To begin to negotiate a new legal agreement or not? The mandate question at the global warming negotiations in South Africa

Durban sign.PNG

For the last two global warming negotiations – in Copenhagen and Cancun – there were serious efforts by countries to get a “mandate” to negotiate a new legal agreement that would strengthen international efforts to address global warming.  Before this meeting this issue – “where we are headed” – was shaping up to be the key political decision at this year Ministerial meeting in Durban, South Africa.  So what gives countries a sense that this might be the year for such an agreement and what is the state of play?


Four words – Kyoto Second Commitment Period – is the short answer.  Here is the dynamic at play this year that hasn’t existed in the past.  Developing countries – such as China, India, small-island states, countries in Africa, etc – want to get the European Union to commit in Durban that it will implement their next round of emissions targets under the rules and structure of the Kyoto Protocol.  This is the first through fourth demand of the developing world (as I discussed here).  The European Union – one of the key countries likely to take on further commitments under the Kyoto Protocol beyond 2012 – have stressed that they will only commit to further commitments under the Kyoto Protocol if they get a “mandate” (sometimes referred to as a roadmap) to negotiate a new legal instrument that would require emissions reductions of all key countries.  Their negotiating mandate (as reflected in the Conclusions of their Heads of Government and Environment Ministers) is pretty clear.  The statement from all the Heads of Government in the EU stresses:

“It is urgent to agree on a process towards a comprehensive legally binding framework and a clear time line, ensuring global participation, including from major economies. The European Council confirms the openness of the European Union to a second commitment period under the Kyoto Protocol as part of a transition to such a framework…”

The U.S. wants China and India to commit to legally binding commitments in a new agreement, which has been a long-standing position of the U.S. government. 

Developing countries want something out of the E.U.  And the E.U. wants something out of developing countries.  That is the making of an agreement and why this year is different than in the past.  After all, the current targets for developed countries run out at the end of 2012, so without an agreement in Durban on the next round of cuts the Kyoto Protocol will be functionally in a comma.  Is this dynamic the making of an agreement in Durban on the mandate to agree to a new legally binding accord?

STATE OF PLAY: the mandate question at the end of the first week in Durban

The formal negotiations during the first week brokered no major breakthroughs on the question of “where we are headed”.  We wouldn’t expect such a break through to emerge the first week as this is the main political issue in Durban.  Ministers will have to be the ones to make this decision during the second week (probably as a part of the end game dynamics).  But some hints have emerged this first week that provide a glimpse into those end game dynamics.  Here are the clues.

Small Island States, the Least Developed Countries, and a number of countries in Africa are pushing hard for an agreement to move to a legally binding commitment in a defined timeframe.  The countries most vulnerable to the impacts of global warming have “shouted” loudly this past week.  They put forward specific proposals to finalize a new legally binding agreement next year.  These countries are essentially saying: we need the strongest possible international system to address a challenge which, in many cases, is about their fundamental survival as a country.

China provides hints that they might be prepared for a binding commitment in 2020.  In the past week we’ve seen some clues from China that provides a glimmer of hope on the issue of a mandate for a new legal agreement.  They aren’t official statements as those will likely only come as a part of the final agreement, but some bread crumbs have been laid.  According to Bloomberg: “The nation may be willing to accept a target on carbon- dioxide emissions after 2020, Su Wei, China’s lead climate negotiator, said in an interview…”  Similarly, China Daily (a major paper in China) states: “China is likely to agree to a quantified target to limit its greenhouse gas emissions after 2020, said a senior expert with a government think tank.”

We are definitely seeing some hints of softening from China on this question of whether or not they’d be willing to accept a binding commitment at some point in the future.  In the past they’ve never been willing to say the words binding commitment.

E.U. is standing firm.  The E.U. has stood firm in its position that it will only commit to a second round of targets under the Kyoto Protocol if there is a clear mandate to negotiate a legally binding target in the very near future.  Based on interviews with the Presidency of the E.U., the Guardian stated: “Europe is taking the toughest negotiating stand it has ever adopted on global warming…the bloc is determined not to back down, as officials are angry that the EU's goodwill on climate change has been taken for granted.”

U.S. has shown no sign of a shift in position.  Despite a letter from 16 major environmental and development groups in the U.S., the government’s position has so far not shifted.  The U.S. has retained its position that the “mandate” must explicitly define key parameters of the final agreement at the outset.  Basically stating: we need to know the exact route before we even begin, instead of we’ll be clear on where we have to end up but we’ll follow our GPS to the destination.  This position lead the Associated Press to lead with a headline: “Europeans, Africans and nonprofits attack US for holding back UN climate talks.”

Indian hard line?  The Indian Cabinet is reported to have taken a hard line stand.  The Hindustan (a major paper in India) reports that the Indian Cabinet agreed to a position stating that: “India should not give in to the pressure of the developed world and should say no to a binding climate treaty.”


Key countries and groups of countries have positions that are intertwined.  They each want something on an issue that the other can move on.  That is either the makings of a deal.  After all, no one wins if there is a stalemate. 

The E.U., China, U.S., African countries, small island states, Brazil (who is the lead negotiator for the developing countries on this issue), and India hold the key to success on the issue of defining where we are headed.  Will they each move in Durban or will they insist that the other side has to move all the way towards their position?

Each country or group can make strong shifts in position which will ensure that Durban defines a clear mandate to negotiate a new legally binding agreement in the immediate future.  Let’s hope they take this opportunity and help the world move forward on efforts to address global warming.  The power is in their hands.

* Photo: courtesy of Jake Schmidt, NRDC.