In a recent commentary published in Science, Joseph Aldy and Robert Stavins argue that recent rounds of climate negotiations, and the 2011 Durban negotiations in particular, have improved the chances of a meaningful international climate agreement by undermining the Kyoto Protocol’s distinction between “Annex I” and “non-Annex I” countries, where only the former were expected to commit to emissions reductions. This distinction stems from the principle of “common but differentiated responsibilities” in the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, which recognizes the need to differentiate climate mitigation responsibilities by factors such as a country’s level of development.
While most non-Annex I countries are poor developing countries, this group also contains Qatar and Saudi Arabia; moreover, rapidly industrializing countries such as China have increased their emissions over time. Aldy and Stavins note that the Durban Platform for Enhanced Action “calls for a comprehensive legal regime by 2020 that essentially eliminates the Annex I versus non-Annex I distinction.” This would allow meaningful participation by rapidly industrializing countries, which are increasingly important as sources of carbon dioxide emissions.
The commentary points to an important question in international climate policy: how much of the present trouble in the negotiations can be ascribed to earlier institutional choices, such as the Annex distinction, as opposed to fundamental factors, such as underlying distributional conflict?
While the Annex distinction may have played a role at the margin, my view is that the problem is more fundamental than that. Even without the Annex distinction, I would imagine that American conservatives would continue to oppose climate commitments and the domestic public in China and India would reject emissions commitments without genuine leadership by the United States and other wealthy countries. Solving the problem would not be much easier without the Annex distinction because the status quo is politically quite convenient. Chinese and Indian policymakers score points for adopting a tough bargaining position in negotiations; in the United States, China in particular, and India to a lesser extent, are convenient excuses for lack of international commitments or stringent national policies to reduce emissions.
I hope that I am wrong about this, but I would not hold my breath until a meaningful international agreement has been achieved by major emitters.