December 4, 2011 6:00 pm

The struggle for a global climate pact

Voluntary pledges are best that can be hoped for in Durban

The prospect of a global deal to combat climate change has been receding for two years. The latest round of talks in Durban has so far done little to reverse this. Barely a year before the main provisions of the Kyoto protocol are due to expire, delegates are deadlocked on the issue that has bedevilled climate talks for a decade: should the international community agree on legally binding carbon emissions targets, or will voluntary pledges by individual states suffice?

Legal commitments are clearly preferable. They make it more likely that countries will actually follow through on their promises. And by providing a degree of predictability in policy, they make it easier for businesses to decide to invest in green technologies.

Persuading nearly 200 countries to agree such a deal would be a challenge in good times. With the world economy in poor shape, it is all but impossible. Leadership is conspicuously absent. The US is doing its best to escape binding commitments. Despite its mushrooming economic clout, China, the world’s largest carbon emitter, insists that it should be regarded as a developing country, and thus exempt from binding targets.

Given this deadlock, other options, such as a provisional extension of the Kyoto protocol, have been mooted. But, as things stand, even this modest step looks politically infeasible.

This leaves voluntary commitments akin to those made last year in Cancún as the best that can be expected. That would be better than nothing. Even minimal international co-ordination gives political cover to those governments that wish to press ahead with carbon reduction in the face of domestic opposition. Similarly, it maintains a degree of political pressure on those countries who refuse to take any action.

Just as importantly, the longer emissions control remains a live issue, the greater the incentives will be for companies to try to make money from combating climate change. In time, this should help create a more vociferous constituency of businesses in favour of concerted international action.

Economic recovery in the developed world, when it comes, should also boost the chances of a global deal. The worry is that, by then, the achievements of the past decade may have been eroded. Chinese and Brazilian threats about the future of the UN-backed carbon offset market are a bad omen. Delegates in Durban must ensure that, even if they cannot achieve a global pact this week, they do not undo the good work already done.

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