‘Bonn Voyage’ for an International Climate Treaty?

Ed note: we are pleased to introduce Corbin Hiar to our roster of contributors. Corbin is a journalist at PBS MediaShift. He has covered environmental issues for Mother Jones, The New Republic, The Economist and its sister publication More Intelligent Life and will be covering the international climate talks for Dispatch. 

Reports suggest that international climate negotiators meeting this week in Bonn, Germany are not focused on setting the stage for a binding climate treaty to be signed at the year-end conference in Cancun, Mexico. Instead delegates are trying to achieving what UN chief negotiator Christiana Figueres is calling the “politically possible.” What does that mean for the future of climate protection measure around the globe?

Internationalists holding out hope that the Cancun climate summit will produce a successor to the Kyoto Protocol are likely to be disappointed. After the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change failed to produce an international climate treaty in Copenhagen, its executive director Yvo de Boer stepped down, leaving leadership of the organization to Figueres. She appears to have scaled back the UNFCCC’s ambitions. Alex Morales of Bloomberg reports that she told delegates in Bonn it may be unnecessary to complete a full agreement in Cancun. “Decisions need to be taken, perhaps in an incremental manner,” Figueres said.

In spite of the recent failures of Australia and America to move forward with cap-and-trade emissions schemes, a handful of regions and countries have quietly taken the sort of incremental steps the new UN climate chief is advocating. Days after US Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid announced that he didn’t have the votes to pass a climate bill, Li Jing of China Daily broke the news that Communist Party leaders had decided to implement a carbon trading system in 2011 as a part of their next five year plan. As EU negotiators have been eager to stress in Bonn, their 27 member states remain committed to reducing Europe’s carbon footprint. Even in the US, states on both coasts have formed regional emissions trading programs.

While national and sub-national approaches to climate protection may be the only way forward at the moment, the UN is still playing a useful role in keeping international attention on the problem. Given the high level of control the state exerts over the Chinese media, it is likely no coincidence that news of China’s emissions trading plans leaked shortly before the Bonn meetings. China, which was vilified by many in the West for its role in blocking a binding agreement at Copenhagen, may be trying to improve its climate credentials before it plays host in October to the final round of UNFCCC talks before the Cancun summit.

Even America feels it can no longer show up to climate talks empty handed. Arthur Max of the Associated Press noted that US delegate Jonathan Pershing promised the assembled diplomats that America “will use all the tools available” to reach the emissions reduction target President Obama committed the US to in Copenhagen. While the president has been criticized for failing to put his political muscle behind passing cap-and-trade, his administration has taken many regulatory steps to significantly reduce US emissions. Indeed, by using the Environmental Protection Agency’s authority to limit carbon emissions and increasing the efficiency standards required by the Department of Transportation and Department of Energy, a recent World Resources Institute study found the US could actually come within the range of the 17 percent reduction over 2005 levels by 2020 that Obama pledged.

Still, few would argue that this incrementalist approach is preferable to an increasingly-less-likely binding successor treaty to the Kyoto Protocol. Will doing what is politically possible will be enough to prevent the multitude of climate disasters that are scientifically likely given the current global emissions rate? That is a question no one at the Bonn talks is eager to answer.