Another Year, Another U.N. Climate-Change Summit: Expect Big Talk in Durban, and Few Results

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Siphiwe Sibeko / Reuters

Protesters rally outside the Conference of the Parties of the U.N. Climate Change venue in Durban, South Africa, on Nov. 28, 2011

For the first time in a few years, I won't be attending the annual U.N. climate-change summit, which began on Nov. 28 in the South African city of Durban. There are lots of reasons I'll be staying home, with the cost and time of the 8,263-mile (13,298 km) flight to Durban high among them. But there's also the unavoidable sense that the gap between what's talked about by diplomats and environmentalists at these meetings and what can actually be accomplished has grown so wide as to be virtually meaningless. I'll save the 6.6 tons of carbon dioxide that would have been burned by just my share of the round-trip flight to Durban, and follow the proceedings from home.

But here's one prediction I can make without leaving my office: there will be no comprehensive international climate deal hammered out at Durban, just as there wasn't one at Cancún last year or Copenhagen the year before. And there almost certainly won't be one by 2015 — a goal the Europeans have set — or maybe by 2020, as the U.S. has grudgingly targeted. The dream of a single global climate deal is likely to remain unfulfilled — and the sooner we accept that fact, the sooner we can start focusing our energy on more effective ways to fight climate change.

The reality is that international climate negotiations have remained stuck on the same issues for over 15 years, going back to the original negotiations over the Kyoto Protocol, which was supposed to reduce carbon output by signatory countries by an average of 5.2% below 1990 levels. Back then — to sketch out the different sides broadly — Europeans were pushing hard for comprehensive carbon cuts, major developing countries mostly just wanted to ensure that they wouldn't be required to do anything, and the U.S. was skeptical about the whole process. In the end — thank in part to some last-minute negotiations by then Vice President Al Gore — the Kyoto Protocol was signed, mandating carbon cuts by 2012 among developed nations while setting up climate aid for developing ones.

The problem is that the treaty was flawed from the beginning, starting with the fact that the U.S. was never going to ratify it. Former President George W. Bush usually gets the blame for this, but the truth is that the Senate made clear — in 95-0 bipartisan fashion — that it would never ratify a climate treaty that required American emission cuts without calling for some similar actions by major developing nations. And that's exactly what the Kyoto Protocol mandated, which is why then President Bill Clinton never bothered to submit the treaty for ratification.

Though Bush's eight-year mockery of a climate policy drew attention away from this original Kyoto dilemma, the problem preceded him. As Michael Liebreich of Bloomberg New Energy Finance pointed out in a research note this week, it took five years to negotiate the Kyoto Protocol and eight years for it to come into force, and since its base year of 1990, energy-related emissions have risen 45%. "If this is not failure, what on earth does failure look like?" Liebreich wrote.

The environmentalists at Durban this week and next week would call foul on that sentiment, arguing that Kyoto would have been much more effective with U.S. participation. That's likely true — but that ignores a central delusion. We've spent 17 years at U.N. climate summits working to craft a global climate deal with the idea that international agreements can force national behavior. With climate change, however, that simply hasn't been true. European nations — Western European nations, at least — have embraced more-aggressive action on carbon emissions because there has long been more popular and elite support for taking action. But Canada, which ratified the Kyoto Protocol, later decided essentially to ignore it, and has already made clear that it will not take on further carbon-cut commitments without changes to the framework. Japan and Russia — which also ratified the Kyoto Protocol — have echoed that position.

Top-down international policymaking has its appeal, in part because it allows us to believe that the world can come together and solve a threat as complex and frightening as climate change with a single treaty. It makes for great slogans — remember the call to "Seal the Deal" at Copenhagen two years ago — and even better magazine covers. But top down is not the way things actually work, and after stalling and kicking the real debate down the road for the past 17 years, we've run out of time. The Kyoto Protocol expires next year, and right now there is virtually nothing set to replace it.

So if not the U.N. system, then what should we do? More of what's actually been working: climate action from the bottom up. From California's recent move to establish its own cap-and-trade system to China's generous investments in renewable energy, individual states, regions and countries have been busy taking their own steps on climate change. In the face of intense domestic opposition, Australia recently passed a carbon tax, while Germany has kept its support of renewable energy going in the face of financial crisis. Last year, global investment in renewable energy hit $187 billion, passing investment in fossil fuels — $157 billion — for the first time ever. The world isn't standing still on climate and energy, even as international negotiations flounder.

I understand that this is all a Plan B, that in a perfect world there'd be strong domestic support for carbon cuts in recalcitrant countries like the U.S., and that we could slap together an effective climate treaty through the U.N. and be done with it. But we don't live in a perfect world as our highly imperfect responses to global problems that long predated climate change — small things like war and poverty and hunger and disease — well demonstrate. The U.N. climate summit at Durban will be useful for dragging a little bit of public attention back to global warming, focusing on side issues like deforestation and giving small developing countries like the Maldives or Grenada — which may vanish because of sea-level rise — a global platform. The difference on global warming won't be made at Durban, and the sooner that's recognized the better.