Why Durban Matters

International Climate Process Strengthened at South Africa Talks

Andrew Light shows why this year’s climate talks were a success and how this outcome was better than the potential catastrophic collapse of international climate talks at the meeting.

There are a lot of complaints about the outcome of the U.N. climate summit in Durban, South Africa, since it ended Sunday, December 11 around 6:00 a.m. after a 36-hour extension. It’s not the lack of sleep from observers waiting for an outcome that has led to so much resentment, but instead the perception that at the end of the day nothing really happened. But this conclusion is far from the truth.

Not only did Durban produce a package of agreements essential for any hope of a meaningful contribution to mitigation and adaptation to climate change, but it also avoided a disaster that would have collapsed the careful bridge that has been built from a future chocked with carbon pollution to a global regime that can contribute something to climate safety.

Three separate, substantive agreements were advanced out of the Durban meeting: (1) an extension of the 1997 Kyoto Protocol set to expire in 2012, now continuing to 2017; (2) various implementation instruments and revisions for the 2009 Cancun Agreements, in particular the implementing agreement for the new Green Climate Fund; and (3) the creation of a new Durban Platform for Enhanced Mitigation starting a new negotiating track that must produce a legal agreement by 2015, which is later open for ratification.

The vast majority of attention has fallen on the third independent part, Durban Platform, which starts a process to produce a new comprehensive climate treaty by 2015 that most likely would not go into force until 2020 once individual counties begin the process of ratifying it.

To those like me who see climate change as the most important moral challenge of our generation, the Durban Platform can easily sound empty and hollow—at best an agreement to have a conversation in the future about a problem that is happening now. Given the steady march of new scientific reports about the difficulties of successful mitigation and the rapid emergence of a world wracked by climate disasters, how could we possibly wait for another treaty process to start and end with no actual global response until the end of the decade at the earliest?

The problem with this reaction is that too much attention is paid to only one part of the Durban outcome. Other than the thin, page-and-a-half Durban Platform, there were two substantial agreements that went through—the second commitment period of the Kyoto Protocol and the implementing instruments for the Cancun Agreements—each containing many important individual elements. Altogether, the agreements can make a critical impact through the rest of this decade and before the work of producing the Durban Platform is finished in 2015.

What’s more, there are elements to the Durban Platform that do address the need for additional mitigation efforts this decade.

And finally, what is understandably underappreciated—given the labyrinthine and often impenetrable procedures of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change—is that the entire process would have most likely fallen apart if these three separate agreements had not moved forward together.

Let’s look at how the three agreements came together before moving to why they’re important for future efforts to achieve climate safety.

How it went down in Durban

As the start of the Durban meeting approached, a potentially devastating showdown emerged between the European Union and other parties over the European Union’s conditions for agreeing to an extension of the Kyoto Protocol.

The “first commitment period” of the protocol will expire in 2012. It set cumulative greenhouse gas emissions reduction targets for all developed countries that signed on to it. Developing countries who are part of the protocol, such as China and India, are not required to reduce their emissions, and until last year’s Cancun climate summit there was no process of international scrutiny over the reductions they committed to outside of the Kyoto Protocol.

Arguably because of this bifurcated structure—sometimes described as a “firewall” between the obligations of developed and developing countries in the U.N. climate process—the Kyoto Protocol is a highly valued agreement by developing countries in this process. Certainly it is also valued because it contains a variety of instruments, such as the Clean Development Mechanism, which sends billions of dollars to developing countries as part of the carbon market established by the protocol to pay for clean energy programs that offset carbon emissions in developed countries.

Many developing countries have been demanding for the last several years that without an extension of the protocol to a second commitment period—where they are not obliged to legally binding emission targets—they would block progress on anything else at this meeting. Such sentiments must be respected because the 194 countries that participate in the UNFCCC operate under a consensus process—everyone has to agree.

Unfortunately, the European Union was left alone as a party willing to extend the protocol and satisfy this demand. Other major carbon polluters such as Japan, Russia, and Canada already signaled by the opening of Durban that they were unwilling to continue the treaty for a variety of reasons. For instance, the Japanese argued that it was no longer worthwhile to bind themselves to a treaty that covered only 27 percent of global emissions by 2008, not nearly enough to impact the future temperature increase forced by greenhouse gases.

But the conditions the European Union asked for at Durban to preserve the Kyoto Protocol were steep. In exchange for their commitment to keep the treaty going, they expected everyone else—in particular the other large greenhouse gas emitters such as the United States, China, and India—to begin a roadmap for a process that would create a legally binding agreement on reducing emissions later in the decade.

This condition became known as the “mandate” debate—referring to the demand that a process be started to produce a new treaty with a mandate to bind all major carbon polluters under the same legal conditions—and it pulled everyone into a discussion over the fate of the Kyoto Protocol including the United States, which is not a party to it given the U.S. Senate’s historical opposition to signing an agreement that gives China and India special treatment.

While U.S. negotiators were publicly wary throughout of signing on to an agreement that might yet again reproduce a firewall of expectations between different parties regardless of the size of their emissions, China and India were openly hostile to the idea of a new process that might bind them in the same way as developed countries.

The mandate debate dominated news coverage. But there was much more at stake here than simply legal text about an agreement to be named later.

One of these things was the institutions that were created out of last year’s Cancun Agreements, in particular the Green Climate Fund tasked with mobilizing a large chunk of the promised $100 billion a year in climate financing by 2020 that was committed to originally at the 2009 climate summit in Copenhagen.

CAP has argued for some time now that the most important single component of any agreement that could move out of Durban was the Green Climate Fund. That’s because it’s critical for overcoming the so-called ambition gap between what parties have agreed to reduce their emissions and the amount of reductions needed by 2020 to have a chance at staying on a path to stabilize temperature increase caused by greenhouse gas emissions at 2 degrees Celsius over pre-industrial levels, which is what scientists say we need to avoid the worst impacts of global warming. Of course, more reductions are needed after 2020 to meet this stabilization goal. But unless sufficient reductions are achieved by 2020 the possibility of stabilization at 2 degrees Celsius later in the century is highly unlikely if not impossible.

Because the major developing carbon emitters and the United States are not bound by the Kyoto Protocol, even its reauthorization to another commitment period will not make much of an impact on reducing global emissions.

Our best picture of the size of the ambition gap came out of the 2009 Copenhagen meeting, which resulted in many more parties, including all major carbon polluters, agreeing to officially submit their unilateral plans for reducing emissions by 2020.

These submissions later became part of the 2010 Cancun Agreements. While some have scoffed at these commitments because they are not legally binding, it should be appreciated that since they are motivated by self-interest, such as saving money from improvements in efficiency or reducing dependence on imported fossil fuels, there are good reasons to imagine them succeeding.

But analysis by the Center for American Progress, among others, has definitively shown that while these voluntary reductions are laudatory they are not sufficient to meet a 2020 target consistent with the 2 degree goal.

What’s more, because approximately one-fifth of the emission reduction programs submitted by developing countries are contingent on financial and technical support, they will not happen without global support for making them happen.

In that light we can better understand the importance of the Green Climate Fund. The fund was the only mechanism on the table this year that could affect whether all unilateral commitments by all parties out to 2020 would happen. It was also the only mechanism moving forward this year that could help to close the ambition gap.

As CAP argued in a major report released during last year’s climate talks, the key to meeting our 2020 goals for emission reductions is an integrated push on international climate finance that, while not requiring $100 billion a year until 2020, is still substantial. This meeting was critical for creating a mechanism that could begin to meet these requirements. Unfortunately, this implementing agreement was also on shaky ground coming in to Durban.

While the Green Climate Fund itself had been agreed to in Cancun in 2010, its governing instrument, which had painstakingly been put together by a separate committee over the past year, was up for approval. Without it the fund would only be a very good idea but not a reality.

With all this at stake, the delicate bridge being constructed at Durban to final success could fall like this: If the United States and other parties said no to the European Union’s demand for a mandate on a process of a new binding agreement, then the European Union would have said no to a recommitment to the Kyoto Protocol.

The bridge to the Durban outcome

If the European Union had passed on Kyoto, then some significant group of developing countries would have likely walked away, ending the meeting.

And if that had happened then all parts of the climate architecture moving through this process would have come to a halt, including the Kyoto Protocol and all parts of the Cancun Agreements, which also include a new Clean Technology Center and Network and more uniform provisions for measuring, reporting, and verifying emission reductions in all countries.

While the Green Climate Fund might have been reintroduced next year, it would have had to survive several more interim meetings of the framework convention through 2012 before the next climate summit in Qatar where simmering disagreements about it by some parties could have bubbled up and delayed its launch for several more years.

The failure here would have been mind-boggling, representing a collapse of every substantive program approved out of this process since 1992. The Kyoto Protocol would be dead, and with it possibly its institutions like the Clean Development Mechanism. The Cancun Agreements would be in limbo, and there would be no mandate for any new agreement to replace this collapsed architecture after 2020.

Six reasons why Durban matters

But thankfully this did not happen. After much wrangling over legal terms, the European Union, China, and India agreed to create the new Durban Platform with the European Union and others who had pushed for a successful outcome launching a “process to develop a protocol, another legal instrument or an agreed outcome with legal force under the Convention applicable to all Parties.”

With this grand agreement both the extension of the Kyoto Protocol and the Cancun Agreements moved forward which, among other things, saved the Clean Development Mechanism and the Green Climate Fund.

The platform also includes other elements that many observers wanted to see in a final agreement. Most importantly, an independent process is created as part of the Durban Platform to assess the ambition gap between all parts of all existing climate treaties and the mitigation efforts needed to make the difference between success or failure this decade on climate stabilization.

In the last three paragraphs of the platform the parties agree to a process that “shall raise the level of ambition” of mitigation efforts consistent with the next major report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change to be released between 2013 and 2015.

As part of this process parties are asked to submit proposal for plans to increase mitigation actions by the end of February. While we believe that the Green Climate Fund still has more potential to reduce emissions this decade and close the ambition gap, this new process is a positive development.

Looking closer into these outcomes, we can see that the international climate arena changed in five key ways before and after Durban.

1. There is a second commitment period for the Kyoto Protocol. After Durban we know the protocol and its component parts will continue. Even critics of the Kyoto Protocol must acknowledge that without a second commitment period there was a better than average chance that the institutions created as part of it such as the Clean Development Mechanism—which supports substantive clean energy projects around the world—would end.

2. The new Green Climate Fund—the key to mobilizing $100 billion annually by 2020 for mitigation and adaptation—is more than a concept. After Durban the fund is a reality and along with it other institutions created by the Cancun Agreement such as the new Clean Technology Center and Network, which will coordinate knowledge-sharing agreements for clean technology around the world. Critics say the fund is an empty shell since there is not yet an agreement on sourcing it. CAP has maintained that while there is some justification for such worries no one can write a check to a fund that doesn’t exist. Discussions of sourcing will no doubt pick up in 2012.

3. The United States has removed one significant hurdle to signing on to a climate treaty. Before Durban, our ability to sign on to any international climate treaty coming out of this process was hamstrung by the 1997 Byrd-Hagel Resolution (95-0), which said the Senate would not even look at a climate treaty that divided the world between the responsibilities of developed and developing countries. This kept the Clinton administration from even trying to get the United States into the Kyoto Protocol. After Durban this stated obstacle by the Senate has been answered because the new Durban Platform is required to produce a legal agreement that applies to all parties equally. This does not guarantee that the United States will reject a future treaty for some other reason, but this resolution has cast a long shadow on what U.S. negotiators have been willing to discuss to date.

4. There is a work plan for addressing the ambition gap. Before Durban there was not a single item in any agreement requiring parties to address the ambition gap between what they have unilaterally pledged to do to reduce their emissions out to 2020 and the reductions needed to make a 2 degree Celsius path plausible.

5. There is a process to develop a new agreement that could come into force after 2020. Before Durban there was no road map for any next step out of this process to produce anything that would replace the Cancun Agreements, which expire in 2020 or replace the Kyoto Protocol that will expire again in 2017.

6. The firewall between developed and developing countries is gone. The Durban Platform was built explicitly on the promise that the framework convention would not again produce a treaty that was not symmetrical, applying to all parties under the Convention. As Secretary of State Hillary Clinton put it last week in an interview at the Newseum with Jim Leher, in discussing the impacts of the Durban decision on the U.S. relationship with China, “Our position is you’re [China] now the largest greenhouse gas emitter in the world. We cannot act as though you are Botswana . . . or the Seychelles. . . . you have to take responsibility. The deal that was hammered out [in Durban]– by no means perfect. . . for the first time, ends this differentiation between the developed and the developing, in terms of what we all have to do to meet this global challenge.”

Not a failure

Those who claim Durban is a failure are missing the big picture. It emerged out of an incredibly hard process with multiple trip wires. If there is going to be an international agreement (or cluster of them) that helps bend down emissions to get us to the goals we need to achieve, then Durban will be seen as essential to getting there.

While we must and should continue to push on other opportunities for international cooperation to reduce our emissions—a topic of our forthcoming report—Durban was a critical success at a critical time in the history of this process.

Andrew Light is a Senior Fellow at American Progress and Director of International Climate Policy.

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Andrew Light

Senior Fellow