China At Durban: First Steps Toward a New Climate Agreement

The UN Climate Conference in Durban, South Africa, concluded over the weekend with a consensus to negotiate an agreement that will include all major emitters of warming gases. The conference agreed to a second commitment period for the Kyoto Protocol, extended the work of the group for Long-term Cooperative Action, and most significantly established new negotiations under the Durban Platform. Launching these negotiations was hailed as major progress around the world (Bloomberg, The Statesman, Xinhua). For the first time the world’s three major emitters (by total amount of greenhouse gases emitted), China, the United States and India, have agreed to begin negotiations for an international “protocol, another legal instrument or an agreed outcome with legal force,” indicating that there will be actions and efforts by all countries. (For the implications of this complex legal wording, see my colleague Jake Werksman’s discussion on WRI Insights).

When the Kyoto Protocol was adopted in the late 1990s, it actually covered the majority of global emissions (entry into force required ratification by parties with emissions totaling 60% of the global total), but without the United States’ ratification, and with emissions growing in the developing world, that percentage has been steadily declining. The new second commitment period for the Kyoto Protocol will only cover some 15 percent of the world’s emissions.1 As such, it had become increasingly urgent to develop a new way forward.

Durban Made Significant Advances

The Conference in Durban made a number of significant advances:

  • It created a structure to negotiate a new agreement with commitments and actions by a larger number of countries.
  • It recognized that the existing Copenhagen commitments and actions are insufficient to keep global temperatures from rising more than 2°C and established a process for reviewing the ambition and recommending changes.
  • It established the Green Climate Fund to assist the poorest countries not just in reducing their greenhouse gas emissions, but in adapting to the changes in the climate that are already happening and will accelerate even with current action.

It is worth stepping back and recognizing the amount of progress that has been made in what often seems like the cumbersome process of multilateral negotiations. This year’s agreement builds on the progress made in Copenhagen and Cancun. Looking specifically at China, this year’s agreement builds on both what it agreed to in the previous two years, and the experience it has already gained in beginning to implement its major Copenhagen commitment – to reduce CO2 emissions intensity by 40-45% between 2005 and 2020. Durban launches a new process toward a substantial advance over the voluntary approach taken at Copenhagen. But China’s voluntary commitment two years ago was instrumental in preparing China to agree to new approaches this year.

China Arrived At Durban With Two New Messages

China arrived at the Durban talks with two interesting messages that appeared to open space for the negotiations. First, its negotiators indicated that the question of whether any agreement would be legally binding was not actually their major issue in the negotiations. They listed conditions for their willingness to consider a legally binding agreement, but by doing so they also indicated that they did not see the question of a legally binding agreement as a “red line” that they could not cross in the negotiations. Second, in more informal settings, China’s emissions experts indicated they are looking closely at how to establish absolute emissions caps as part of domestic policy. While setting specific emissions targets will only come much later in discussions of the new agreement launched with the Durban Platform, these indications suggested that China might have room for new approaches as those negotiations proceed in the years ahead. In setting its Copenhagen target and implementing it under the 12th Five Year Plan, the Chinese have already learned a great deal about their emissions and about their capacity to manage them. As a result, they have slowly become more comfortable with what kind of international commitments they might be able to make.

A New Chinese Style

It was not just Chinese statements that had changed in Durban; it was also the style. Only two years ago a Chinese NGO held its own side event for the first time ever. This year China had its own pavilion with multiple events every day, involving government, NGOs and academics – just like the Europeans have held for years. Chinese negotiators seem to have become more comfortable with the fact that these various experts and interest groups will all speak from somewhat different points of view, and that they are in fact most effective when they are free to speak beyond the government line (See, for example, the interview the ChinaFAQs/Yale student team conducted with Energy Research Institute expert Jiang Kejun). The combination of official and unofficial messages helped convey China’s overall message that it had made progress in the last two years and that it would be flexible in Durban.

China Sees a Compromise

As in any negotiation, there was a great deal of give and take. For China, preserving the Kyoto Protocol was a critical result, hailed by Chinese leaders. In addition, the creation of the Green Climate Fund, which China advocated for in support of poorer developing countries, was important in securing Chinese support for the overall package. China’s major compromises were agreeing to negotiate something new for after the second commitment period of the Kyoto Protocol and agreeing that this would be “with legal force.” Most notable perhaps is that the Durban Platform does not repeat the “common but differentiated responsibilities” language that is part of both the original 1992 Framework Convention and the Kyoto Protocol. Agreeing to a document without such language is a major change for China.

The Copenhagen Relationships Remained

It seems the coverage thus far has overlooked one development: the relationships that emerged in the closing hours of Copenhagen actually appear to have endured. While the U.S. and China may have a sometimes rather tense negotiating relationship with regard to climate change, in reality the countries that were in the final room at Copenhagen — the U.S. and BASIC (China, India, South Africa and Brazil) — were one side of this debate. The other side was the Europeans, the least developed countries and the small island nations. The difficult task over the last two years has been getting the U.S. and the four BASIC countries comfortable with making commitments. The major change this year from Copenhagen was that the Europeans managed to develop their own coalition. In the end it does not appear that either the U.S. or China was the last hold-out on the final language about a new agreement – they had agreed to other versions, and the final compromise language responded to an Indian objection.

Need for More Ambition

In the end, agreeing to negotiate a new agreement is only part of the solution. The Durban Platform notes “with grave concern the significant gap” between current commitments and the emissions reduction levels needed to maintain global temperature rise within 1.5°C or even 2°C, and both urges parties to do more and establishes a review mechanism. The Chinese will be taking this seriously, realizing that their per capita emissions levels will soon be at European, but not U.S., levels (in fact the IEA predicts they will reach the European average in 2015, but will not reach the OECD average, which is still less than the U.S. figure, until 2030). China has already been developing its renewable energy industry, energy efficiency and emissions monitoring programs, and new enforcement mechanisms, such as cap and trade pilots and a carbon tax. A new agreement with greater ambition could speed up all such developments, but whether it does so is to a significant extent dependent on how rapidly the U.S. moves. As a still much wealthier country and with higher per capita emissions, U.S. action will be highly influential. The Chinese still look to the U.S. to make the case that increased ambition can work for a large economy. If the U.S. were to take the initiative on win/win climate solutions, green investment, and energy efficiency, it would be deeply motivating to the major developing countries. In the absence of U.S. action, there is still a lot that China will do for domestic purposes, but the international context will be less of a motivation.

1The figure 14 or 15% of global emissions for the second commitment period was widely used in Durban. Looking at the most recent reported climate data for all the countries involved (2008), total emissions at the time were about 18% of global emissions. However, since these countries have been and will be cutting their emissions more rapidly than others, the percentage will be lower by 2020.

Image courtesy of Land Rover Our Planet and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons License.