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Why the climate negotiations matter

By Matthew J. Hoffmann

Though any breakthrough in negotiations is unlikely, the multilateral meetings remain a pivotal space for the growth of innovative approaches to the coming climate crisis.

With little fanfare and lower expectations, the next instalment of the UN climate-change negotiations is set to begin in Durban, South Africa. Even with ever-increasing evidence of the reality and danger of climate change, the international negotiations cannot compete with the ongoing global economic crisis for airtime, especially when the expectations for Durban are close to non-existent.

The fundamentals of political gridlock that hampered the previous two UN negotiations have not changed substantially: the U.S. will not commit to anything substantial or binding given its domestic political deadlock, upcoming presidential election, and economic woes; the EU is considering pushing for ambitious targets given that it has already reduced its greenhouse-gas emissions by almost 20 per cent since 1990, but it is preoccupied with its financial crisis; and China is beginning to show signs of leadership, especially in terms of domestic renewable-energy policy, but is not yet willing to commit to large binding reductions in carbon dioxide.

The likelihood of agreement on a follow-up commitment to the Kyoto Protocol (which runs its course in 2012) is close to nil. Officials from countries like Japan and the U.K. who are close to the negotiations are now explicitly admitting that a global climate treaty is years away – perhaps as far out as 2020.

There is a potential upside to the low expectations. Admission that a climate treaty is a ways off may rescue Durban from obscurity because of the reaction it will engender from enraged environmentalists and the least-developed countries, which are most vulnerable to climate change. This kind of notoriety is likely to further depress expectations for Durban and enhance the growing unease surrounding the prospects for an effective multilateral solution to climate change. Yet, ironically, this year’s incarnation of the global climate negotiations is important, even though – and perhaps because – nothing substantial is likely to be agreed upon.

For one thing, the annual multilateral gathering is important for more than the negotiation of a new treaty. These UN forums draw a multitude of diverse organizations involved in the global response to climate change. In Durban, cities, corporations, states, regions, NGOs, and others will converge to share their expertise, urge further action, network, and discuss fruitful ways of moving forward. The importance of these actors and initiatives that work outside the UN process (figuratively and literally) is now being recognized within the negotiating halls. The head of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) Secretariat, Christiana Figueres, recently noted the dynamism of such initiatives and urged those working on them to help break the deadlock in the UN negotiating halls.

The centre of gravity in the global response to climate change is shifting away from the multilateral negotiations at the state level and toward diverse initiatives – global city networks, NGO-corporate alliances, provincial and regional programs, carbon markets, and individual national actions – that seek to respond to climate change in a multitude of ways that can catalyze a broader response. Without the annual UN meetings, efforts to publicize, grow, and link the activities of these disparate groups would be hampered to the great detriment of the world’s ability to address climate change. The UN negotiations remain a focal point even when the prospects for a global treaty are dim.

Second, Durban is important because nothing substantial is likely to happen. There is value in meeting and negotiating in the face of low expectations, maintaining the practice and institutions of multilateral co-operation, and forging agreement on parts of the problem where there is relative consensus (for example, in reducing emissions from deforestation). When political momentum does emerge, the infrastructure for making a comprehensive treaty will be in place. Continuing the process may be as important as realizing scant progress in the current inhospitable political and economic climate.

Far-reaching action on climate change might not be generated through multilateral negotiations, but multilateral treaty-making processes need to be maintained so that when (or “if,” for those feeling pessimistic) catalysts from outside the negotiating halls create a surge of possibilities, the tools are in place to harness global co-operation and scale up responses. Maintaining the goal of a global treaty and the process of negotiating it provides a signal for long-term investment and planning that will be crucial in producing the political impetus for global action.

So do not expect much from Durban, but resist the temptation to call for an end to the UN negotiations. Durban matters for feeding and growing the innovations to be found outside the negotiating halls, and for maintaining the continuity of a multilateral process that may some day be called upon to implement a global response to climate change catalyzed elsewhere.

Matthew J. Hoffmann is Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Toronto and the author of Climate Governance at the Crossroads: Experimenting with a Global Response after Kyoto. This post first appeared on The Mark.

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