The United Nations climate change talks begin their 17th iteration in the rain-soaked South African city of Durban this morning in much the same way that they have since 1995 — with a host of fine rhetoric about why the world needs to act on global warming, but virtually no agreement on how or when.

Usually, these conferences manage to overcome their organisational chaos, and the days spent negotiating over what is to be negotiated, to patch together just enough of an agreement to continue the process for another few years.

This year, however, as more than 10,000 delegates from 194 countries converge on the coastal city, there is a greater sense of foreboding, and an even greater risk that practical progress will be overshadowed by symbolism and political grandstanding; the differences over the three key sticking points — agreeing on a roadmap for a new binding international treaty, deciding what to with the Kyoto Protocol, and advancing the elements of the Cancun agreement — seem even more intractable than ever. And for the first time, there isn’t even agreement on where the next climate talks will be held — Qatar or South Korea. Some suggest the question should be “if” and not “where”.

The scene has been set by the usual pre-talks rhetoric: The UN has warned that the “gigatonne” gap between what has been pledged at Cancun and what the world needs to do to limit global warming to 2° is wider than before, as the world continues to emit greenhouse gases at record rates, and the forecasts for extreme weather are even more dramatic.

The EU, the flag-bearers of action for much of the past decade, are preoccupied by their own economic woes and face the possible collapse of their own carbon market. They now insist that the major emitters from developing countries — China, India and Brazil — lock into agreements to cut their emissions, rather than just slowing their growth. China, on the other hand, insists that developing countries not use the economic downturn as an excuse to delay their own action. The US, for possibly the first time in recent history, is trying to make itself look very small. Smaller developing countries, most at threat, grow even more exasperated, and are threatening an Occupy-style protest at the negotiations if progress is slow — which is virtually guaranteed. They remain deeply attached to Kyoto because it is all they have got.

What will be the outcome?

It seems that the best that can be hoped for is agreement on a roadmap for a new binding treaty? Sound familiar? That was the conclusion of Bali, which set a deadline for Copenhagen, which, of course, came undone in the most spectacular fashion. A new roadmap would likely aim for agreement by 2015 (that is Australia’s and Norway’s proposal), but implementation could come as late as 2020 (that is UK’s proposal).

The Climate Institute paints four scenarios: collapse, patchwork, progress and breakthrough. “Collapse” might seem dramatic, but it sums up the position of parties coming into the talks. “Patchwork” describes some progress on issues such as REDD (forest protection), but continued disagreement over finance and the legal nature of a treaty, with a last-minute Cancun-style compromise enough to continue talks for another year.

“Progress” describes a reinforcement of Cancun Agreemenent, further work on the green fund and other issues, but still no agreement on a Kyoto successor. “Breakthrough,” describes excellent progress on Cancun deals, agreement on new international trading mechanisms, a commitment by Europe, Australia and others to take on Kyoto II targets, with Russia, Canada and Japan accepting Kyoto accounting rules and — most importantly — a mandate to negotiate a new legally binding treaty that will come into effect between 2015 and 2020.

What does Australia want?

It needs, at least, a result from “patchwork” and “progress”, because “collapse” would intensify the political pressure for a delay, or a watering down, of its carbon pricing regime. A “breakthrough” result would, of course, be best, but it would mean that Australia would likely find itself pursuing a 15% target, rather than just 5%. All the more reason, in that case, to want to have an ETS rather than a tax or direct action.

Judging by climate change minister Greg Combet’s speech on Friday, he expects “progress”, but his focus will also be on the need to build bilateral links with the likes of New Zealand, California, South Korea, China, Japan and Indonesia, as this will be essential to the integrity of the government’s Clean Energy Future package. It seems increasingly likely that the future of emissions trading will lie in the Pacific, rather than in Europe, but Australia and New Zealand don’t want to be the only folk turning up to the party.

The role of China

The US refusal to sign the Kyoto Protocol may have been the dominating influence over the climate talks from 1997 to 2009, but from the moment they sent a junior bureaucrat with President Barack Obama to Copenhagen in 2009, it’s been the Chinese who have been in control of these negotiations. The Americans had one brief opportunity in Copenhagen to force through an agreement, but failed — now the timing will be entirely dictated by what suits the Chinese economy.

The glass-half-empty brigade are convinced that China will never act to curb its emissions, because its economic growth would be compromised, and so too the Communist Party’s grip on power. The glass half-full brigade cite the very same motivations for believing that China will curb emissions, and they point to China’s investment in clean technologies — nearly more than the rest of the world combined — and its piloting of seven different emissions trading schemes as proof of their intent.

And betting one way or another is not just a matter of political punditry, it’s a bet on the economic future. When China acts, the world will have no choice but to follow, and quickly. The US is aware of this, which is why it keeps talking about the clean energy “Sputnik” moment. The IEA is aware of this, which is why it issued its recent forecasts on the implications of a delayed response to the 2° targets, which is exactly the direction the world is heading. Australia is aware of this too, which is why it is committing itself to the first steps towards decarbonisation, when it would have been a lot easier to do nothing.

When will we know?

Probably not until the last day of the event. The first week of these talks is usually taken up with negotiations about what can be negotiated. It is a tedious affair enlivened only by the drama created in the corridors, the side events, and in front of the media. The ministers don’t turn up intil the second week, and some sort of compromise is usually produced after an all-night sitting on the Thursday or Friday night. In Cancun, this appeared an impossibility, until some deft Latin diplomacy from the Mexican hosts produced a canny compromise. The South African chair of this event may have to pluck a similar rabbit out of her hat.

Big tip?

Canada to have a virtual mortgage on the fossil of the day awards, with stiff competition from Russia and Saudi Arabia.

*This article first appeared on Climate Spectator

Peter Fray

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