Although the climate change negotiations in Durban, South Africa, which ended on December 11, were somewhat predictable, they were quite tense. The way experts described the negotiation process highlights how participant countries could not fundamentally agree. The phrases “negotiation impasse,” “symbolic character,” and “temporary tool” suggest that the last meeting was not effective in developing a successful joint system to reduce carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions and improve the climate change situation.
Based on the current environment, it must be acknowledged that the stated goal of keeping global warming to within 2 degrees Celsius is not attainable. The current legal mechanisms under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change cannot ensure a reduction in overall emissions to the extent that would guarantee remaining within the 2 degrees Celsius level of warming.
Given the fact that greenhouse gases can accumulate in the atmosphere, efforts to reduce emissions should obviously be applied faster and more effectively than is done now. Along with measures to mitigate the consequences of climate change, adaptation actions have acquired special importance. Even if countries achieve a 100 percent reduction in CO2 emissions, it will take time before the greenhouse gases that have already accumulated lose their effect, so certain regions will have to develop ways to cope with climate change. In Russia, these adaptation measures receive special attention, and they were actively discussed in Durban.
Issues related to adaptation measures are, nonetheless, technical in nature, and the numerical parameters for further action were not changed in Durban. The levels of greenhouse gas emissions reductions set in the documents are quite low, and no further tightening up of numerical indicators is expected in the near future.
The understanding reached in Durban to adopt no later than 2015 a new universal legal agreement on combating climate change, which is to take effect in 2020, is a clear trade-off and is yet to develop into concrete measures. While this legally binding document is being drafted, the European Union, Switzerland, Norway, and a number of other countries (including those in Eastern Europe) will remain committed to the implementation of the quantitative parameters set out in the second commitment period of the Kyoto Protocol. However, once Canada withdrew from the protocol, and Russia and Japan refused to take on quantitative obligations, the Kyoto II countries will represent such a small proportion of overall gas emissions that Kyoto II could only be regarded as a temporary bridge to a future global agreement. It can only prevent the initiative to reduce gas emissions that dates back to the late twentieth century from withering away.
For Europe, the importance of continuing the policies to limit gas emissions is associated with the use of economic and political mechanisms to reduce its dependence on carbon sources of energy. Policies to reduce emissions, to use alternative sources of energy, and to introduce carbon footprints (the inclusion of the price of carbon in the product) are actively pursued and are inextricably linked with the energy security of the European Union.
China and India follow the United States as the top three emitting countries, and their volumes of emissions are rising. As developing states, they, unlike the developed countries, are not bound by quantitative commitments. Nevertheless, as the developing countries today can exceed the developed ones in terms of economic growth and of CO2 gas emissions, the situation has changed dramatically. Gaining the consent of developing countries to partner with developed countries in fulfilling the obligations of a new global agreement is a necessary prerequisite to reducing emissions on a global scale. According to the agreements reached in Durban, the developed and developing countries should come to terms on quantitative targets by 2015, so that the new general agreement can come into force in 2020.
When it decided to withdraw from the Kyoto Protocol, Canada took a firmer stance than Russia and Japan, which remained parties to the agreement without taking on quantitative commitments. Within the framework of its obligations, had it remained a party to the protocol, Canada would have had to pay more than $13 billion as a penalty for exceeding its quota. Canada was also counting on regional cooperation on carbon markets with the United States, in particular between its province of Ontario and the U.S. state of California. In addition, Canada has plans to further develop its tar sands, which will lead to a steady increase of greenhouse gas emissions. Canadian scientists estimate that by 2020 the volume of the country’s emissions will increase by four times as compared to 2005.
In contrast to Canada, Japan did not overestimate its abilities and fulfilled its initial obligations, though with difficulty. It also actively campaigned for the inclusion of nuclear energy in the list of clean types of energy. The Japanese declared their reluctance to withdraw from the Kyoto Protocol several times, but fulfilling their Kyoto II commitments apparently seems unrealistic to them. As the Fukushima tragedy has shown, a cleaner source of energy (in terms of CO2 gas emissions) which raised many hopes can be more dangerous to people’s health and lives. Apart from that, as Russia withdrew from Kyoto II, the window of opportunity for Japan and Russia to develop joint emissions reduction projects that would allow Japan to receive carbon-credit compensation for its reduced emissions is over.
Due to a drop in manufacturing in Russia after the disintegration of the Soviet Union, greenhouse gas emissions in the country are currently below their 1990 level. This advantage could have been put to use through the Joint Implementation (JI) Projects of the Kyoto Protocol. However, as Russia rejects its obligations, it will not have the right to participate in Joint Implementation Projects and its enterprises will not be able to get advantages from additional investments and obtain technology. The volume of deals related to JI Projects is about 0.1 percent of Russia’s economy. Perhaps, Russia sacrificed this small part of its economy in order to obtain some greater benefits in the future.
As all of this plays out, observers of the negotiation process are becoming perplexed. Russia’s nonparticipation in Kyoto II is regarded as another loss of prestige and potential investments. However, since 1998, the volume of greenhouse gas emissions in Russia has been steadily growing. If no effective measures are taken to reduce them, Russia will soon reach the 1990 level, and then problems of a different kind will have to be solved.
There is another aspect of the reduction of greenhouse gases: how to combine faster economic growth with the implementation of environmental policy. Even the European Union is not yet able to handle this issue. Technological advances would apparently solve this problem, but now environmental policy is seen as a hindrance to economic growth. However, environmental problems can turn into environmental disasters without notice. Problems of this magnitude have to be solved jointly—in modern terms, globally—and it’s better to act before a crisis hits.