Beyond Binding or Bust

This post also appears in National Journal's Cancún Insider blog

CANCUN – We’ll see tomorrow here in Cancún whether countries are ready to move past binding-or-nothing in the international climate effort.

For the past five years, negotiators have deadlocked over whether and how to extend a legally binding climate regime beyond 2012, when the first Kyoto targets expire. In that time, over countless sessions, the U.N. climate talks have produced little in the way of tangible results.

Cancún is an opportunity for a more sensible approach.

The reality is that key players, starting with the United States, are not prepared to take binding commitments, and won’t be for some time. Other countries must decide whether under those circumstances they’re going to remain hell-bent on getting binding outcomes, or whether they’re ready to move forward in other ways. 

Part of the aim in Cancún is getting agreement on a package of concrete, incremental steps on key issues. Most of these issues – finance, adaptation, technology, and forestry – concern stronger support for developing countries. Another one – transparency – is about strengthening reporting and international review of countries’ actions. 

But the pivotal issue here – one that could bring the whole package down – is what countries can agree to say here and now about a future binding agreement.

Many developing countries are demanding certainty right now that developed countries will take new targets under Kyoto. But a number of developed countries – most notably, Japan – refuse to be roped into that. While the United States has no direct stake in that particular matter, because it’s not a Kyoto party, it’s insisting that any reference to a future binding agreement make clear that it would bind all major economies – something China, India and others are not about to concede.

The only way out is a finesse. While there’s no way to get agreement now on the specific form or timing, parties should be willing to collectively declare that their aim going forward is indeed a binding agreement. That would leave all options on the table, including another round of Kyoto targets. While Kyoto’s future can’t be ensured, it can’t be foreclosed either.

The risk is that some parties will continue to insist on their favored formulations, refusing to join in a more general declaration of intent. And that could mean no agreement here on anything.

For governments to give up a decent package of concrete steps because they can’t agree on the shape of a future agreement is to act against their own and the collective interest.  Let’s prove instead that this process can produce results, even if countries aren’t yet ready to go all the way.

Elliot Diringer is Vice President for International Strategies