Canada’s announcement last week that it will formally withdraw from the Kyoto Protocol could not have been better timed to puncture the sense of progress generated by the UN climate change conference in Durban just two days earlier. There, delegates had celebrated a dramatic and unexpected conclusion that saw all 194 countries (including Canada) agree to work towards a new legal regime to succeed Kyoto; they will now be feeling that a bucket of cold water has been tipped over their heads.

In truth, the Canadian decision is no surprise, and it does not affect — much — what was achieved in Durban. Since signing up to Kyoto in 1997 Canada has made almost no effort to meet its modest emissions reduction targets (6% on 1990 levels by next year), and is now headed for an increase of about 30%. Withdrawal from Kyoto now, a year before its target has to be met, will allow Canada to avoid the sanctions the protocol imposes on countries that fail to meet their commitments — though since these principally lie in being forced to accept a stronger target next time, they were unlikely to have much impact on a country that had already said it would not be joining another commitment round.

The decision is therefore principally significant for the demonstration it provides of the limitations of international law: whatever “compliance” mechanisms are formally designed, it is very difficult to apply them if a country simply withdraws from the regime altogether. This looks like a sobering reality check for those who have hailed the Durban outcome as a major step forward — if the force of law means so little, should so much be invested in negotiations towards a new protocol?

But this misses the point about what happened in South Africa. Compliance mechanisms have always been the weak link in international treaties, and few people believe that the United States, China or India will sign up to anything that threatens them with serious sanctions. The significance of the Durban deal is more fundamental: these countries have finally accepted the principle of a collective, rules-based legal system for dealing with climate change — to which they too should be subject.

This, after all, was what was lost in Copenhagen two years ago. At that conference, the US and the four largest emerging economies (China, India, Brazil and South Africa) combined to delete the objective of a new treaty under international law. The system created by Copenhagen, consolidated last year in Cancun, was that of “pledge and review,” under which countries adopt voluntary national commitments using their own carbon accounting rules, with only the lightest monitoring at international level. Such a system looked as if it suited the largest emitters very well, and in the emerging world order was unlikely to be changed any time soon.

Yet here we are now with all these five countries — and Canada, Russia and Saudi Arabia to boot — joining the other 186 nations of the world in agreeing to negotiate “a protocol, another legal instrument or an agreed outcome with legal force … applicable to all”. How did that happen?

The answer lies precisely in those numbers — and in a remarkable change in geopolitical alliances among them during climate change negotiations over the past two years.

Almost uniquely among international decision-making bodies, UN climate change conferences operate by consensus among all participating nations. When coupled with the inescapable moral basis of climate negotiations — the recognition that this is a problem caused by the richest countries whose greatest costs are occurring in the poorest — this gives unprecedented influence to the poor but numerous developing countries, which can accurately portray themselves as the “victims” of the issue. In no other global decision-making forum do Gambia (population 1.7 million, chair of the Least Developed Countries) and Grenada (population 108,000; chair of the Association of Small Island States) sit at the negotiating table as equals with the US, the European Union and China.

In the past, this hasn’t in practice counted for much, because all the developing countries negotiated together in a single bloc, the “G77 and China”, which was inevitably dominated by the biggest among them. But in Copenhagen the four largest developing countries effectively split off from the rest, and since then the tectonic plates underpinning the negotiating continents have undergone a dramatic shift. On the one hand Brazil, South Africa, India and China (the BASIC group) have forged a strong collective identity as the emerging economic and political powers, capable of acting as a counterweight to the US and Europe. On the other, an entirely new grouping of countries with progressive ambition on climate change has emerged, the so-called Cartagena Dialogue, with membership drawn from developed and developing countries.

In Durban, for the first time, this alliance called the shots. In a brilliantly executed strategy, the European Union, the small islands and the least developed countries, supported by progressive allies such as Colombia and Costa Rica, forged a set of common positions in pursuit of the legal outcome they all wanted — the continuation of Kyoto on one hand, and negotiations towards a legally binding treaty on the other. As the talks reached their climax, 120 countries issued a joint statement in support of such a deal, an unprecedented act. In doing so they effectively identified the “opposition” — those who did not want a legally binding outcome — as the US and BASIC. On both sides of the argument the traditional negotiating division between developed and developing countries was shattered.

*Read the full article at Inside Story