A Tale in Two Pictures: Transatlantic Leadership in the International Climate Negotiations
The enduring image from last week’s UN conference on climate change in Durban, South Africa, was of negotiators “huddling” in full view on the plenary floor to come up with the form of words that allowed the final deal to be reached. The negotiators are in shirtsleeves, visibly tied at the end of talks that had run 36 hours past the deadline, and surrounded by hundreds of observers straining to hear the back-and-forth. At the center are the two protagonists (obscured in this picture): Connie Hedegaard, the EU Commissioner for Climate Action, and Jayanthi Natarajan, the Indian Environment Minister. Todd Stern, the U.S. Special Envoy for Climate Change, is offering suggestions and Maite Nkoana-Mashabane, South Africa’s foreign minister and host-president of the conference, is looking on. She made the extraordinary decision to interrupt the plenary negotiations and invite the main players to take ten minutes to come up with an acceptable wording on the legal form of a new treaty, to be negotiated by 2015. The ten minutes stretched to almost an hour but resulted in the breakthrough that carried the conference to a conclusion. The picture stands in contrast to the iconic photograph from the talks in Copenhagen two years ago. Those negotiations took place in an even brighter glare of international attention because an unprecedented number of heads of state and government attended. The main outcome of the Copenhagen conference was hammered out in an impromptu summit of the leaders of the United States, Brazil, South Africa, India, and China; the EU was not in the room and was acutely embarrassed by its absence and by its failure to achieve a deal on emission reductions that was sufficiently ambitious.
These pictures present contrasting images that are both informative and incomplete. In fact, Europe had much greater influence in Copenhagen than many of the media appreciated at the time – the final outcome of the Copenhagen conference contained much of what the EU had been pushing for. Its exclusion from the room was not deliberate but due to happenstance in the chaos of that final evening. Nevertheless, the denting of Europe’s pride was real, and EU negotiators, led by Hedegaard, invested every ounce of diplomatic capital they possessed to position themselves for a stronger, EU-led outcome in Durban. And the strategy paid off: The agreement in Durban marks the EU’s return to its accustomed place at the front of international leadership on climate diplomacy. It is also a welcome rapprochement between Europe and the United States on climate change. At the outset of the talks there was a fear that divisions between Europe and the United States on climate policy could sour transatlantic relations. The EU combines ambitious domestic targets with calls for strong international cooperation and has made no secret of its frustration with the lack of U.S. reciprocal action. The 2001 withdrawal of the United States under President George W. Bush from the Kyoto Protocol (which the United States never ratified) was one of the low points of transatlantic relations last decade. The Obama administration is more favorably disposed toward action on climate change but it is constrained by the lack of domestic political support for strong measures to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The EU and the United States went into the talks with different agendas and expectations. Europe wanted to win agreement on a new international treaty to replace the Kyoto Protocol, the only international agreement with teeth, whose provisions only run until the end of 2012. The United States approached this issue from what it regarded as a pragmatic position, which is that international treaties are really only a reflection of what countries are doing anyway and the emphasis should be on encouraging national policies. Nevertheless, the United States was not opposed to talking about future commitments, as long as big emerging economies like China and India were included. But the U.S. priority was to focus agreement on the creation of a Green Climate Fund and the other issues on the agenda since the Copenhagen conference in 2009. At the beginning of the conference there were some predictions that China could seek to isolate the United States by keeping the conversation on the future of the Kyoto Protocol. But the U.S. delegation surprised many observers by lending its support, in the Thursday of the second week of talks, to the EU demand for a “roadmap” that would lead to a new international treaty. For all the expectations that these talks would not bring any progress on a central EU demand, the United States decided that it was not, this time, going to be the country seen as blocking progress. That role fell instead to India, which (with some historical justice) complained bitterly that it was being bound to constrain its emissions thanks to the profligacy of the developed countries. But India eventually acquiesced to a form of words (“a protocol, legal instrument, or an agreed outcome with legal force applicable to all Parties”) suggested by Stern in the late-night huddle. Even if the “Durban Platform” is not as ambitious as it would have liked or as the science of climate change requires, the EU successfully pressed the need for some kind of continuing international legal process that applies to all countries. This is the most important long-term result of the Durban outcome: the fracturing of the long-standing and artificial divide between “developed” and “developing” nations that obliges only the developed countries to reduce their emissions. But the United States helped effect this outcome. By ceding to the EU the role of climate champion, the United States allowed this outcome to happen simply by not standing in its way. By the same token, however, the United States insisted on, and won, the point that developing countries must be included in any global approach. On both tracks, the Obama administration managed to avoid drawing fire from the conservative opposition back home, which sees political opportunity in anything that implies constraining U.S. economic growth or diminishing its competiveness with China. The EU negotiators know the Obama administration’s political constraints well and are sympathetic to them. The result was a victory for the EU in its insistence for a renewed international recognition of the urgency of climate change. It is probably correct to say that a “legally binding” treaty on climate change is never more than a reflection of what is happening anyway. But the EU feared, rightly, that a commitment to do nothing before 2020 – which was the effective Indian and Chinese position – would have sent a disastrous signal to the world. In the mere fact of forcing an international recognition of a new regime by 2015 (which is tomorrow by the glacial pace of international talks), the EU vindicated its position on the talks in opposition to those who thought that such gestures were irrelevant.
The views expressed in GMF publications and commentary are the views of the author alone.