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Last update: 16.05.2013

Taking international climate policy to a new level - on the road to a climate agreement for the 21st century

The Kyoto Protocol is the single most important instrument of international climate policy to date. However, industrialised countries only committed to emission reductions from 2008 to 2012 (referred to as first commitment period of the Kyoto Protocol).

The Kyoto Protocol is only the first step in a long process, also with regard to the emission reductions necessary to achieve the goal of limiting the rise in temperature to 2°C. According to calculations by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), industrialised countries must reduce their greenhouse gas emissions by 80 to 95% by 2050 compared to 1990 levels - the Kyoto Protocol only covers 5%.

In addition, the 2°C target cannot be achieved without the commitment of the world's biggest emitters. The US, the largest emitter among the industrialised countries, still has not ratified the Kyoto Protocol. And the major newly industrialising countries with their continuously increasing emissions (China succeeded the US as largest emitter worldwide in 2009) have not made any binding commitments at all, referring to the principle of common but differentiated responsibilities.

The UN Climate Change Conference (COP17/CMP7), which took place in Durban, South Africa, in 2011, agreed to negotiate a new comprehensive and legally binding climate agreement by 2015 which will enter into force for all parties from 2020. The parties arrived at this decision after years of international climate negotiations.

Negotiations on a post-2012 climate agreement

At the Bali climate change conference (COP 13) in December 2007, the international community agreed to launch negotiations on the post-2012 international climate regime in order to provide clear guidance to the parties on how they can increase their efforts to combat climate change after the first commitment period of the Kyoto Protocol.

In the Bali Action Plan the parties agreed to negotiate the following issues: concrete commitments and contributions from all countries to emission reductions (including a reduction of deforestation), adaptation, technology and financing up to and beyond 2012.

All industrialised, newly industrialising and developing countries agreed in Bali to combat climate change cooperatively and more intensively than in the past. It was the first time that developing and industrialising countries declared their willingness to take measurable, reportable and verifiable mitigation actions, supported and enabled by technology, financing and capacity building. The negotiations on future obligations for industrialised countries under the Kyoto Protocol considered an emission reduction of 25 to 40% by 2020 compared to 1990. The requirements for all industrialised countries, including the US, should be comparable. Thus the level of ambition for the negotiations has been set.

The post-2012 climate regime was negotiated in several rounds during 2008 and 2009. Discussions took place in two working groups: the Ad Hoc Working Group on Further Commitments for Annex I Parties under the Kyoto Protocol (AWG KP) negotiated future reduction commitments of industrialised countries, and the Ad Hoc Working Group on Long-term Cooperative Action under the Convention (AWG-LCA) negotiated emission reduction contributions of all countries, including the US and the major industrialising countries.

No breakthrough at the Copenhagen climate change conference

Pursuant to the schedule adopted in Bali, the negotiations on the post-2012 climate regime were to be concluded at the Copenhagen climate change conference (COP 15) in December 2009. However, following very difficult negotiations, COP 15 only achieved a political agreement, the Copenhagen Accord, which lists some key elements of future climate policy. The Accord is not binding and was only taken note of by the meeting of the Conference of the Parties.

Gemany's and the EU's aim to adopt a new comprehensive and legally binding post-2012 climate agreement was not achieved. Nevertheless, it was a step in the right direction. To date, more than 141 countries (including the EU member states) have declared their formal support for the Copenhagen Accord. Numerous industrialised and developing countries have submitted specific emission reduction targets for 2020.

It was also decided in Copenhagen that the negotiations in the two parallel working groups should be continued until the next Climate Change Conference in Cancún.

United Nations proves ability to act: Climate change conference in Cancún

The climate change conference (COP 16) in Cancún, Mexico, took place from 29 November to 10 December 2010. Despite difficult negotiations, a package of decisions was adopted at the end of the two-week conference - the Cancún Agreements. These lay down the contents of the Copenhagen Accord in United Nations decisions, and in some cases also go beyond this. It was the first time that a UN decision recognised the 2°C target. The Cancún Agreements put the reduction pledges of industrialised, newly industrialising and developing countries on record. In addition, they define a work programme for reporting and verifying mitigation measures in industrialised, newly industrialising and developing countries, thus increasing transparency. The Cancún meeting also saw the establishment of a new fund, the Green Climate Fund. The parties also agreed on structures for assisting developing and industrialising countries with adaptation to the impacts of climate change, forest conservation and the deployment of climate-friendly technologies. Under Mexico's excellent presidency the international community demonstrated its ability to act on international climate policy in Cancún. The Cancún conference was unable to answer the key political questions regarding the legal form of the future climate agreement and the role of a second commitment period.

The international breakthrough in Durban

The last climate change conference took place from 27 November to 9 December 2011 in Durban, South Africa. Negotiations had been prolonged for two days, but in the end the Durban Package can be seen as a milestone in international climate policy.

In Durban, the international community agreed that all countries - industrialised, industrialising and developing - will be obliged in future to reduce greenhouse gas emissions under either a protocol, legal instrument or agreed outcome with legal force. A new working group on the Durban Platform (ADP) was established to coordinate the necessary negotiations on a legal agreement to be adopted by 2015 and enter into force by 2020. The establishment of the ADP puts an end to the division of the world into industrialised countries which are obliged to reduce emissions and developing and industrialising countries whose commitment is limited to voluntary activities. Until the future agreement enters into force in 2020, a working programme will be established by the ADP to raise the worldwide level of ambition to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Moreover, countries decided in Durban on a second commitment period under the Kyoto Protocol from 1 January 2013 onwards. Unresolved issues such as the length of the second commitment period will have to be addressed by the end of the year.

Furthermore, the decisions taken in Cancún on the Green Climate Fund have been implemented. The purpose of the Green Climate Fund is to provide financial support and advice to assist developing countries to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions and to adapt to the negative impacts of climate change, which often strongly affect these countries. The international community agreed to make 100 billion US dollars available per year from 2020 for international climate action. The Federal Republic of Germany is currently applying to host the headquarters of the Fund in Bonn (www.greenclimatefund.de).

Germany drives forward the climate negotiation process - the third Petersberg Climate Dialogue

"More ambitious international climate action - on the road to the UN Climate Summit in Doha and beyond." That was the aim of the ministers and heads of delegations from 31 countries who came together in Berlin from 16 to 17 July 2012 for the third Petersberg Climate Dialogue. Germany has organised the Petersberg Climate Dialogue every year since 2010. The countries invited represent the different negotiation groups of the UN climate negotiation process. The country holding the presidency of the Conference of the Parties at the time is co-chairing the dialogue. The aim of this conference of ministers is to offer a high-level forum for open discussion between climate conferences in order to provide political direction and sound out compromises at an early stage.

Ministers held first talks about the rough outline of a new agreement to be negotiated by 2015 and become legally binding for all parties from 2020. The ideas on how to flesh out this agreement still differ greatly. Many developing countries insist that the principle of common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities must be maintained. Emerging economies such as China and India, however, acknowledge, that the interpretation of this principle has to be adapted to new circumstances, for example the growing economic capacity of developing countries and the increase in their share in global emissions. Possible criteria for assessing the contributions of a country include the stage of development and historical emissions. It is difficult, however, to derive a formula which fits all using these two approaches.

Outlook - international climate negotiations in 2012

The next meeting of the Conference of the Parties (COP18) will take place in Doha, Qatar, from 26 November to 7 December 2012 will decide on the design of the second commitment period under the Kyoto Protocol and set the course for the structure of the future agreement.

The goal of the German government and the EU for international climate policy remains the same: the conclusion of a legally binding climate regime limiting the average global rise in temperature to 2° Celsius compared with preindustrial levels.