No Binding Agreement on Climate Change ’til 2020?

Rajenda Pichauri, current head of the IPCC

It’s been a very mild fall, so far. Up until last week, we’ve had temperatures in the 60s here in Vermont.  Very pleasant, but not entirely becalming.  So, now that we’ve finally had some snow, and – alhamdulillah – a break from work, I can take the kids out and enjoy some of what makes the New England winters bearable.

With this in mind, I’ve been thinking about a conversation I had with one of my students: as of this Sunday, the rich nations have essentially given up on trying to negotiate a binding agreement for the post-Kyoto period.  As a result, next week’s round of climate talks in Durban, South Africa is unlikely to end with new commitments to address climate change after the Protocol expires in 2012.  At present, the optimistic scenario is that an agreement might be signed and enter into force at the earliest, 2020.

The Usual Suspects

The usual suspects are to blame for this impasse.  Developed nations are essentially making the argument enshrined in the US’ own Byrd-Hagel Resolution – that any future agreement must include binding targets for less developed countries (LDCs).  LDCs counter with the observations that 1) given the long lifetime of GHGs (over 100 years for CO2), and 2) the wealth disparity between the rich and the poor made possible by rampant industrialization, the richer nations are primarily responsible for the current predicament.  Indeed, one study by the Oxford Institute for Energy Studies carried out for the scientific advisory body for the UNFCCC assessed that the industrialized world, with 15% of the world’s population, is responsible for 64 – 70% of current global warming (PDF).  Consequently, any action taken by LDCs should be voluntary, not mandatory, and should be accompanied with far more financial and technical assistance such that the costs of environmental regulation do not harm nascent economies.

Concerned observers note that without a binding agreement, it is unlikely that nations will be willing to cut emissions after 2012.  Problematically, we currently have an accumulation of 389ppm of CO2 in the atmosphere.  Further, according to the IPCC and the National Climatic Data Center of NOAA, we are adding more CO2 at the rate of 1.9ppm per year – by 2020, we will have, at that rate, 406ppm of CO2, or just over the 400ppm recommended to keep an increase of global mean temperatures below 2 degrees above the current norm.


So what’s the upshot?  Those in favor of institutions note that they are potentially extremely helpful in regulating international problems.  In short, they institutionalize monitoring, provide transparency, encourage iterated discussions among parties, and provide consistent benchmarks against which progress can be measured.  On the other hand, skeptics counter that this begs the question: why should we assume that the requirements encoded in institutions are meaningful?  Indeed, some say that the tendency in international regimes is that states are likely to commit only to institutions and obligations that satisfy the least ambitious among them.  Problematically, the rules encoded in such unambitious institutions are probably going to be ineffective solutions at best.  As a result, the best bet is that sufficient global attention around the issue has been generated that domestic populations will independently drive improved behavior.  A long shot, but perhaps more likely than hoping for a serious international agreement.