A series of disappointing national and global efforts leads to hopes that bottom-up local initiatives can overcome a vacuum in leadership and the stalemate that impede progress at the federal and international levels.

Climate experts and policymakers have decisively judged international climate policy talks to have regularly fallen short of purported goals since the U.N. framework convention talks in Copenhagen in 2009.

Before the December 2011 COP 17 talks in Durban, many activists and commentators laid blame for the shortfalls in large part on the global recession, on climate change “skeptics,” and on undue political influence they and energy interests have played in seeding confusion and doubt, particularly in the U.S. The proverbial elephant in the room during the negotiations, however, has always been the refusal by successive U.S. administrations to ratify the Kyoto Protocol, which took effect in 2005 without American participation.

Commentary and Analysis

While these factors still played into the toothless deal struck in Durban in December 2011, the complexity of emissions mitigation as international law has now become one of the most important barriers to new, meaningful progress. Indeed, when India disputes U.N. claims that lower emission regulations will be enforced by the Durban Platform for Enhanced Action, Delhi may be correct. Not only will lower emissions not be enforced within India, but there will be no details of the plan until 2015, and it will not take effect until 2020. Enforcement of international deals such as this has been dubious in the past.

In addition to an agreed-upon extension of the Kyoto guidelines in the Durban talks, another agreement to a $142 billion carbon credit market for developed countries was reached and scheduled to be completed by 2015 and implemented by 2020. In addition, an annual Green Climate Fund (GCF) of $100 billion is to be dispersed to developing countries beginning in 2020, but it remains anyone’s guess just where that money will come from.

The idea for the GCF was conceived in the Copenhagen talks in 2009 and extended upon a year later in Cancun. While more details on the fund came out of the Durban meeting, they deal mostly with timetables. An idea posited by the Bill Gates Foundation at the G20 in Cannes last fall laid out a simplified global plan: a 0.1 percent tax on all equities and a 0.2 percent tax on all bonds traded. According to the Gates report, that effort would raise between $100 and $250 billion per year.

Stalemate + Leadership Vacuum = Domestic Politics

Short of such a plan, which is unlikely to garner much support in the private sector, finger pointing and charity appear to be the developed world’s immediate answer to climate change. The U.S. cries foul when treaties propose to allow China and India to emit at present rates for years to come. Historic emissions of the West, however, still dwarf what China and India are putting into the atmosphere.

With all sides posturing in dealing with these facts, the inevitable outcome is a stalemate and a vacuum of international leadership. In such an environment, domestic politics and policies trump all.

The scheduled 2012 talks to be held in Qatar are set to address whether the Kyoto treaty will be extended for five or eight years. Disappointingly, however, the countries that so far have agreed to sign up to the extension account for only 15 percent of global emissions. Verbal and political pressures will be required to bring other countries aboard.

It’s not that there are consequences for countries that have ratified Kyoto and then failed to meet targets of the so-called binding agreement. Canada not only failed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions below 1990 levels, as outlined in Kyoto, but actually has experienced a 24 percent increase in annual emissions since then. Blame for that shortfall has been assigned to Canada’s conservative government, to an explosion of tar sands oil extraction and, yet again, to the continuing lack of strong American leadership in global climate policy discussions. In addition, government cooperation with oil companies such as Trans Canada continues to venture ahead with controversial initiatives such as the Keystone XL pipeline, which would bring the dirtiest oil in the world from Canada to Gulf Coast refineries.

A few things now appear certain in global communication trends on climate:

  • Private investment is playing the largest role (86 percent) in funding efforts to manage climate change, and funding the GCF with taxation through international financial transactions is unpopular in the developed world, which prefers to leave the efforts to development banks and institutions.
  • Domestic regulations worldwide will continue to play a larger role than international law.
  • Local and state regulations will continue to lead federal legislative efforts when it comes to achieving U.S. emissions reductions.
  • Growing amounts of funding will need to be spent on adaptation to climate change, including on remediation expenses resulting from natural disasters.

Growing Mismatch between Commitments and Delivery

After a marathon 60-hour negotiation extended the conference for two days, the Durban deal for the carbon credit market and GCF were reached on December 11. While attendees from the developed world and the host country took a verbal victory lap in praise of the long-winded Durban Platform for Enhanced Action, representatives from the rest of the African continent and from India spoke with measured optimism and tones of displeasure.

“It’s a middle ground, we met mid-way. Of course we are not completely happy about the outcome, it lacks balance,” said Tosi Mpanu-Mpanu, head of the Africa Group.

Environmental groups, scientists and social justice groups were less conciliatory. Protests throughout the city during the talks underscored an urgency in Africa not felt elsewhere.

Ruth Davis, Greenpeace U.K. chief policy advisor, laments: “We can’t keep coming back to these annual talks to agree to deals that fall so far short of what the science, rather than the politics, requires. Every December the mismatch grows between what the world is committing to and what nations should be delivering.”

Just as the 2009 Copenhagen Accords are nonbinding, so too is the Durban Platform for Enhanced Action. The platform mentions the “highest possible mitigation efforts by all parties” but provides no detailed language on emissions reduction or cuts. While there is an apparent agreement for these mitigation efforts to become binding in 2015, that hope appears for now to strike many as hollow.

The language of “kicking the can down the road” when it comes to addressing economic woes has now extended to the worldwide conversation on climate change. The ceiling of a 2 degree centigrade worldwide temperature increase, necessary to avoid disaster according to NASA scientist James Hansen and a number of other respected climate scientists, could well be shattered by the end of the century by at least another 2 degrees. The U.N. reports that such an increase will lead to disastrous rises in sea level and possibly irreversible shifts in weather patterns, affecting agriculture, water availability, and the social fabric.

In such a climate, “bottom-up” solutions appear to be the last best hope for moving forward as large-scale ambitions and “top-down” regulations fail.

Joseph Doolen is a a freelance writer and journalism graduate student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where he has been studying international environmental policy, with a focus on alternative energy subsidization and climate change.

Topics: Policy & Politics