Lethal symmetry: the Durban climate outcome

Lethal symmetry: the Durban climate outcome

Daniel Reifsnyder (center) is U.S. chair of the Ad-Hoc Working Group on Long-term Cooperative Action.

Used under creative commons license from Kincuri

The chief U.S. climate negotiator, Todd Stern, explained to the delegates at the Conference of Parties (COP) at the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) that the United States sought “legal symmetry” among all parties. The New York Times dutifully reported the U.S. position, together with the U.S. view that China and India were blocking the “modernization” of the UNFCCC by not agreeing to assume the same obligations as developed countries in the new “legal framework” (in the U.S. phrasing), in effect would replace the UNFCCC and its foundational principles. The U.S. Special Envoy for Climate Changte, Todd Stern, said that the U.S. was fully satisfied with the outcome of the “Durban Platform” and implicitly with the replacement of the UNFCCC’s foundational principles with the U.S. principle of “legal symmetry.”

As the thinking goes, only with a new framework founded on the principle of “legal symmetry” and its attendant obligations, which would include developing countries paying for the cost of reducing greenhouse gases and of adapting to climate change, might the U.S. Senate overcome its climate change deniers and the filibuster to ratify a “modernized” framework by 2020 or so. On the face of it, “legal symmetry” offers the appearance of a fair and balanced UNFCCC. The “Durban Platform” pushed through as dawn broke on December 11—36 hours after the scheduled end of the COP and after many delegation heads had left—without all its content finalized, as the Indian negotiator, Ms. Jayanti Natarajan, noted while imploring developed countries not to reject the foundational principles of the UNFCCC. She called the platform a blank check that developing countries must agree to if they want any money with which to combat climate change. In the end, though, she agreed to the deal, reportedly to the applause of some of the remaining delegates.

However, the Durban Platform neglects the UNFCCC principles of “historical responsibility” for climate change, as well as “common but differentiated responsibility” and “equity,” i.e., measuring treaty obligations on a per capita basis. The U.S. hopes to replace annual reporting on the binding GHG emissions reductions of the Kyoto Protocol with the voluntary “pledge and review” effort it proposed at the Copenhagen COP in 2009. (No sooner had Canada’s environment minister returned from the negotiations, than he announced Canada’s withdrawal from the Kyoto Protocol to avoid paying what he said would be $14 billion in sanctions for failing to meet its greenhouse gas reduction obligations.)

The scientific evidence reported by the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) shows clearly that the acceleration in the quantity of greenhouse gases begins with the Industrial Revolution. It is possible to debate when historical responsibility begins, whether in 1850 or with the first scientific measurement of greenhouse gases in the mid-20th century, or with the entry into force of the UNFCCC, but it is not possible to deny scientifically that some countries have emitted greenhouse gases for a far longer time and in far greater quantity over that time span than others. To deny historical responsibility for climate change is unscientific as well as anti-historical. A cynic would say that such denial is a prerogative of the Great Powers whose conquest of indigenous peoples and exploitation of their natural resources enables them to rewrite the history of climate change too. But there is a heavy price to be paid by those who are so powerful that they can make up their own reality, as Karl Rove famously said of the Bush administration, notorious for its political editing of its scientists’ climate reports.

The price is not merely reflected in the devastating effects of a 3 to 4 degree centigrade increase that may occur under the “pledge and review” quasi-commitments. The price includes the costs of what happens if the new Major Emitters (those who have “graduated” to that status in the perverse State Department jargon), such as China and Brazil, likewise make up their own realities about climate change, such as altering their quasi-commitments of “pledge and review” in response to their corporations’ needs for yet more “flexibility mechanisms.”

China and Brazil may have agreed not to block the Durban Platform because they want the opportunity to profit from the alternative reality that is carbon emissions trading, legitimized under the Kyoto Protocol, at the insistence of the United States. Indeed, Brazil’s chief negotiator was enthusiastic about the Durban Platform. The beginning of the negotiations took place as carbon prices under the EU’s Emissions Trading Scheme fell to record lows. Strangely, there was no discussion, at least publicly, among the delegates of the failure of the Kyoto Protocol market mechanisms to send an adequately high and predictable price signal to induce big investments in low-carbon technology.

Instead, the Ad Hoc Working Group on Long-Term Cooperation discussed, according to the conclusions of the U.S. chair, Daniel Reifsnyder, “new market mechanisms” (paragraphs 76–80) that would presumably succeed where carbon trading has failed. “New market mechanisms” are not defined, but is a placeholder for whatever kinds of financial instruments would succeed the “market mechanisms” of carbon trading under the Kyoto Protocol. The chair invited parties and observer organizations to comment on “new market mechanisms” by March 5, in preparation for the May meeting of the Working Group in Bonn. 

Because Reifsnyder ignored most developing country interventions in reaching his conclusions, his report was not adopted by consensus of the parties. Instead, he violated diplomatic protocol and sent the report under his personal authority for adoption by the COP. The conclusions were declared adopted by the South African president of the COP in the wrenching endgame of the dawn of December 11. IATP has reported on one such idea for a “new market mechanism,” the “green sectoral bond” promoted by the International Emissions Trading Association (IETA). The “green sectoral bond” would allow developing countries to borrow money against the collateral of their estimated carbon emissions offset potential in the form of offset credits to be traded in the carbon derivatives markets.

Other “new market mechanisms” are perhaps even more “innovative.” Couldn’t the landscape, i.e., forests, farmlands and watersheds, be measured to determine a baseline for adaptation and a standardized unit of adaptation that could be turned into an adaptation credit for trading in the way that emissions offset credits now are bought and sold? Some scholars are exploring such a “new market mechanism.” Other financial “innovations” reported during the Durban side events included “biodiversity credits” and “water derivatives” to better price water in national programs for adaptation.  At a side event, Brazil discussed how it was developing policy outside legislative channels to enable new market mechanisms for biodiversity, which it will presumably report to the Ad Hoc Working Group.

There is a huge opportunity cost to exploring “new market mechanisms” and to public subsidies for the old failing market mechanisms, such as those of the World Bank BioCarbon Fund’s projects for carbon market “readiness.” While the World Bank tries to prop up failing carbon markets, and investment banks and their advisors explore “new market mechanisms,” direct investment in mitigation and adaptation flounders. Furthermore, there is an opportunity cost to failing to reduce greenhouse gases by agreeing in the Durban Platform to negotiate a new framework by 2020, based on voluntary quasi-commitments that are considered inadequate to prevent the horrors forecast from a 3 to 4 degree centigrade increase.

During the Cold War, the Great Powers worked out a carefully balanced deal on nuclear warfare preparedness, which we still co-exist with, called Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD). It would be no small irony if the planet were destroyed slowly under a doctrine of “legal symmetry” before a failure of MAD could do that work quickly.