times

A worker walked along train tracks at a coal yard at the Mundra Port in the Indian state of Gujarat in May 2011.


Each year, exhausted delegates and observers return home thinking that there has to be a better way to address what they believe to be one of the defining challenges of our time: the relentless warming of the planet and its impact on the world’s inhabitants.

But the recently concluded meeting in Durban, South Africa, which established a new mandate for concluding a binding agreement of some sort by 2015, has given the process new life and hushed many of its critics. For now.

“Apart from the fact that we took 36 hours longer than we expected, I actually think Durban will be proven by history to be the most encompassing and farthest reaching agreements that any climate conference has ever reached,” said Christiana Figueres, the Costa Rican diplomat who leads the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change, the body that oversees the negotiations.

She said that the crowning achievement of the meeting was the so-called Durban Platform for Enhanced Action, which requires the participating 194 nations to develop over the next four years “a protocol, another legal instrument or an agreed outcome with legal force” to reduce global greenhouse gas emissions, limit temperature rise and help developing countries make the transition to a cleaner energy economy.

The platform explicitly states that the resulting agreement will be “applicable to all parties,” erasing a 20-year-old distinction between rich and poor countries that has undermined the process.

Trevor Houser, a climate and energy analyst at the Rhodium Group and a former adviser to the chief American climate negotiator, Todd D. Stern, said that the Durban platform was promising because of what it did not say.

“There is no mention of historic responsibility or per capita emissions,” he wrote in an analysis of the Durban meeting. “There is no mention of economic development as the priority for developing countries. There is no mention of a difference between developed and developing country action. Rather it calls for urgent action by everyone and the widest possible collaboration.”

Though relatively sanguine about the U.N. process for now, Ms. Figueres, Mr. Hauser and others acknowledge that it represents only a fraction of the effort that will be needed to effectively address climate change.

Real progress will require individual countries to fulfill their voluntary pledges under previous U.N. agreements. Other international bodies, including the Group of 20 major economies, the Major Economies Forum and regional organizations like the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation group must step up their efforts on climate change and clean energy development. Governments and the private sector will have to dramatically expand investment in renewable energy technology.

And all this must happen as virtually every part of the world is experiencing economic malaise and political uncertainty. A number of key countries — including France, Japan, Mexico, Russia, South Korea and United States — are holding elections this year. The outcomes will affect, for example, the United States’ willingness to meet its emissions reduction targets and engage sincerely in international talks. Elections could also modify Japan’s and France’s continuing commitment to nuclear power after the Fukushima disaster.

“This is so large, so complex and so important that it cannot be entrusted to one single process,” Ms. Figueres said. “It must be attacked from multiple points. Everyone must be engaged. We are looking at nothing less than an energy and industrial revolution the likes of which we have never seen.”

She would not comment in detail on the stakes for the international negotiations of the American presidential and congressional elections. Climate change should be nonpartisan, she said.

Nick Robins, an energy and climate change analyst at HSBC, the global bank based in London, said that private finance and technology firms would play an increasing role in reducing carbon emissions, with or without the U.N. convention or even radical policy changes in the countries that generate the largest emissions.

Investment in low-carbon technology, from solar and nuclear to energy efficiency in buildings and lighting, is now $720 billion a year. “By 2020,” he said, “we estimate it to be $2.2 trillion, without any new global deal or major change in policy in the leading economies.”

Mr. Robins noted in a recent analysis that the progress at Durban will do little in the short or medium term to reverse the current growth in consumption of dirty-burning fuels such as oil and coal. Last year greenhouse gas emissions from all sources set a new record and he anticipates that 2012 will top that.

Unless that trend is reversed quickly, he and others contend, the world will never meet the U.N. goal of keeping an increase in average global temperatures to no more than 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 Farenheit) above pre-industrial levels.

“We believe,” Mr. Robins wrote, “that the ‘ambition gap’ in climate policy means that hitting this target looks increasingly unlikely, resulting in further climate disruption.”

Robert N. Stavins, director of the environmental economics program at Harvard University, said that Durban had helped resuscitate an international effort that appeared close to collapse. He said that the tasks before it were still difficult — producing meaningful emissions reductions quickly and at acceptable cost — but, unlike previous promises, there was at least now a structure that binds all the major players.

“Only time will tell whether the Durban Platform delivers on its promise,” Mr. Stavins said, “or turns out to be another ‘Bali Roadmap,’ leading nowhere.”

The vast majority of the nations that participate in the U.N. talks are victims, not perpetrators, of the rising seas, spreading deserts and other climate impacts that scientists say are brought on by increasing concentrations of carbon dioxide and other heat-trapping gases in the atmosphere. The bulk of these emissions were produced by a handful of advanced industrial nations over the past century. Now, a relatively small number of fast-growing emerging economies, notably China, India, Brazil and South Africa, are adding to the concentrations.

Those deeply engaged in the diplomatic process, while acknowledging its flaws, say the world cannot entrust its fate to bankers, entrepreneurs or even the self-interest of nation-states. It was these actors, after all, who brought the world an energy system that puts no price on the global harm caused by ever-rising greenhouse gas emissions.

“I really do believe that a common international framework around all these things must be the aim to bring us the scale and the urgency we need,” said Connie Hedegaard, the E.U. commissioner for climate action. “Not that I don’t believe in the market, but it matters whether you have common rules or not.”

As for the weaknesses of the U.N. framework convention, “You don’t have to tell me about its shortcomings, how irritating and slow and frustrating it is,” she said. “I know it. But the very simple answer is, it’s the only forum we have.”


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