Since last week Monday, the city of Durban(South Africa) has been abuzz with approximately 20,000 delegates participating in the 17th Conference of the Parties to the UNFCCC (United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change). As the consequences of climate change become ever clearer and scientists publish report after report on the high likelihood of exceeding the barrier of 2°C warming past which climate change will become disastrous and unmanageable, the question is whether international politics will catch up.

The European Union, which has typically been seen as one of the more progressive developed states in the climate change negotiations, is represented inDurbanbyPoland(the current President of the Council) and the DG Climate Action of the European Commission. The 27 Member States may also send their own delegates, as they are participants in their own right as well. What are the EU’s positions for the conference, and what difficulties might it face?

Reduce, re-use, recycle? Kyoto Woes

Over the past few years, one of the main sticking points in the UNFCCC negotiations has been the renewal of the Kyoto Protocol, which is rapidly approaching its expiration date of 2012. Upon its development (1997), the Kyoto Protocol was a milestone – for the first time, developed countries were legally committing to reducing their emissions of greenhouse gases (GHG), the main contributors to global warming. However, situations can evolve rapidly. In recent years, emerging economies such asChina,Brazil andIndia, which were never bound to reductions in the Kyoto Protocol, are emitting more and more GHGs. All the while, developed countries’ emissions account for a diminishing portion of the problem.

The EU, for example, was responsible for 23% of world emissions in 1990. That percentage has now dropped to 11%. Even though emissions of the parties toKyotoare in freefall, the developing world has been loudly demanding a second commitment period. They consider this to be a historic responsibility on the part of the developed countries, which were allowed to develop without any emissions limits, effectively launching the snowball of climate change.  In fact, when developing countries got the impression, during the 2009Copenhagenconference, that the EU no longer supported a second commitment period, it threw negotiations into disarray.

To date, the US, Canada, Russiaand Japanhave declared they will not be joining a second commitment period (the USnever joined the first), meaning the Protocol would likely cover only 16% of world emissions. For Durban, the EU has taken the instrumental position that it supports and will join a renewal of the Kyoto Protocol from 2012 to 2020 – on a number of conditions. With questions of the relevance of limits to only 16% of global GHG emissions and doubts as to the possible detrimental effect of such one-sided reductions on the Union’s economy, the EU’s main condition for its commitment is that Durban results in a roadmap to a global climate framework.

Yes, but… – Conditional commitment

This roadmap (including a clear deadline) must pave the way towards an “ambitious, comprehensive and legally binding global framework which commits all major economies to climate action”. In other words, the EU wants a framework which integrates not only developed countries, but also emerging economies such asChina,India andBrazil. Moreover, theUnion would like to see all parties bound by international law to the stipulations, limits and rules which the framework lays out, starting by 2020 at the latest.

The Union has two more demands before it will sign up to a second commitment period: firstly, that Durban establishes at least one new market-based mechanism (like the Clean Development Mechanism, but preferably less project-based, covering an entire sector) so climate change can be tackled cost-effectively. Secondly, the EU wants “Kyoto’s environmental integrity to be strengthened”, meaning that the issues that could reduce Kyoto’s effectiveness must be eliminated. One such requirement is a robust accounting system for forest management in developed countries. Negotiations on forest management, deforestation and land use (LULUCF) are rather advanced, and there is a good chance the EU may be successful on this point.

Another danger toKyoto’s effectiveness is the surplus of assigned amount units (AAUs) from the previous commitment period. The EU requires a solution to this problem in exchange for committing to a second round of reductions.

Surplus AAUs, or East vs. West

However, AAUs are a contentious topic within the EU. These units represent the ‘emissions budget’ each state got when signing up to the Protocol. The idea was that any unused units could be carried over to the next commitment period. Three years into the first commitment period though, it turns out a number of countries have emitted much less than allotted, leaving them with a large number of surplus AAUs. Ten of the eastern and central EU states belong to this group – because of the fall of their heavy industries, their emissions were far lower than expected.

The surplus is estimated to equal 10 to 11 billion tons of carbon dioxide (CO2), which is more than double the total annual emissions of the EU. Unsurprisingly, EU members without leftover AAUs warn that it would spell disaster if countries with surplus AAUs were to use or pass on (to other countries) all their credit. The western member states are therefore unenthusiastic about allowing AAUs to be carried over to a second commitment period. As unsurprisingly, those member states that do have surplus units are very reluctant to give them up.

Internal struggles like this one are not new to the European Union, which remains an integration project to an unseen level, with difficult exercises in coordination. However, the internal divisions become problematic when they block collective EU action on the international front. In the case of the surplus AAUs, the EU is split between East and West, and in absence of an internal consensus on a solution, the EU may be leaving this problem to the international arena. TheUnionis asking for a “non-discriminatory” solution which would “preserve incentives for the overachievement of emission targets”, but does not specify how to achieve this. The AAU issue, therefore, could reveal dangerous cracks in the EU front inDurban- especially considering the way the EU is represented, withPoland(one of the states with a large number of surplus AAUs) alongside climate-progressive DG Clima. 

Skies, seas and more

Another point the European Union may be pushing is aviation and shipping emissions. For years now, the Commission has been targeting these industries; aviation emissions will be included in the ETS (the EU’s Emissions Trading System) starting 2012. However, aviation and shipping are notoriously hard sectors to regulate, due to their very global nature. The Commission’s DG Climate Action has stated that it would prefer international regulation through the respective international governing bodies (the ICAO and IMO), and may pursue this point inDurban.

Finally, the EU will be trying to finalize some of the many points on the UNFCCC agenda, such as technology mechanisms and the Green Climate Fund. The Union is also sure to point out it has succeeded in mobilizing €4.68 billion towards the fast start funding for developing countries which was agreed on in Copenhagen, thereby meeting its goal despite difficult economic circumstances.

Strategic moves… to progress?

With its conditional promise of a second commitment period and the delivery of climate finance, the EU will surely be trying to get developing countries on its side, gaining allies to move the negotiations forward. Of course, negotiations tend to gather a momentum all their own, internal frictions can get in the way, and positions and tactics tend to morph as other players lay down their bottom lines and deploy their own tactics. It remains to be seen whatDurbanwill produce. With the planet warming up and no clear global solution in sight, we can only hopeSouth Africawill bring serious progress.

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