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Art of the Possible: The Outcome of the Durban Climate Negotiations

12 Dec 2011

How to assess the outcome of the Durban climate change conference? The good news is three-fold: the EU seems to have learned the lessons from the disappointment of its marginalisation at Copenhagen in 2009; the train wreck of a completely collapsed international process has been avoided; and the most vulnerable states will have access to climate finance by the end of next year. The bad news is that scientific opinion suggests that the world is still heading toward climate change of 3.5 degrees Celsius this century.

At the Copenhagen climate conference the EU’s isolation was apparent; I wrote that the EU’s negotiating strategy of “lead and hope that others follow” needed to be replaced by a pragmatic strategy based on coalition-building, and a more realistic appraisal of what was possible from its partners and interlocutors.

Specifically I argued that the EU should: build an agreement with the US based on a recognition that it is not capable of delivering a meaningful emissions commitment in the period to 2020; communicate more effectively with developing countries and make climate finance conditional on their support for a legally binding successor treaty to Kyoto; and recognize that the BASIC (Brazil, South Africa, China and India) countries’ interests are divergent and that the alliance is built on fragile ground (we highlighted Brazil as the obvious example).

With the Kyoto protocol set to expire in 2013, it was critical at Durban that the EU leveraged all instruments at its disposal to revive international negotiations on a successor Treaty. The key issues was that developing countries, who are not bound to reduce emissions under the Protocol, wished for it to be extended. 

Major developed countries, on the other hand, did not want the anachronistic division between “developed” and “developing” countries to persist, and called for the Kyoto protocol to be allowed to lapse. Supporters of a second commitment period under the Kyoto protocol abandoned the EU one by one. Japan, Canada and Russia all announced their unwillingness to sign up to a second period over the past two years. The US had never ratified the protocol in the first place.

In a more general sense, since Copenhagen, there had also been a move afoot to replace the top down legally binding framework (of the type exemplified by Kyoto) with a bottom up “pledge and review” approach. Under the Copenhagen Accord countries were merely required to make pledges and submit period progress reports to the UNFCCC. The EU was coming under increasing pressure, not least from the US, to completely abandon its seemingly quixotic quest for a legally binding deal.

Entering Durban, therefore, the EU was more or less alone in persuing its commitment to:

·         A second commitment period under the existing Kyoto protocol; and

·         A legally binding deal to replace Kyoto in the future.

Yet it stuck to its guns, and its negotiating position was essentially that it would sign up to the former (more of less by itself) in return for the latter (it should be noted that the EU’s commitment to singing up to Kyoto II costs it nothing, as it is legally bound under EU law to reduce its emissions in any case).

The main outcome from Durban is the Establishment of an Ad Hoc Working Group on the Durban Platform for Enhanced Action. This short document reflects the EU’s negotiating position, in that it establishes a roadmap for the renewal of an international top-down agreement on emissions reduction, an agreement which would bind developing and developed countries alike. In the interim the EU will continue to reduce emissions with a second commitment period under Kyoto.

The document begins by reaffirming the requirement to strengthening the multilateral, rules-based regime under the Convention to meet emissions targets. It goes on to commit to developing “a protocol, another legal instrument or a legal outcome under the Convention applicable to all Parties” under which they would reduce their emissions.

This group would “start its work as a matter of urgency in the first half of 2012” and “complete its work as early as possible but no later than 2015 in order to adopt this protocol, legal instrument or legal outcome at the twenty-first session of the Conference of the Parties and for it to come into effect and be implemented from 2020”. In other words, the Durban Platform puts in place a process whereby a legally binding treaty, which will include all countries, will be agreed by 2020.

The EU managed to get this position over the line through a master class in coalition building. First, it was necessary to swallow pride and, to some extent, its moral scruples, and accept that the world’s richest and most powerful country is hamstrung. The US simply can and will not pass and stringent emissions reduction commitment through its Congress or Senate given the current domestic political balance of power. It would certainly not even consider doing so with a Presidential election on the horizon.

A contrary (and more cynical) view is that the US would only ever “agree to a roadmap leading nowhere, but not a roadmap leading to a legally-binding deal”. It is certainly true that 2020 is a long time to wait before the country with by far the greatest share of historic responsibility for climate change, a country with more than 10 times the per capita emissions of India, and the world’s second largest emitter, would take on a legally binding commitment. It is certainly easy to agree deals that would only require efforts from one’s successors.

No matter how one views this compromise, it certainly proved to be one that the US was willing to tolerate. Despite its general dislike of internationally binding Treaties, once the more immediate threat of political suicide was off the table, the US played a very low-profile supporting role for the EU’s position.

But the support of the US is not enough. Moral weight must also be on your side. The EU carefully explained its approach to its most vulnerable partners, many of whom were greatly appreciative of the EU’s support. The strong support of many of the most vulnerable made it much harder for the Indians and Chinese to build a non-developed country alliance as they had done in Copenhagen, and to decry the EU-designed deal as a conspiracy against developing country interests, as they had also managed on that occasion.

The most immediate concern for many developing countries was perhaps climate finance. The agreement of the $100-billion a year Green Climate Fund will become fully operational in 2012 with the agreement of the Durban Platform. Taking a carrot and stick approach the EU also made this finance conditional on support for its position. The conditionality was made clear by Venezuela's ambassador, Claudia Salerno, who had argued that “it is immoral to ask developing countries to sell ourselves for $100bn." The EU took the approach that the end perhaps justified the means in this case.

Finally, the EU had to find a way to convince or divide the most intractable block. The BASIC countries had formed a somewhat unlikely alliance at Copenhagen, and had certainly made substantial efforts at aligning their negotiating positions since. Yet the EU succeeded in garnering the strong and vociferous support of Brazil for its position throughout the conference. Even China reluctantly agreed to the Platform.

This left India isolated in its (completely understandable) objection to being bound by any future commitment to reduce emissions. The Indian environment minister, Jayanthi Natarajan asked why he should “write a blank cheque and sign away the livelihoods and sustainability of 1.2 billion Indians, without even knowing what the EU 'roadmap' contains? I wonder if this an agenda to shift the blame on to countries who are not responsible [for climate change]. I am told that India will be blamed. Please do not hold us hostage."

After a long debate, the Chair, South Africa's Maite Nkoana-Mashabane sought to push for what seemed an unlikely compromise by suggesting that the EU and India come together on the floor of the plenary. This negotiation took place in the view of all other parties, not to mention the media or anyone else in the vicinity with a pass. The social and political pressure to achieve a deal proved irresistible. The so-called "Durban package" was adopted shortly before 5 a.m. Sunday, a victory for peer pressure if ever there was one.

The key sticking point - the legality of the proposed instrument – was overcome by compromise. The EU objected to the late addition of the phrase “legal outcome,” which it argued would allow for too much wiggle room. Finally the EU and Indians agreed to a roadmap which commits countries to negotiating a protocol, another legal instrument or an "agreed outcome with legal force".

This was sufficient for the EU and Brazilians to claim success. It is questionable how important this distinction really is. After all, the legally binding nature of the Kyoto protocol has not prevented Canada from hugely overshooting its target with impunity. This has led the Economist to claim that “unless penalties for failure are inserted into the successor protocol, or instrument, or outcome—which China and India would almost certainly not allow—it is hard to imagine how it would have greater force”.

What says science of these political wrangling’s? Climate Action Tracker considers Durban “a major step forward”. The scientists responsible point out, however, that the agreement will not immediately affect the emissions outlook for 2020, as decisions on future emissions reductions have been postponed. They warn that catching up on this postponed action will be increasingly costly and estimate that global mean warming would reach about 3.5°C by 2100 with the current reduction proposals on the table, and that “they [emissions commitments] are definitely insufficient to limit temperature increase to 2°C”.

This deal has therefore delivered quite a bit: a climate fund which will hopefully be in operation by 2012; a second commitment period under the Kyoto Protocol for the interim; and a roadmap to achieve a legally binding deal which would include all the countries of the world by 2020. This latter compromise might even be considered historic give how elusive a compromise between developed, developing, and vulnerable countries has proved in the past. It has also served to rejuvenate the EU’s flagging reputation on the international stage.

Politics is the art of the possible, and this deal was made possible by giving the real players the room to long-finger commitments. The last word, however, goes to Youth Delegate Angeli Appadurai's, speaking as she claimed herself on behalf of “more than half of the world’s population”, those of the younger generation. In her address to the plenary she argued with the unbridled passion of youth that another ten years procrastination is just not good enough. 


As an independent forum, the Institute does not express any opinions of its own. The views expressed in the article are the sole responsibility of the author.

Comments 1-10 of 17

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ian kimberley says: 30 Apr 2012 15:10

we must save the bears from extinction

Al Bore says: 29 Mar 2012 17:54

Climate change is what gave Harper his majority. Voters don't like having their kids being issued CO2 death threats

kayaga yvonne says: 20 Mar 2012 13:09

we must end deforestation and pollution and keep the environmet green

Fran Saunders says: 14 Mar 2012 21:46

I am not a scientist in any way shape or form, but I'm intrigued as to why no-one has utilised aircraft to make rain in drought affected areas. I know if clouds are in the sky planes can fly through the clouds and cause rainfall, there are a lot of papers saying this, notably in last year. Is there not a way to use this technology, not just to make rain but produce the clouds that can lead to rain. I remember many years ago, that planes cause rain, so why hasn't anyone, in the years that followed, done any research into this?

SteveP says: 09 Mar 2012 19:38

I see we have some skeptics commenting here. As someone who works with and close to nature I have seen unnatuarally rapid changes first hand. I am based in the East Midlands of England, over the last 2 decades numerous species formerly only found in the south of the UK have colonised my area and in many cases further north too. And the number of species and northward movement is speeding up. Last November I found a fungi, the first recorded sighting in Derbyshire, yet another species which needs warm conditions and which until very recently could not have survived in Derbyshire. We have had more rain than further south, but local reservoirs are 20 to 30 feet below their normal levels for this time of year. Years ago many computer models predicted the north and west of the UK would receive higher rainfall including floods, and the central and south eastern areas less rainfall and probable drought. This is happening now, it's a pattern formed over the last few years, not a one off. The computer models also predicted weather extremes, again these are happening now. Temperatures here are oscillating, we will have above average temperatures for a few days, sometimes well above, record breaking, these will be followed by below average temperatures, again often much lower. When water is in short supply and food prices rise rapidly will you still deny there's a problem ? For the first time UK farmers have lost lambs to Schmallenberg virus which is believed to have arrived via midges from Europe, the midges have probably arrived here due to changing weather patterns and temperatures. As SNS says. climate change has been brought about by the West, but it is going to have global consequences, not living in the west will not shield you from the effects, nor will denial. Of course natural climate fluctuations have happened in the past, but over tens oof thousands of years, not the decades we are experiencing now.

David Nsamba says: 08 Mar 2012 12:54

It takes individual consciousnes, state of mind driven by science for a collective global process against climate change. Remember we cant do without the environment, but the environment can do without us.We need God's guidance to build a global Consensus and team!

SNS says: 02 Mar 2012 12:15

Climate change? Who cares. Western countries are responsible for climate change.

angel mhar says: 15 Feb 2012 10:43

what is climate i cagayan de oro this coming feb. 16, 2012?????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????

Sarah bisikwa says: 14 Feb 2012 12:43

Climate change is real and should be a concern of us all. Our reach brothers should be serious as the so called copying mechanisms may fail on adverse situations

ann mary chacko says: 06 Feb 2012 17:01

sustainable development should be our prior aim while considering all our development activities

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