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Despite the apparent success of the latest international negotiations on climate change, new approaches to reaching agreement on reducing carbon emissions in an equitable way are needed more than ever.

There was, understandably, a powerful feeling of relief — some even described it as euphoria — at the close of the climate changes negotiations that have been taking place in Montreal, Canada, during the past two weeks.

Up to virtually the last minute, it had seemed that the United States would block any attempt to move forward internationally. This was in line with its continued opposition to the Kyoto Protocol, through which much the rest of the world has agreed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by achieving agreed emissions targets.

There had been particular concern that US intransigence could undermine efforts to forge a consensus on what happens after 2012. This is the date by which the emissions targets established under the Kyoto protocol are due to be achieved.

In the event, and after some last minute negotiations with Washington — for which the British government later claimed credit — the US delegation, which at one stage had walked out in protest at the criticism it had been receiving from other delegations, backed off.

As a result, the Montreal meeting, attended by governments who have signed the 1992 UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), was able to reach unanimous agreement on beginning talks about what should happen after 2012.

A senior official of Friends of the Earth described the outcome as "good news for people everywhere". And even if one British politician's description of the outcome as "a diplomatic triumph" may be somewhat overstated, the significance of the decision should not be underestimated.

One key reason is that it provides a mechanism for bringing some of the larger developing countries — China and India in particular — into the discussions.

Under the Kyoto Protocol, such countries are excused from making any commitment to cut their greenhouse gas emissions. Yet, with the economies of these countries growing rapidly, so is their consumption of fossil fuels, making such exclusion increasingly inappropriate. If the United States had remained outside the post-Kyoto discussions, it would — on grounds of global equity alone — have been much more difficult to bring the likes of China and India in.

Tasks ahead

But in many ways, the hard part has only just begun. Even with the United States at the table — and even if the 2012 targets are met — it is far from certain that governments will agree on a new set of emissions targets. Nor will it be easy for the negotiators to find a formula that treats developing nations in a way they would consider to be fair and equitable, taking into account their (justifiable) argument that historically, they have not been the ones to blame for global warming.

Given the difficulties encountered by negotiators in achieving a global consensus on political action, it is not surprising that some have been advocating alternative strategies to the Kyoto process. The clearest example of this is the United States's continued insistence that a combination of market forces and government investment in research into new energy and carbon-saving technologies will be sufficient.

The attraction of this approach is that market pressures are the most likely to lead to the emergence of cost-effective strategies (the philosophy behind the development of carbon trading mechanisms, for example, which create a 'market' in carbon-saving strategies). And no one denies that new technologies will be an essential component of any long-term solutions.

The disadvantage of a market-driven approach is that it may prove insufficient to address either the size or the urgency of cuts required to keep global warming within manageable temperatures. Furthermore, like any market mechanisms, it gives more power (by definition) to those who have more resources, raising basic questions about social equity.

Negotiating framework

In addition, any attempt to forge an international consensus around such an alternative strategy — a move recently proposed by a US-led group of countries (see Asia-Pacific climate pact launched) — would require a new set of international negotiations. And there is no indication that these would take less time and effort. Many feel that it is better to continue to work with the current negotiating framework, however unsatisfactory, than to go back to the drawing board.

The real challenge is to find a way of moving forward constructively within the existing framework without driving negotiations into the sand (as the United States, for one, is continually threatening to do).

One roadmap for doing so has emerged from a series of meetings bringing together 25 individuals from various governments, businesses, and civil society organised by the Pew Center on Global Climate Change. Their topic of discussion: ways of "engaging major economies in strengthened international climate change efforts".

The outcome of these talks, published as a report entitled International Climate Efforts Beyond 2012, calls for a more flexible international framework, allowing countries to take on different types of climate commitments.

In particular, it sets out six elements that, it says, are needed to improve the UNFCCC. The post-2012 approached, says the report, needs to (1) engage major economies, (2) provide flexibility to accommodate different types of national needs and strategies, (3) couple near-term action with a long-term focus, (4) integrate climate and development, (5) address adaptation, and (6) be viewed as fair by all.

In addition, the dialogue proposed six options that could be used to plan future actions: an aspirational long term goal, adaptation, targets and trading, sectoral approaches across countries, policy based non-target approaches, and technological cooperation.

The experience of the Pew dialogue suggests that, while not all actors might be simultaneously persuaded to agree to all options, scope for agreement at a lower level exists. For example, representatives from the oil industry and environmental groups were able to agree on the value of having an aspirational target, such as the European Union's goal of keeping global warming under two degrees centigrade.

The suggested strategy was to develop an informal dialogue around these options in order to initiate the post-2012 process, and then at a later stage to bring them under the UNFCCC. Furthermore it was felt that starting with a two-pronged approach, allowing dialogue among major economies to take place separately from a global exchange of views, offered significant advantages over an integrated approach that would involve bargaining among all actors from the beginning on an overall package.

Seeking diversity within unity

There is much to be said for this approach. For example, it could allow for a more detailed consideration of the relationship between climate change and sustainable development than has been possible within the UNFCCC negotiations up to this point.

The link is essential. As the Pew report puts it, "strategies advancing the core priorities of economic and social development and poverty eradication can simultaneously serve to moderate greenhouse gas emissions. Similarly, measures to strengthen critical societal systems and promote sustainable development can help countries adapt to climate impacts".

Yet one key reason sustainable development is still elusive in developing countries is the mismatch between local realities and global priorities: needs, institutions, stage of development, lack of governance, and lack of equity make countries vulnerable. By starting an informal dialogue first, and including local, non-state actors from the start, this approach may take into account local realities.

Another key argument for the strength of this approach is that the principle of "common but differentiated responsibilities" — whereby everyone shares responsibility for global warming, but to varying degrees — has never been elaborated and is practically meaningless to date. Yet if a future agreement were to allow different targets for countries (and perhaps even non-state actors) based on their stage of development and ability to contribute greenhouse gas reductions, this would constitute a major step towards global equity as far as climate change is concerned. For this reason, the approach may lever greater participation.

Furthermore, by seeking to delay efforts to forge a global consensus on an overall package until agreement has been reached on its constituent elements, much of the tension that has pervaded international negotiations around the implementation of the Kyoto agreement might be avoided. In fact, this approach may allow bringing such a package, once agreed, back under the Kyoto Protocol.

The danger, of course, is that without the political commitment to genuine change, fragmented discussions may only lead to fragmented solutions, with no overall strategy. And this is could make the implementation of concrete actions to combat global warming even more difficult, particularly where they continue to meet popular resistance (for example on the grounds of cost, or excessive taxation).

So any euphoria that exists over the outcome of the Montreal meeting is likely to be short-lived. Those seeking a long-term solution to the combating the threats of global warming still have a mountain to climb. And whether this is best achieved by everyone taking the same route, or by different groups of actors adopting different climbing strategies, while keeping the summit in view, remains to be seen.