With the current gridlock in Washington due to a hostile Congress led by the Republican Party and a President belonging to the Democratic Party, any multilateral agreement can only materialize if it is based on the existing US rules. Photo: Bloomberg
With the current gridlock in Washington due to a hostile Congress led by the Republican Party and a President belonging to the Democratic Party, any multilateral agreement can only materialize if it is based on the existing US rules. Photo: Bloomberg

Climate change: Half-hearted commitments

It doesn't require rocket science to understand why countries settle for measures that may not address the problems for which they are intended in the first place

A new template to conclude major global treaties is in the offing. It could become a reality in the next 12 months. An early indication about the template has come from two unrelated developments. First, the latest meeting of the Conference of the Parties of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change in Lima, Peru, last month, signalled the broad contours of the proposed climate treaty.

The much-delayed pact to replace the Kyoto Protocol that lapsed in 2012 will now hinge on what each country proposes to do instead of an overarching deal with specific targets. Effectively, all 190 countries are required to provide their respective national plans for curbing the emissions of greenhouse gases (GHGs) in the next three months. Based on those plans, a grand deal will be stitched for adoption at the meeting of the leaders in Paris later this year.

And second, after a meeting with World Trade Organization director general Roberto Azevedo before the Christmas break, the new European Union (EU) trade commissioner Cecilia Malmstrom indicated that the Doha development agenda trade negotiations will be concluded by the end of the year. That is what Azevedo intends to accomplish at the 10th ministerial meeting in Nairobi, Kenya, in December 2015, the EU trade policy chief has told reporters.

Although Malmstrom is not sure how this extraordinary feat will be achieved in such a short time, she has expressed confidence that it can be worked out if members worked with zeal and commitment. Given so many unresolved issues in the Doha agriculture rules to improve anti-dumping provisions, market access for services and industrial goods and environment, the only way to reach a deal after 14 years is to allow countries to accept some peripheral commitments, à la the Lima template.

In addition to these likely multilateral deals, there is also another agreement on sustainable development goals (SDGs), which is expected to be concluded later this year. SDGs will address poverty and underdevelopment in the poorest countries of the world. Like the Paris treaty that would replace the Kyoto Protocol to address climate change, SDGs will supplant the millennium development goals (MDGs) that were launched in 2000 to address absolute poverty, illiteracy, provision of clean drinking water and sanitation, and reduce child and women mortality in poor countries. That MDGs were only partially accomplished in the last 15 years is well documented.

It doesn’t require rocket science to understand why countries are settling for commitments that may not address the problems for which they are intended in the first place. The Lima Call for Climate Action, for example, allows major industrialized countries such as the US, the EU, Canada, Japan and Australia, among others, which contributed to the acceleration of GHGs over the last 100 years, to settle for commitments for which they don’t have to make an extra effort to implement for the time being. Besides, these voluntary commitments don’t correspond to their historic obligations. During the last 30 years, China has emerged as the world’s leading polluter, while India now ranks fourth after the US and the EU in emitting GHGs.

Clearly, if countries lived by their Kyoto Protocol commitments, climate change would not have reached a tipping point. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in its fourth assessment suggested that the world is on the verge of exceeding what it called the carbon budget in a short period. The earth’s atmosphere, according to IPCC’s report, could absorb around 800-880 gigatonnes of carbon dioxide (CO2) before global warming exceeded the 2⁰C mark. But all indications are that the earth has already accumulated 530 gigatonnes of CO2, leaving very little room to stop the pronounced acceleration in climate change.

China and the US, the two largest polluters, settled for a deal prior to the Lima meeting to pile pressure on India and other countries to settle for voluntary targets. China, for instance, agreed to peak its emissions by 2030, while the US will bring down its emissions by 28% of 2005 levels by 2025. It is as clear as daylight that these reduction commitments are substantially lower than what were agreed to in the Kyoto Protocol. Despite retaining concepts such as “common but differentiated responsibility", the final agreement is going to be based on what is called the intended nationally determined contributions.

In the case of the Doha trade negotiations, which ought to have been concluded by the end of 2004, the US can claim credit for having undermined any agreement until now. A meaningful Doha agreement would require nations to live by the 2008 revised draft modalities which provided clear landing zones for a progressive reduction of trade-distorting domestic subsidies as well as a phase-out of export subsidies and credits, differentiated commitments for reducing farm tariffs (including an architecture for tariff rate quotas and sensitive products), improvements in special and differential flexibilities for special products, special safeguard mechanisms for enabling developing countries to head off unforeseen surges in imports and so on. Even in other areas of the Doha package, the benchmarks are pretty clear for a deal to be wrapped up without much delay.

But the elephant in the room is not willing to accept these commitments because of the vehement opposition from its powerful farm lobbies to reduce their egregious domestic subsidies as proposed in the 2008 revised draft modalities. Last year, the US Congress passed a new farm bill that put paid to any prospect of slashing those trade-distorting subsidies which run into billions of dollars.

With the current gridlock in Washington due to a hostile Congress led by the Republican Party and a President belonging to the Democratic Party, any multilateral agreement can only materialize if it is based on the existing US rules. Otherwise, the Obama administration, which failed to get its budget passed in the Congress since 2008, will not agree to any global deal either for climate change or trade liberalization. The administration has neither trade promotion authority to negotiate new trade agreements nor a congressional mandate to agree to meaningful CO2 reduction commitments. Consequently, the new template for global treaties is tailored according to the specifications set by the weak Obama administration.

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