The 17th Conference of the Parties (COP) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change opened yesterday in Durban, South Africa. (If I hadn't already known it, I would have learned it from the literally dozens of announcements I received by e-mail yesterday and today of "side-events" hosted by the hoards of NGOs that follow the globally roving cocktail party that is the UN COP).
In contrast to past meetings, many of which opened with high hopes and much fanfare, the tone this year (as it was last year) is subdued, if not outright pessimistic. At the top of the agenda is answering the question of what happens when the Kyoto Protocol's compliance period expires on December 31, 2012? That issue was supposed to be put to rest two years ago at COP 15 in Copenhagen, but China (among other countries) scuppered those efforts (see here). Since then, progress towards a successor treaty to the Kyoto Protocol has been halting, and there is virtually no hope that a successor treaty will be adopted at this year's conference.
The European Union, which has taken its mitigation requirements more seriously than perhaps any other country (or collection of countries) in the developed world, has given up hope of a brand new treaty. Instead, it is calling for new commitments and a new compliance period under the old Kyoto treaty. But the US delegation, sounding more like Bush in 2001 than Obama in 2009, is already pouring cold water on that idea. The head of the US delegation, Jonathan Pershing, announced yesterday that the US will not support any successor treaty or Kyoto extension that does not include mandatory emissions reductions on high-emitting developing countries, including China and India (see, e.g., here). Everyone knows that the US Senate will not ratify the Kyoto Protocol or any other mitigation treaty if that condition is not met. Yet, the Obama Administration is probably naive to imagine that there are 60 votes in the Senate for any climate treaty he might sign. In any case, it is difficult to imagine that US negotiators could possibly cajole China and India into accepted binding mitigation targets to reduce nominal emissions for two reasons: (1) they are both developing countries with per capita income levels well below those of even the poorest developed countries; and (2) they have contributed much less than the US or EU to the existing stock of GHGs in the atmosphere. And by the way, China has at least credibly committed to reducing the carbon intensity of production in a way that requires deviation from business-as-usual emissions, which is more than can be said for the US. So, unless the US delegation stops its impotent posturing and adopts a more realistic negotiating position over the next two weeks, the failure of the Durban talks is assured from the start.
How likely is the US to do that? Not very. While the rest of the world may be focused on the expiration of the Kyoto Protocol compliance period at the end of December 2012, President Obama is focused on the first Tuesday in November 2012, when his own political future will be decided. In a country where politicians and the electorate are still debating well-settled questions of basic climate science, and China is widely perceived as a potent economic competitor, the US delegation's negotiating position has become a hostage to domestic political agendas. If China scuppered the Copenhagen negotiations for reasons that remain murky, the US can be expected to scupper the Durban negotiations for reasons easily explained by public choice theory.