On the eve of the latest round of UN-led climate talks in Durban, there is scuttlebutt that no real agreement is possible before 2020.

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Are world leaders secretly telling us something they can’t admit publicly? We already know that global climate negotiations are stalemated, so expectations for the upcoming UN-sponsored climate change conference (round 17), set to kick off on November 28, in South Africa, are low. But what’s been reported for this Guardian story sounds like a boom being lowered on the heads of climate activists:

Ahead of critical talks starting next week, most of the world’s leading economies now privately admit that no new global climate agreement will be reached before 2016 at the earliest, and that even if it were negotiated by then, they would stipulate it could not come into force until 2020.

The eight-year delay is the worst contemplated by world governments during 20 years of tortuous negotiations on greenhouse gas emissions, and comes despite intensifying warnings from scientists and economists about the rapidly increasing dangers of putting off prompt action.

Yes, if you recall, just last week the chief economist at the International Energy Agency (IEA) warned, “If we do not have an international agreement, whose effect is put in place by 2017, then the door to [holding temperatures to 2C of warming] will be closed forever.”


So what are we to make of this private talk reported in the Guardian — that no climate treaty will be in effect before 2020? Are representatives of “most of the world’s leading economies” annoyed at being boxed in by arbitrary deadlines, or are they simply trying to push back the date with climate doom?

Either way, the whispered, far-off trajectory of a potential climate pact, combined with the little progress anticipated in South Africa, is likely to resurrect calls for a climate policy course correction.

We saw a flurry of wonky suggestions after the Copenhagen meltdown in 2009. As scholars from the London School of Economics and Political Science wrote last year in the journal Global Policy:

Copenhagen not only disappointed those hoping for a diplomatic breakthrough; it also laid bare the deep fissures in climate politics that make a global deal ever less likely. The parties to the UN Framework Convention engaged in tough bargaining over nearly every aspect of the proposed rules for mitigating climate change. Rather than promote a global solution in the interest of climate protection, the major powers focused narrowly on securing their own national interest and avoiding costly commitments to emission reductions or long-term funding for adaptation.

Nothing that’s happened in the last two years suggests this dynamic has changed. Indeed, consider this latest headline days before climate negotiators gather in Durban, South Africa: “China to refuse binding targets at climate talks.”

The stark reality of nations putting their own interests over the planet’s should spur a change in direction, say the authors of the Global Policy paper:

Given the deadlock in current international negotiations, what should be the strategy of those wishing to strengthen international climate policy? Our analysis suggests that the push for a “global deal” is producing diminishing returns and that parties may need to consider a second best scenario. This alternative strategy is based on the idea of creating a climate regime in an incremental fashion, based on partial agreements and governance mechanisms. While the objective of a universal and comprehensive treaty with firm commitments for emission reductions remains valid, a building blocks approach is needed to realize this objective.

But at this point, with increasingly dire warnings from climate scientists, there probably isn’t much appetite for a gradualist “building blocks approach.” What seems more likely, rather, are renewed calls to scrap the top-down, multilateral process that governs global climate talks. Earlier this year, David Victor, a University of California political scientist, and author of the recently published book Global Warming Gridlock: Creating more effective strategies for protecting the planet (here is the Economist review), laid out his argument in a Guardian essay:

The United Nations forum is the wrong place for serious diplomacy. One of the chief strengths of the UN system — that it involves every nation on the planet — is a huge liability for global warming. By working in large groups, UN talks are often held hostage to the whims of even small players — as happened in Copenhagen and Cancun …. The UN system has also relied on legally binding agreements, which sound good in theory yet have proved difficult to tailor and adjust in light of the many different interests that must be reflected in any serious international pact to control emissions.

Victor does not advise abandoning UN-sponsored talks altogether, merely that they “should shift to smaller forums which engage just the largest countries” responsible for much of the world’s carbon emissions. Additionally, he argues that negotiations “need to shift focus to what is really achievable.” For nearly a decade, he points out, most global warming diplomacy has revolved around the 2C target. That is no longer realistic, Victor says: “By the time all the inertia built into the climate and energy system is felt even a severe program to regulate emissions starting today is likely to see warming blow through the 2 degree limit.”

But whether there is much appetite for this form of climate real politik remains to be seen. Additionally, there is plenty of inertia built into the UN-led global negotiations. Just listen to Kenji Hiramatsu, Japan’s director general for global issues, play down expectations for next week’s talks: “I don’t think this will be a big breakthrough year. The important thing is to press the process ahead, and have some clarity as to where we’re heading.”

If there’s one thing we have, it’s clarity on where all this is headed.

Keith Kloor

Keith Kloor is a New York City-based freelance journalist who writes often about the environment and climate change.