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China’s greenhouse gas emissions overtook those of the United States and it became the largest emitter of greenhouse gases in the late 2000s.
China’s greenhouse gas emissions overtook those of the United States and it became the largest emitter of greenhouse gases in the late 2000s.
(Photo by Amy Bakke/The Stanley Foundation)

Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Climate Talks
Plus a Little Bit More Than You Ever Wanted to Know

The next two years will be critical for progress on climate change, particularly for global reductions of greenhouse gas emissions beyond 2020.

In September, world leaders will meet at the United Nations to consider what is perhaps the greatest threat to human survival...

... and hopefully bolster support for a robust agreement in further negotiations. The Paris talks next year will see an assortment of national measures from almost 200 countries.

The process, a series of meetings in locations from Mexico to Denmark to Poland to South Africa, has not been easy and will be less so in the coming months. Any agreement among the entire world community is bound to be fraught with difficulty, dissent, and diversions.

Until now, rich nations, which have emitted most of the greenhouse gases since the Industrial Revolution, have been expected to take the lead with commitments to cut emissions, while the poorer countries have been given more leeway.

The talks for a successor to the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, the first and only global deal to tackle climate change, have been disappointing to many. But the negotiations have the strongest claim to legitimacy, and despite the shortcomings, there are signs that the discussions will bring about significant greenhouse gas reductions.

In a Q&A with the Stanley Foundation, climate expert Joshua Busby, an associate professor at the University of Texas at Austin, talks about the current state of climate change negotiations and what’s ahead.

TSF: Weren’t negotiations for a new agreement supposed to be concluded in Copenhagen in 2009?

Joshua Busby: That is true, but we seem to have more urgency and energy to support more robust action on climate change this year. Moreover, action on climate change has now spread to more venues, creating a more complex landscape for tackling this problem but greater scope for progress.

The climate negotiations in 2009 in Copenhagen introduced an alternative model for global progress on climate change based on bottom-up political pledges by countries of what they are prepared to do on climate change accompanied by periodic review by other countries of progress. Discussions in Cancun in 2010 reaffirmed that new model of “pledge and review.” That was a huge breakthrough, though media coverage failed to realize that Copenhagen broke a stalemate in the negotiations, because key developing countries like China and India made international commitments to address climate change for the first time.

In Copenhagen, leaders also affirmed their commitment to keep emissions concentrations of greenhouse gases below the level that would lead to a 2-degrees Centigrade increase in global average temperatures, the level beyond which scientists consider dangerous. The general sense is that long-term concentrations should not exceed 450 parts per million (ppm) of CO2. By December 2013, the world had already reached nearly 400 ppm, with concentrations perhaps likely to top 1,000 ppm by end of the century without aggressive action.

TSF: What is different in 2014 that makes progress more likely?

Busby: The worst of the global financial crisis appears to be over, which takes away one competing issue for resources and attention. In addition, parts of the Fifth Assessment Report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change have come out that reaffirm that the problem is getting worse.

TSF: Will a new agreement be concluded successfully in 2015?

Busby: It’s hard to say. Some agreement is likely, but what form it will take is still very much in question. At the 2011 Durban climate negotiations, countries agreed that the new agreement will take the form of “a protocol, another legal instrument, or an agreed outcome with legal force.”

This elastic language means different things to different actors, with some, like the European Union, probably more committed to a protocol. Others, like the United States, no doubt have something different in mind, that the “legal” form may reflect that a country has domestic legislation or regulations on the books. India and China may want to push for an even less stringent agreement. In the end, there may be some compromise that some elements, such as measuring and reporting emissions, may be binding while mitigation measures might not be.

One of the main reasons why a Kyoto-style protocol is unlikely is that some countries are reluctant to sign on to new, legally binding instruments. The requirement that two-thirds of US senators offer their advice and consent is a major hurdle in the United States. Other countries, like China and India, are also wary about taking on new legal commitments that they see as limiting their economic growth.

The issues going into 2015 revolve around, first, the nature and relative ambition of country commitments to address climate change; second, whether emerging economies like China and India are willing to take on commitments of some nature; third, what commitments countries like the United States are willing to make; and fourth, how to reconcile nationally derived commitments with what is required to meet global climate goals.

Beyond this, the big issues have to do with money to support developing countries, including mitigation to reduce greenhouse gas emissions as well as adaptation so countries can withstand climate change. Increasingly, developing countries are calling for so-called loss and damage to compensate them for the negative consequences of climate change. These demands for funding may be irreconcilable.

TSF: Tell us how we got to where we are today.

Busby: The first climate treaty, the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, was negotiated in 1992 at the Rio Earth Summit. It had no legally binding commitments. Since 1992, parties to the Framework Convention meet annually to elaborate new measures to address the problem in negotiations that encompass almost all of the world’s countries.

Following on the success of the ozone negotiations, the climate negotiations moved to develop legally binding agreements to reduce greenhouse gases. The Kyoto Protocol was negotiated in 1997 in Japan and created legal obligations for the advanced industrialized countries collectively to reduce their emissions five percent below 1990 levels by the period 2008–2012. Developing countries like China and India had no legally binding commitments.

Unfortunately, some countries that signed Kyoto never ratified, notably the United States. Canada ratified but ultimately withdrew. Japan ratified and tried to keep its commitments but found it difficult, all the more so after the Fukushima nuclear disaster in 2011. The European Union did the most to meet its commitments and was the only actor enthusiastic about a second commitment period under the Kyoto Protocol for the period after 2012.  
With China’s emissions rising rapidly, its greenhouse gas emissions overtook those of the United States, and it became the largest emitter of greenhouse gases in the late 2000s. Since the late 2000s, recognition of rising emissions by China and other countries has created demands for those countries to take on commitments of some sort. The climate negotiations in 2009 in Copenhagen were thus a breakthrough on multiple fronts—a recognition that treaties might be flawed instruments for progress, particularly if key states were not included.

Joshua Busby is an associate professor of public affairs at the University of Texas at Austin. He has held research fellowships at Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School, Harvard University’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, and the Foreign Policy Studies program at the Brookings Institution. Busby is a life member in the Council on Foreign Relations. He served in the Peace Corps in Ecuador from 1997 to 1999.


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