Despite near-collapse at each of the last three annual conferences of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), the international negotiations always seem to pull back from the brink. Why? Because no country is willing to abandon the goal of an international regime which will effectively combat dangerous climate change. So the search for international agreement continues.
The negotiations tackle four principal issues: ambition, legal form, assistance to developing countries, and rules and institutions.
On ambition – the goals the international community sets to reduce emissions – there are in practice no real negotiations at all. Countries commit to whatever their domestic economic and political pressures determine. The global emissions reduction, and its distribution between countries, is then whatever collectively results. At present the sum of country commitments falls far short of the UN's own agreed goal to limit global warming to a maximum of 2C above pre-industrial times. At the 2011 conference in Durban, it was agreed that this "emissions gap" must be closed; but it remains difficult to see who will make the extra effort, at least before 2020. Much will depend on whether countries' experience of implementing low-carbon measures gives them greater confidence in the possibility of further reductions in the future. The problem of equity remains a major obstacle: developing countries ask why they should do more if the richest countries – particularly the US – do not do enough. It remains to be seen whether sufficient pressure can be applied by the poorest and most climate-vulnerable countries, and by domestic and international civil society, to change the major emitting countries' commitments.
On legal form, the 2011 conference achieved an unexpected breakthrough. It was agreed to begin a new round of negotiations towards a new "protocol, another legal instrument or an agreed outcome with legal force", to be concluded by 2015 and to take effect after 2020. At the same time the Kyoto protocol, thought to be on the verge of collapse, was kept alive until at least 2017. This was remarkable because the goal of a new internationally legally binding agreement had been specifically rejected at the 2009 conference in Copenhagen, in an effective deal between the US and the "Basic" group of emerging economies (China, India, Brazil and South Africa). This goal has not only now been accepted but explicitly made "applicable to all countries", which is widely understood to mean that developing as well as developed countries should in future take on binding commitments. This overcomes the principal objection which the US always had to the Kyoto protocol – that it didn't apply to the major emerging countries such as China. There remains huge contention over the precise nature of "an agreed outcome with legal force", and no guarantee of final agreement, but the deadline of 2015 gives a powerful boost to the negotiation process.
On financial assistance to developing countries, both for adaptation to the effects of climate change, and to help them mitigate their emissions, negotiations have effectively stalled. In Copenhagen developed countries committed to providing $100bn by 2020. But there is dispute over how much of this must be public finance and how much can be private; and whether the public money will be "additional" to existing aid commitments. Moreover few developed countries have yet said what they will provide in the much shorter term of 2013. In the present economic climate the likelihood is that assistance levels will fall, which will increase anger among developing countries and induce further accusations of broken pledges.
On technology, the goal of developing countries has long been the free or cut-price transfer of low-carbon technologies from developed countries, including the intellectual property rights which would allow domestic manufacture. But this has always been rejected by developed countries, concerned to protect their trading advantages. Negotiations are now focused on more limited goals of co-operation on technology development and deployment.
Negotiations also continue on a number of new institutions and rules, most of which were agreed in outline at the 2010 conference in Cancun but which still require more detailed design. The most important of these include the governance and operation of the green climate fund, which will provide a channel for financial assistance to developing countries; the rules on how emissions from land use change and forestry should be counted; and new mechanisms to support adaptation and to prevent the loss and degradation of forests.
Perhaps the most intriguing feature of current climate negotiations is the shifting alliances and positions of different countries. Traditionally, negotiations have been conducted with developed ('Annex 1') and developing countries ('Non-Annex 1') on opposing sides. At Copenhagen and Cancun a fissure opened up among developing countries, with the emergence of the Basic grouping and increasingly open divergence of interest between them and the poorest and most vulnerable nations. At the Durban conference, the final outcome owed much to a new coalition between the EU, the least developed countries and the Alliance of Small Island States. Its success caused further rifts within the Basic group, with India attempting to hold out against the legal goal but in the end not being supported by China, Brazil or South Africa. As negotiations re-start in earnest at the December 2012 conference in Qatar, much will depend on how these shifting alliances develop over the next few years. Much can happen between now and the new deadline of 2015.
• This article was written by Michael Jacobs of the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment at LSE in collaboration with the Guardian