10 January 2012

NEGOTIATIONS: Can a new structure based on the notion of 'equity' replace the Kyoto pact?

U.S. diplomats returned from last month's global climate summit in Durban, South Africa, crowing that they had cracked the armor shielding China, India and other emerging nations from accepting binding emission cuts

Lisa Friedman | ClimateWire, January 9, 2012 in E&ENews.net | Jan 10, 2012

But now a serious challenge awaits them: preparing for an entirely new climate change regime.

Creating a different system -- one that puts all countries on an even legal playing field while still remaining sensitive to different levels of wealth and historic emissions -- promises to be a politically fraught and divisive task. Not only must negotiators decide how much more global warming responsibility the United States will have than China -- they might also have to determine how to weigh mitigation obligations among countries like Singapore, Saudi Arabia, Mexico or South Korea.

At the core of this new debate, analysts say, lies the concept of equity. It is the policy that took center stage in Durban, yet its inner workings still remain murky.

"The way we look at it, it's a concept that embodies fairness," State Department Special Envoy for Climate Change Todd Stern said in a dawn press conference as the summit staggered to a close. "From a U.S. point of view, any agreement that's going to be legal has got to have legal symmetry, by which I don't mean that everybody has to do the same thing or that developing countries that are growing at a rate of 7 or 8 or 9 percent a year will have to make absolute reductions."

One country's fairness, however, is another's injustice. Stern spoke those words just hours after successfully forcing developing countries to abandon a cherished phrase -- "common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities" -- from the final Durban Platform.

The phrase dates back to the 1972 Stockholm Declaration of the U.N. Conference on the Human Environment, but the current wording took shape nearly 20 years ago at the first Rio Earth Summit. Embodied in the language are the basic ideas that polluters should pay for redressing environmental damages and that countries should do their fair share based on various degrees of responsibility and economic capability.

Dividing the world into 2 camps

The 1997 Kyoto Protocol saw a stark application of this principle. Diplomats divided the world into two categories: 37 wealthy, industrialized countries in a category called Annex I charged with reducing greenhouse gas emissions an average of 5.2 percent from 1990 levels, and about 150 others in various stages of development (called non-Annex I) under no formal obligation to cut carbon.

Over the years, Stern and other Western leaders complain, those categories turned into a permanent firewall, with emerging powers cloaking themselves with the phrase "common but differentiated responsibilities" to ward off taking emission commitments, while conveniently forgetting the "respective capabilities" part as they grew wealthier.

Meanwhile, emissions in some of those countries -- notably China and India -- began to soar, prompting further calls for more balanced responsibilities.

Others, though, argue that the two Kyoto categories exist for good reason. Sivan Kartha, a senior scientist at the Stockholm Environment Institute, said the group of industrialized nations required to cut carbon was never intended to be simply a collection of the largest greenhouse gas emitters, but rather a list of countries with the greatest responsibility to act.

"If you look at responsibility, the North is responsible for maybe something on the order of half of global emissions. But if you take into context consumption, one of the causes of emissions, it becomes more like 65 percent," he said. "It's funny how that's just been relegated to some distant historical fact, but it's the equity basis of the climate regime."

The Obama administration has fought hard against that concept, arguing that the United States -- which never became party to Kyoto because Congress objected to China's being let off the hook -- will never be able to join a treaty unless all major emitters are held to the same legal obligations. Durban was a major win for the United States on that score.

Categories that have changed

"In Durban you had a broad recognition that circumstances have evolved, and a future agreement has to reflect a more equitable distribution of responsibilities among the major economies," said Elliot Diringer, executive vice president of the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions.

The phrase "common but differentiated responsibilities," he said, "was traditionally evoked by developing countries as a way to fend off any new commitments, and it was a major concession on their part not to put those words into the decision." The principle remains a core element of the climate negotiations, he said, "but it needs to be reinterpreted."

The elephant-sized question looming in this new room of the negotiation is how it will be reinterpreted.

When the phrase was stricken from the Durban Platform, a document that lays out plans to develop a broad new climate change agreement to take effect by 2020, many felt it essentially disintegrated the dueling categories. But, Kartha argues, diplomats made no real attempt to talk about what equity really means when it comes to climate change -- in the end making Durban "an elaborate attempt to shift the burden to the South."

Others were more optimistic. "This is an opportunity to take a step back and look at where we are now, and what are responsibilities for countries moving forward, and to have a more sophisticated and informed debate about equity. What is a modern equity concept that allows both India and small island nations and the U.S. to be on board?" said Jennifer Morgan, director of climate and energy policy at the World Resources Institute.

There is no shortage of analysis when it comes to ways of divvying up mitigation responsibility. Indeed, it seems every environmental economist with a calculator has tried to come up with a formula to figure out how much a country like the United States -- which emits about 19 tons of carbon dioxide per person and has a per capita gross domestic product of nearly $49,000 -- must do relative to, say, India, which emits 1.3 tons of CO2 per person and has a per capita GDP of $3,408.

What may prove even more challenging, though, is coming up with an equation for the vast number of other still-developing but high-emitting countries like Malaysia or Argentina that after 2020 will also presumably be expected to take commitments.

A variety of formulas

Among the earliest formulas is the so-called "Brazil Proposal," which the country submitted to the U.N. climate regime in 1997. The analysis sets out different emission reduction targets for countries according to the impact of their historic emissions on temperature rise.

More recently, economists have examined the equitable division of carbon space in more innovative ways. Kartha, along with scientists from the Heinrich Böll Foundation, put out a report before the 2009 Copenhagen, Denmark, climate summit trying to quantify the responsibility of wealthy carbon consumers in all countries, including developing ones. The Greenhouse Development Rights Framework also moves away from examining countries by per capita averages, metrics the authors say "fail to capture either the true depth of a country's developmental need or the actual extent of its wealth."

By defining capacity and responsibility in individual terms, the authors found that the United States, with 36 percent of the population earning more than $20 per day and responsible for the most cumulative emissions since 1990, bears the largest responsibility to act on climate change. China, meanwhile, only has 5.8 percent of the population earning above that development threshold yet still bears a 5.5 percent responsibility because of its large carbon emissions levels. The study is designed to be fluid, allowing obligations to shift over time as countries grow.

"There is an understanding that you have to apply the concept of equity beyond just country to country," said Lyanne Schalatek, associate director of the Heinrich Böll Foundation's Washington, D.C., office.

Of course, few expect the U.N. climate negotiators from 192 countries -- who can barely agree on agendas -- to coalesce around a critical formula. With so many ways to calculate responsibility -- by per capita emissions, total emissions or cumulative emissions since 2005, 1990 or even 1840, just to name a few -- each country will want a formula most favorable to its national interests.

Can negotiators 'stumble' on a workable plan?

"I would never expect to see agreement on one of those," Diringer said. "Equity is in the eye of the beholder, and you need an outcome that each party can represent internationally and at home as reasonably equitable," Diringer said. He predicted that the future would see no new explicit categories, but rather de facto agreements, particularly among major economies, to cut carbon.

That worries many who see the United States and other industrialized countries pushing for a "pledge and review" system set up in Copenhagen whereby each country puts forward the level of emission cuts politicians believe will be possible, both technically and politically, and progress is then monitored internationally.

The problem with that, Kartha and others argue, is no guarantee exists that those pledges will add up to a number that keeps the globe below a level of catastrophic warming.

Others say they are confident that a rational system will work itself out. Jake Schmidt, international policy director at the Natural Resources Defense Council, argued that Kyoto's 5.2 percent obligation for wealthy countries was never really a top-down target, but rather the sum of pledges that nations put forward for themselves.

"At the end of the day, countries negotiated on the basis of what they thought they could do and sell at home," Schmidt said. In the future, he said, "we can't just have a system where countries make up whatever they want to do and we wash our hands and say, 'We're good.' But we also shouldn't kid ourselves that any country is going to go into the negotiations and say we're going to do exactly what the world needs regardless of what we can sell at home."

He noted that in Copenhagen, countries of various wealth and historic emissions submitted generally accepted pledges, "not because we negotiated a set of criteria, or what kind of actions they should take, but they knew there was an expectation they would do a certain kind of action." Rather, he said, "I think we're more likely to stumble into an equity formulation that works for everybody as opposed to negotiating it up front."

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