Expectations are low at the beginning of the 17th annual United Nations conference on climate change that began this week in Durban, South Africa. The European Union and the United States have assumed contrary positions and even disagree over what would constitute a successful outcome. But, behind the talks, and despite that standoff, the threat of global warming continues to cry out for transatlantic leadership.
The talks themselves – which will culminate next week in three days of ministerial talks – are intended to add definition to the political agreements that were reached at last year’s talks in Cancun, Mexico, such as on a new fund to help developing countries reduce their greenhouse gas emissions. But what will attract the biggest attention in Durban is the Kyoto Protocol, the 1997 treaty that binds industrialized countries to reduce their emissions by a certain amount by 2012. There is no provision for a second “commitment period” beyond next year, so the EU is calling for a sequence of actions to lead to a new treaty by 2015. The United States rules out a new treaty before 2020 and only if large emerging economies like China are similarly bound ; Japan, Canada, and Russia have aligned themselves with this view. There seems to be no way to reconcile these two positions.
But Europe and the United States are divided even on the significance of this divide. Among the U.S. negotiators, and echoed in many Washington, DC, think tanks, the Kyoto Protocol (or any successor treaty) is seen as irrelevant to the climate talks. Instead, an effective response to climate change lies in vigorous domestic action by the big emitters. Many U.S. commentators consider the Kyoto Protocol an obstacle to progress because of its outmoded distinction between developed and developing countries and its zero-sum emphasis on legally binding emission caps. The EU counters that a legally binding treaty is the only way to bring clarity and to drive domestic action, and points to a growing chorus of international bodies – from the UN to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development – that warn that we have no more time to delay action to reduce global emissions if the Earth is to have a hope of avoiding temperature increases that would change the face of the planet.
While the United States may think that the EU has tied itself to a sinking ship, Europeans visiting the United States express exasperation at the U.S. failure to grapple with climate change and at the prominence afforded to pundits who dispute the scientific consensus on climate change. It is common to hear European officials suggest that it is time for Europe to look elsewhere and focus on building cooperation with developing countries. But it would be a grave mistake to give up on the United States. The two continents, working together, have the political and financial capacity to drive global change through policy leadership and the market effect of their domestic policies. Disagreement threatens to hinder international action when there is no time left for delay, and to sour transatlantic relations, as seen in the brewing dispute over the inclusion of U.S. airlines in the EU Emissions Trading System beginning in 2012.
In Durban, the EU and the United States will probably manage to avoid an acrimonious falling-out. Memories of the rift in transatlantic relations following George W. Bush’s decision to withdraw from the Kyoto Protocol in early 2001 are still raw. The EU is sympathetic to the domestic political constraints that U.S. President Barack Obama faces and the real actions that his administration is advancing, such as new regulations to control pollution from power stations and to improve efficiency standards in automobiles. Whatever deal is struck in Durban, it will probably be enough to allow the Kyoto Protocol to continue in some form without forcing the United States to denounce the agreement.
But outside the negotiations, Europe has a good story to tell about its response to climate change, and it needs to do a better job at persuading the United States to partner with it on this enterprise. In European capitals, policymakers are busy with plans to build new renewable electricity generating capacity, transform the electricity grid to carry the power, and train a whole generation of new engineers who can operate it all. The European Commission is preparing to publish a new “roadmap” for a low-carbon energy system by 2050, the latest in a series of policy statements and regulations since 2008 that are slowly accumulating momentum that could take the EU on a low-carbon trajectory. No conversation on anything like this scale is happening in the United States, nor is one expected until at least after next year’s presidential election.
The United States holds that international treaties like the Kyoto Protocol are less relevant than action on the ground. The EU thinks that such action on the ground is a result of the downward pressure of international commitments. Surely there is room to agree here on the outcomes, if not the cause ? If the United States were to embark on an ambitious plan of reducing its emissions, and to lead international efforts to imitate it, the EU would be quick to agree that a treaty would be superfluous to this end.