Jun 14 2011
Europe has to follow its Climate Realpolitik
By Nick Mabey
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Two years after Copenhagen, Europe finds itself central to shaping the direction of the global climate change regime again.
By the Durban conference in December the EU needs to decide whether - and how - it will sign-up to a second commitment period for the Kyoto Protocol. But Europe is characteristically dithering over the choices involved, and is therefore failing to shape the global political and policy environment around this decision.
A comprehensive binding regime which would deliver a 2°C future is not on the table at Durban. There is currently no political space for such an outcome. Given that most major emitters will see leadership transitions in 2012, the soonest any real debate on higher ambition can happen is from 2013. The first Kyoto commitment period finishes in 2012 so Europe needs to make a decision on the future of Kyoto outside the context of an overarching “global deal”. Europe must move on from the strategic offers it defined in advance of Copenhagen to an approach that reflects today’s realities.
Signing up to a second commitment period requires Europe to do nothing more in terms of additional emission reductions. Europe has already committed to delivering domestic emissions reduction to 2020, well beyond the period of the second commitment. As emissions have grown more slowly and oil prices are much higher than expected before Copenhagen, the EU also has good economic reasons for increasing its domestic climate action unilaterally. This decision should be delinked from the international negotiations.
In Europe’s interest
In this context, the main argument for not agreeing to a second commitment period is that Europe will look stupid if it commits without other developed countries such as Canada and Japan, despite the fact that Australia, New Zealand and perhaps even Russia are likely to follow Europe’s lead. If Europe does decide against a new Kyoto commitment it will show again that the politics of emotion have trumped a clear-eyed view of what it takes to deliver Europe’s long term political, economic and security interests.
Because asking whether others will act is the wrong question. The real question is whether signing-up to some form of second Kyoto commitment period will support Europe’s fundamental interests.
Firstly the counterfactual. If Europe leaves the Kyoto Protocol it will be destroying one of its major diplomatic achievements of the past two decades. A treaty which it backed by consensus in the face of the Bush administration’s withdrawal in 2000. A treaty it has spent at least €40 billion of European energy consumers’ money to support by purchasing international carbon credits. By leaving the EU will earn the opprobrium of the developing world for the final climate betrayal. Meanwhile US climate sceptics and OPEC countries will sit in quiet satisfaction at the irony of seeing Europe take the blame for destroying the only legally binding set of global climate rules.
But the real reason why Europe must stick with Kyoto is not because we will look weak, but because it is in our fundamental interest as a region. Europe needs Kyoto because it defines the type of climate regime that can actually deliver European security. Europe needs Kyoto because it provides the core around which we can build a coalition of countries to support an effective 2°C climate regime. Europe needs Kyoto because otherwise it walks naked into the negotiating chamber, having thrown away its best levers to bring the US and China into line.
Kyoto contains the critical architecture needed to for an effective global climate regime. Kyoto contains all the necessary elements for monitoring, compliance, finance, technical cooperation and economic efficiency. There is no magic institutional structure waiting to be discovered that isn’t already contained inside – or is compatible with – a reformed version of the Kyoto Protocol. The Kyoto architecture took years to negotiate, refine and ratify. There is no time left to start from scratch again. Whatever the often shrill rhetoric from across the Atlantic, the problem many countries have with Kyoto is not because it is flawed, but because it holds them to account in delivering real greenhouse gas emissions reductions.
The only way to constrain global temperatures to around 2°C is through the type of “top down“ structure agreed at Kyoto, where governments negotiate against an overall ambition of emissions reductions and apportion effort to meet a global goal. The alternative – backed by the US, Saudi Arabia and others – is a “bottom-up” agreement where countries decide how much they want to reduce emissions individually, and we all have to live with the climate instability delivered by these uncoordinated decisions.