The next UN climate conference, the 16th Conference of Parties to the UNFCCC, will commence on November 29 in Cancun, Mexico. ClimateDilemma will be attending these talks, will blog about what is going on, and also provide more up-to-minute updates via Twitter.

The stage was set at some negotiations earlier this year in Tianjin, China. It is unlikely that there will be anything like a comprehensive legally binding climate protocol emerge from Cancun, so the focus instead is on a “balanced set of decisions” on issues such as finance, adaptation, reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation in developing countries, technology, and possibly measurement, reporting and verification (transparency). The key stumbling block is agreement between the US and China on these issues. These difficulties were illustrated when in response to a speech by US Special Envoy on Climate Change Todd Stern, Chinese negotiator Su Wei referred to the US as what has been translated as a “pig preening itself in a mirror“.

As has been pointed out by Angel Hsu from Yale, this reference is to the character Zhu Ba Jie, from the Chinese novel Journey to the West. A well known television adaptation in some western countries is the show Monkey, a dubbed version of a Japanese television series. This will be particularly well known to Australians who grew up in the 1980’s (such as myself), when the show was very popular. In Monkey, Zhu Ba Jie is known as “Pigsy”.


Pigsy, portayed by Toshiyuki Nishida, from the opening credits for "Monkey"

Todd Stern’s speech made a number of salient points about the negotiations, but downplayed the problem of lack of US domestic progress. Lack of domestic progress is a major issue – the World Resources Institute has done a study investigating how much state-based approaches and regulation could reduce emissions without national legislation, and their most ambitious scenario has emissions lowered by 12 percent, which falls short of the 17 percent commitment. Stern also summarised the US negotiating position which is to not support action on “financing, technology, adaptation and forests” unless there is progress on mitigation and transparency.

Todd Stern made several comments that relate to China:

  • He stated that “you cannot build a system premised on the notion that China should be treated the same as Chad” and made some comments on China’s emission statistics;
  • He pointed out the “political reality” that it would be impossible to get support from US congress for an agreement that required action from the US but not from China and emerging markets;
  • He stated that in Tianjin, “Chinese negotiators have acted almost as though the Accord never happened, insisting on legally binding commitments for developed countries and purely voluntary actions for even the emerging markets”. He also stated that Chinese negotiators have merely listed their targets as a “fyi”, with “no political commitment to implement them”.

Stern’s statement that China should not be treated the same as Chad does bring up an important point about the way developed and developing countries are divided up in the Kyoto Protocol. The developed countries are specified as “Annex I Parties” which includes relatively poor countries such as Turkey, but does not include very rich countries including Qatar and the United Arab Emirates. It also does a mediocre job of distinguishing between different levels of per-capita emissions – Australia and the US have far higher per-capita emissions than France, and the highest per-capita emitter, Qatar, is not an Annex I country. The Kyoto Protocol has no mechanism non-Annex I countries to automatically become Annex I countries.

But the key issue is not so much whether emission reduction commitments are legally binding, it is whether countries will meet those commitments. Stern points this out in his speech, and so it is curious that Stern attaches so much attention to the legal status of China’s commitments. China is quick to point out that their targets are not legally binding, and stated in their Copenhagen Accord submission that “please note that the above-mentioned autonomous domestic mitigation actions are voluntary in nature”. China is perhaps more likely to meet its target than the US, and China has been implementing measures such as blackouts and slashing steel production in order to meet its domestic energy intensity target. So Stern’s statement that “Chinese negotiators have acted as though the Accord never happened” is not very fair. The other key issue is the ambition of the commitments themselves – an international agreement must be designed in such a way that the ambition of commitments can be readily ramped up – Kyoto has failed to do this, with countries preferring to take on weak targets and sell “hot air” (when countries – such as Russia – get allocated emission targets that are greater than business as usual emissions).

The largest barrier is Congress, in particular the US Senate. Ratifying a treaty requires 67 out of 100 votes, and even getting the Senate to vote on legislation requires 60. The US failed to pass climate legislation last year because it couldn’t get 60 votes in the Senate. If any institution was to resemble Pigsy, it would be the US Senate. But there have been failure at the White House as well: it made major strategic blunders when climate legislation was before the Senate; and failed spectacularly when it comes to framing and messaging, including on climate change. Congress is difficult because the Republicans are taking an extremist denialist position, but this could be politically damaging to the Republicans and untenable if the White House and/or the Democrats put pressure on the Republicans over climate change and framed the issue to be one of Republican obstruction, instead of one of “Democrats seeking bipartisanship”.

Issues with Congress and the strategic US-China relationship mean that there is little prospect for a fair legally binding and ambitious ‘top-down’ agreement in the near future, and that probably means the next decade. Since Copenhagen, the challenge is to ramp up emission reductions in a ‘bottom-up’ world, and turn political commitments into political action. We know from implementation theory and literature on private provision of public goods that if countries can commit to increase their reductions if others do the same, then a situation that is previously a “prisoner’s dilemma” becomes transformed into a situation where there is likely to be a cooperative outcome. Furthermore, if there is an expectation that there will be a legally binding agreement in the future that is fair, high per-capita emitters will have a strong incentive now to start reducing their emissions.

Progress in Cancún on transparency, financing, technology, adaptation and forests could ultimately facilitate cooperation on mitigation. One reason for optimism is that developing countries including India have made concrete proposals on measurement, reporting and verification (i.e. transparency), so the key reason for obstruction from the US may be resolved. But anything can happen in these negotiations, so only time will tell.