Friday 24 Sep 2021 | 22:50 | SYDNEY
Friday 24 Sep 2021 | 22:50 | SYDNEY

Climate policy still all about the US and China

1 November 2010 08:39

Dougal McInnes is a Geneva-based consultant with the UN Environment Program. He has worked as the head of climate policy at CNRG International and with the Office of National Assessments.

Eleven months after the Copenhagen shemozzle and one month before the next round of talks in Cancun, there has been little progress in international climate policy negotiations. Policy-makers have lowered all expectations of a good outcome – let alone an agreement – in Mexico.

There are still six complex pieces to the puzzle – mitigation, adaptation, forestry, technology, finance and markets. They remain bogged down by conflicting national interests and the UNFCCC consensus approach (a July 2010 Lowy Policy Brief nicely explains the UNFCCC's failings).

Finance offers a modicum of hope. Discussions progressed well at the recent talks in Tianjin. There are now over 20 different avenues for the US$30 billion in fast track funds promised to 2012 (although it's nearly 2011) and $100 billion annually pledged to 2020. The funds are to help developing countries adapt to climate change (effects best summarised as, 'too much or too little water').

However, it's easier for rich countries to pledge 'green aid' for adaptation abroad rather than make structural changes for mitigation at home. And adaptation costs – estimated at US$190 billion each year – increase as mitigation is delayed and the climate changes. So mitigation is still the critical issue. The game changer that would move the talks beyond the aspirational goals set in Copenhagen is an agreement on binding targets between China and the US.

The US wants a mitigation agreement to include legal commitments from some major developing countries, namely China. Beijing isn't willing to go further than its pledges on energy intensity. The US has little leverage against this position without first legislating a price on carbon at home.

So US negotiators have shifted the focus from commitments to rules. The rules for auditing emission targets – independent measuring, reporting and verification (MRV) – are as important as the targets themselves. China supports MRV, yet only if national sovereignty is respected. This caveat is ambiguous and the US remains sceptical.

The upshot is frustration. In Tianjin, the lead Chinese negotiator called the US a 'pig preening in a mirror', an apparent retort to a remark earlier this year by the US lead negotiator that China was acting like the Copenhagen accord had 'never happened'.

With such distrust, there won't be a meaningful Sino-American agreement anytime soon. COP16 in Cancun will provide – at best – some clarity for COP17 in South Africa. And any agreement is not likely until COP18 in Rio in 2012.

Before we reach South Africa or Rio, climate policy negotiations may shift to the G20 or Major Economies Forum (as flagged in the Lowy paper). A change of scene may not be enough to break the impasse between the US and China. And leaving the multilateral UNFCCC process could create a spaghetti bowl of carbon agreements, border adjustments, bilateral crediting, carbon tariffs and a fragmented carbon market. But given the dim prospects for COP16 and beyond, that might still be progress.

Photo by Flickr user Gunnsi, used under a Creative Commons license.