Nations Chart New Course for Global Climate Cooperation in Durban

Written by Duncan Marsh on . Posted in COP17, The Wonk Room

The world is not used to hearing good news out of United Nations climate negotiations. Yet the agreement reached early Sunday morning in Durban, South Africa, has potential to truly be significant. Not for the immediate steps it will take to save the climate or its level of ambition – it falls way short on both counts – but for creating a much-needed new paradigm for international action to meet the climate challenge.

In one of many dramatic moments late on the final night of negotiations, a Brazilian negotiator appealed to his colleagues from around the world, “I have heard and I understand the concerns many of us have about this document. But we are in a very different political moment, one that requires greater flexibility. This COP-17 can achieve a major breakthrough in the history of the (UN Climate Change) Convention, even greater than the Berlin Mandate.” Berlin was the site of the first conference (COP-1) under the new UN Climate Convention in 1995, where governments agreed to create a new legal instrument to reduce emissions from developed countries, which led to the adoption of the Kyoto Protocol in 1997.

So what makes the Durban deal worthy of such distinction?

  1. Agreement to negotiate a common legal framework for all countries.

After knocking on the gates for several years, governments have finally cracked open the outdated and unrealistic paradigm reflected in the Kyoto Protocol, which required action only by developed countries, despite the fact that countries like China, Brazil, India and Indonesia rank amongst the top emitters. Under the Durban Platform for Enhanced Action, Parties agreed to negotiate a new deal by 2015 with a common legal framework for reducing emissions that will apply to all countries.

The Durban Platform has its flaws, nevertheless. The timeline is too long, with the start date of the new agreement pegged for 2020. There will also surely be rankling over the interpretation of the final compromise: the decision to “launch a process to develop a protocol, another legal instrument or an agreed outcome with legal force under the Convention applicable to all Parties.” And while the Durban Platform has established a new process, the agreement fails to draw specific parameters about the content of the future negotiation, which we can expect governments to struggle with for some time.

2. Renewal of the Kyoto Protocol for a second commitment period.

This decision is important because it avoids a devastating gap in the carbon markets spurred by Kyoto, and preserves the valuable structures of Kyoto, including its trading mechanisms, common accounting systems, and means of encouraging countries to comply with their commitments. These elements, perhaps further refined through accumulated experience, will be more easily absorbed into the structure of a future agreement. Nevertheless, the actual emissions reductions from Kyoto will be limited, as the remaining developed countries, following the departure of Japan, Russia and Canada, will only add up to about 15% of global emissions.

3. Agreement on rules to establish the Green Climate Fund and other mechanisms to provide assistance to developing countries – important both materially and symbolically to these nations.

These three issues were deeply intertwined. The European Union had said it would sign onto a second Kyoto period only if other major emitting countries committed to negotiating a legally binding agreement for all. Developing countries, on the other hand, insisted on the continuation of Kyoto, as well as the Green Fund, but were split on the idea of all joining under a single future, common legal framework.

Ultimately, a dramatic standoff took place between India and the EU at about 3 a.m. Sunday, and was then negotiated in an extraordinary scene even in these negotiations: a huddle of key countries in the center of the conference hall, surrounded by several hundred delegates and observers. When agreement was reached on new language, a loud cheer rang forth. By 5:30 a.m. the deal was done: Kyoto would be preserved, and there would be a new plan to negotiate by 2015 a broader agreement applicable to all countries, to begin in 2020.

One can view the last three years of negotiations as a progression. In Copenhagen in 2009, over 100 heads of state gathered for the first time to negotiate a climate deal. Despite a chaotic process, they salvaged a barebones political agreement that created new emissions reduction pledges and more transparent reporting systems for all major countries. This Copenhagen agreement was then elaborated in legal text under the Convention, adopted by all last year in Cancun. But in terms of national emissions targets, Cancun only laid out a set of national pledges, without any overarching framework to bind them together.

Durban sends the negotiations in a potentially much stronger direction, with nations agreeing to negotiate toward a new protocol or other common legal framework that will apply to all countries, unlike Kyoto. This should enable the use of cost-effective mechanisms like emissions trading between countries, and may lead to more ambitious overall commitments.

The Durban agreement inevitably will be tested during the coming years of negotiations. The challenge ahead will be to deepen political will, to draw the connections between the science that grows ever stronger and the understanding of how a warming planet will impact our economies and people’s lives. This increased understanding should be translated into more ambitious commitments – and this should not wait until 2020.

Durban did not save the climate, far from it. But for the second consecutive year, against expectations, negotiators have threaded the needle of what was politically possible to capture a significant diplomatic achievement.

Editor’s Note: Stay tuned to Planet Change to learn more about the outcomes from Durban and the Conservancy’s climate change work in Africa and around the world.

Duncan Marsh is Director of International Climate Policy for The Nature Conservancy

Photo by: Flickr user ethekwinigirl (Durban skyline from the harbor). Used under a Creative Commons license.

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Comments (3)

  • Alan Septoff


    as methane bubbles up from the ocean floor, this agreement is far too little, far too late.

    the tipping point is past.

    negotiators, if they could step out of their relativist success metrics, would recognize this. one might objectively call this agreement a victory… if it were reached in the 90s.

    better to focus on mitigation at this point.


  • Donald Marsh & Takako Satoh


    An exceptionally good analysis on the Durban meetings, outlining what was accomplished and, importantly, what needs to done. Thank you, and we urge you and TNC to continue your efforts on the climate change challenge.

    Donald Marsh & Takako Satoh


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