Sat, Dec 17, 2011 - Page 9 News List

Climate deal: Now comes the far, far harder part

As the UN celebrates a breakthrough agreement, the US is warning that negotiations will take years

By Fiona Harvey and Damian Carrington  /  The Guardian, LONDON

Illustration: June

The Durban climate conference may have agreed a deal — or at least a deal to agree a deal — but the scale of the work that still needs to be done became plain on Monday.

Although talks are supposed to start immediately, US Special Envoy for Climate Change Todd Stern infuriated the EU by warning that much preparatory work had to be done before the negotiators could sit down to haggle.

“[In drawing up] the Kyoto Protocol, there was a period of a year to a year-and-a-half of scoping out, so I expect that will go on ... for a year or two,” Stern said. “Then you still have two to two-and-a-half years to negotiate, and finish in 2015.”

EU officials are acutely aware that the time to forge a deal is short, and the issues to be resolved vastly complex.

The Durban conference ended on Sunday with a last-ditch deal whereby developed and developing countries will for the first time work on an agreement that should be legally binding on all parties, to be written by 2015 and to come into force after 2020.

However, while the UN and most of the countries present hailed the deal as a breakthrough, getting an agreement that all countries sign up to will be intensely complicated.

“Many political agreements put off the difficult actions for the next regime and that appears to be the reality for the Durban platform,” said David Symons, director of environmental consultancy WSP. “No one should underestimate the difficulty of arriving at a legal agreement between the developed and developing countries, let alone one that for the first time includes China, India, Europe and the US. The Durban platform provides an anodyne set of words, with much of the detail yet to be agreed and the teeth not really coming for eight years. The real challenge will be in agreeing the fine print.”

Jonathan Grant of consultancy PwC said the scale of the task was daunting, because G20 countries would need to cut their carbon intensity (the amount of carbon dioxide released as a proportion of energy produced) by 5 percent a year to 2050. France’s vast nuclear power program of the 1980s delivered a 4 percent per year cut for 10 years, he said, and the UK’s “dash for gas” to replace coal-fired power stations in the 1990s only produced cuts of 3 percent a year for a decade.

The timetable is significant, particularly in relation to the US electoral cycle. Striking a deal at Durban was crucial, because by next year’s conference there could be another president, and none of the Republican candidates would have signed up to the Durban platform.

An incoming Republican would have to make a public renunciation of the climate talks to get out of the 2015 deadline. However, if US President Barack Obama wins another term, in 2015 he will be facing the final year of his presidency. That may spur him to try to ensure a global climate agreement is part of his legacy.

Any new agreement will come down to targets — how far each country will have to cut its emissions. The motivation to increase ambitions could come from several sources, including people power, said Michael Jacobs of the London School of Economics.

“By 2015, the world’s young people in particular can be expected to demand greater action as the evidence of future damage becomes clear,” he also said.

He also cites the ambition of China’s next five-year plan, due in 2015, and demands from investors for stronger, clearer policies as important.

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