Deadlock in Durban

Without practical expectations and penalties for countries who don’t comply, the Convention on Climate Change will fail.

durban climate change
The latest convention on climate change is not expected to contribute to any real change on the ground [EPA]

New York, NY – The 17th conference of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, popularly known as COP-17, is taking place in Durban, South Africa, at a critical moment, as the historic 1997 Kyoto Protocol is set to expire next year. But, like the climate-change conferences in Copenhagen in 2009 and in Cancun in 2010, COP-17 can be expected to spend much and produce little.

Indeed, the extravagance of these conferences seems to grow, rather than shrink, as their dismal results become more apparent. COP-15 in Copenhagen lasted 12 days, and is estimated to have attracted 15,000 delegates and 5,000 journalists. The carbon emissions created by so many people flying to Denmark was real, while the emissions targets that the conference sought remained beyond reach. That will be true in Durban as well – and on an even greater scale.

The real problem is that the expectations concerning meaningful action on climate change, as opposed to gimmicks such as US President Barack Obama’s last-minute arrival and minuscule gestures in Copenhagen, are now lower than ever. There are two problems that cannot be wished away.

First, the United States under Obama’s ineffective leadership has drifted yet further into a “What’s in it for me?” attitude on key issues requiring international action. In place of what the economist Charles Kindleberger once called an “altruistic hegemon”, the US that the world now faces is what I call a “selfish hegemon”.

Thus, the US has virtually pulled out of the Doha Round of multilateral trade negotiations, with Obama acquiescing to greedy business lobbies that will not settle unless more of their demands are met. But not only has Obama abandoned Doha; he has also seriously endangered the multilateral trading system by diverting US efforts and resources to discriminatory bilateral trade deals and, most recently, to the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which will principally aid countries that are worried about an aggressive China and seek political security rather than increased trade. The same is true of environmental action: after Australia’s belated ratification of the Kyoto Protocol in 2007, the US remains the only country that has not ratified the agreement.

The second problem is that the sheer weight of the US in international affairs, though diminished nowadays, has nonetheless led to a corruption of the principles that should underpin a new climate-change treaty to succeed the Kyoto Protocol.

Climate change versus poverty reduction

For example, unlike the World Trade Organisation, whose dispute-settlement mechanism imposes penalties for abandoning negotiated reductions of trade barriers, the targets for emission reductions are not binding and enforceable commitments. The US has not agreed to accept such sanctions for failing to meet emissions targets; but, without penalties, the exercise is largely futile and only encourages cynicism about the effort to combat climate change.

Moreover, abandoning the Kyoto Protocol’s exemption of developing countries from obligations for current emissions, the US has insisted on obligations from China and India that reflect a common form of “taxation” of emissions. But there are persuasive reasons why these countries insist that the obligations must instead reflect per capita emissions, a criterion that would require far greater emission cuts by the US than its leaders now contemplate.

Besides, these countries correctly argue that the tradeoff between action on climate change and poverty reduction is more compelling for them at their level of per capita income, unless they can access newly emerging technologies at low cost. This demand suggests that the US should subsidise the flow of technology to India and China from US firms holding patents, which is highly impractical.

That is where the $100bn Global Climate Change Fund, promised at the Cancun COP-16 conference, comes in. Unfortunately, even environmental icons such as Al Gore in the US are so heavily invested in new green technology that their self-interest is tied up in this fund being spent on developing privately owned new technologies that are protected by patents.

The new “Green Revolution” seeds that the Nobel laureate agronomist Norman Borlaug developed with public money were freely available to all users anywhere. The technology developed by the money spent from the Global Climate Change Fund also should be equally available to all, including India and China, which would then enable them to agree to more emissions cuts.

Indeed, even the contributions to the fund should have reflected the past damage by the developed countries over the course of a century of carbon emissions – an obligation based on the well-established tort principle that the US has accepted for domestic pollution. But here, too, the US has rejected the idea outright.

Several such sensible ways to design the Kyoto Protocol’s successor treaty have been undermined by efforts to accommodate inappropriate US-led demands and objections, resulting in the impasse that became evident at the COP conferences in Copenhagen and Cancun. Those who do not believe in magic know better than to hope that it will somehow disappear in Durban.

Jagdish Bhagwati is Professor of Economics and Law at Columbia University and Senior Fellow in International Economics at the Council on Foreign Relations.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.

A version of this article was first published on Project Syndicate.