CLIMATE CHANGE: 6 Reasons Why the Durban Decision Matters

by Andrew Light
Dec 18, 2011 at 8:43 am

I’m going to assume that anyone reading this post is driven as I am everyday by alarm at the growing climate crisis and the apparent lack of progress in responding to it.  We all articulate this existential worry in various ways, but I feel that at bottom our alarm is commonly driven by a deep moral concern about what is and is not being done with respect to the welfare of current and future generations and the planet we inhabit, along with moral outrage at the roadblocks that are intentionally thrown up against our efforts.

In this world of deep and abiding moral concern reports of yet another empty pledge, or failed promise for action, or lost vote in a deliberative body may as well be the latest nonsense from the climate denial crowd.  In many ways though its worse.  We don’t expect those folks to listen to what the latest credible science says, marry that to a thorough assessment of our values, and then set priorities for action.  We expect those folks to stand in the way and that’s what they do.

So when a big global event comes together, like the annual meeting of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), which ended last Sunday in Duban, South Africa, without easily discernable progress if not game-changing solutions, the climate community’s dismay turns to the same sort of incredulity and frustration with which we greet the climate skeptics.

That’s the view of Mark Hertsgaard over at The Nation about the Durban outcome.  Hertsgaard calls out climate negotiators who settled the Durban deal with a special focus on the U.S. and Chinese climate envoys.  In Hertsgaard’s analysis, the likes of Todd Stern and Jonathan Pershing over at the State Department, are a new breed of climate deniers responsible for the “disaster in Durban.”

This would be a bold take down of the Durban outcome if there was any hint of accuracy in it.  Instead, for anyone who closely follows the climate negotiations, this piece comes across as at best biased by a blind spot about the full package that moved forward at Durban, and at worst remarkably uniformed.

The fact is that not only did Durban produce a package of agreements essential for any hope of a meaningful contribution to mitigation and adaptation to climate change out of this forum, but it also avoided a disaster that would have sent this process back to where it started in 1992.

The Most Ambitious Package on the Table at Durban Came Through

Let’s face it, the UNFCCC process is one that no one in their right mind wanting to achieve an ambitious outcome would ever invent.  194 parties, sometimes acting in voting blocks, sometimes alone, all have an effective veto over every outcome, no matter how great or small.  This “consensus rule,” actually a residue of the inability of the body ever to establish voting procedures for itself, can occasional by fudged with one small party, as it was last year in Cancun, but normally exerts a choke hold on ambition.

What’s more, with the exception of the yearly president of the process – which is the host country for the annual end of the year summit – no party can simply drop new text into the meeting without an agreement on placing it on the agenda and finding a spot for it in one of the Ad-hoc Working Groups or subsidiary bodies where the various tracks of the negotiations take place at the intersessional sessions between the big meetings.

There are more examples that I could give which would make any reader’s eyes roll back.  And while I appreciate the fundamental motivation here is to work under procedures that don’t allow big powerful nations to impose their will over small weaker countries, I’m not alone in seeing the need for urgent reform of this process.

But I’d also like to see the reform of other rules governing other institutions such as the comparatively easier 60 vote threshold in the U.S. senate for considering a bill which exerts a debilitating influence on our ability to govern.  The moral demands of democratic governance demand something better just as the moral demands of the climate crisis demand a better process.  But in both cases we can’t snap our fingers and make these limitations disappear

That’s partly why the Durban outcome is remarkable.  Despite such limitations we not only got the most out of the UNFCCC that was possible to get this year, but the ambition achieved happened despite the flawed process.

Reading Hertsgaard’s column, along with many other critical pieces, you’d think that the only major thing advanced out of Durban is the thin, eight paragraph Durban Platform with its core agreement to start a new working group to create a new treaty by 2015.  If this were true then maybe Hertsgaard would be justified in writing off Durban as a failure and tarring the negotiators with the most insidious comparison one can muster in the climate community.  But fortunately that’s just not the case.

In fact three separate, substantive agreements, the first two with many moving parts, were advanced out of the Durban meeting:  First, an extension of the 1997 Kyoto Protocol set to expire in 2012, now continuing to 2020 at the latest, along with its component parts, second, and the almost universally overlooked part, the implementation instruments and revisions of the 2009 Cancun Agreements in particular the implementing agreement for the new Green Climate Fund, and third, the creation of a new Durban Platform for Enhanced Mitigation which both starts a process for a new treaty and, again often overlooked, a separate process to address the “ambition gap” between where we are now and a pathway for stabilizing temperature increase caused by anthropogenic global warming at 2 degrees Celsius over pre-industrial levels.

Because of the time tables of parts of these agreements, and the dynamics of Durban going in, all three parts of the Durban outcome had to advance in order to create a bridge to a positive, even ambitious outcome (see the figure above).  The Durban outcome keeps all three mechanisms moving forward which jointly will do more than any of them separately can do to advance an effective international climate framework.

But this bridge could have easily collapsed.  Essentially, the governing dynamic going in to the meeting which threatened the outcome involved the first pillar, the Kyoto Protocol.

With Kyoto coming to the end of its first commitment period in 2012, and Canada, Russia, Japan and other major developed parties prepared to abandon it, only the E.U. remained willing to extend it for another commitment period.  The interest in extending the protocol had little or nothing to do with emission reductions.  It had to do with satisfying the demands of a number of developing countries that if Kyoto did not continue then they would stop everything else from moving through this meeting.

All year long at the intersessional meetings following the 2010 Cancun meeting developing countries, including the big emitters like China and India, insisted that no progress was possible at Durban without an extension of the Kyoto Protocol.  The protocol is favored for a number of reasons, not least because of its Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) which has sent billions of dollars to developing countries.  In 2005 alone more than $2.5 billion dollars through more than 180 transactions flowed through this mechanism as climate finance for developing countries.  While some had opined that the CDM could continue without a second commitment period for the Kyoto Protocol this was far from certain.

In addition, the protocol is clearly favored by some parties because it requires emission reductions from participating developed countries but not from developing countries with a fixed definition of where each country in the world falls without any means for identifying graduation from developing country status to developed country status.  The effect has been to create a firewall between the two types of parties so that, for example, the expectation has been that no matter how big its emissions get, or how strong its economy becomes, China does not have to play by the same rules of international scrutiny as developed countries in this process.  This firewall is also the main reason the U.S. did not sign onto Kyoto.

So, the EU took a gamble to upend this system and, frankly, the rest of the world waited for them to blink.

In exchange for their commitment to keep the Kyoto Protocol going, the E.U. asked everyone else – in particular 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 for everyone.  It was also the Europeans who set a time table to produce a new agreement by 2015.

While this sounds like kicking the can down the road the timetable is aimed at addressing the looming gulf after 2020 in terms of this process.  Kyoto is only set to extend for another five years (possibly eight), and the Cancun Agreements only ask parties to submit their emission reduction plans out to 2020.  The implication of the E.U. proposal is certainly not to do nothing until 2020 but to have something teed up ready to take over when the other agreements stop in 2020 that is more ambitious than anything we have now.

Given the three or four options for some kind of outcome at Durban – including the E.U. backing down and going forward with the Kyoto Protocol without getting their new treaty process started – what was achieved was the most ambitious outcome that could be achieved.

What’s more, the other side of the outcome has to be appreciated.  Because of the timing, if China, India, and the U.S., among others, not bound by the Kyoto Protocol to reduce their emissions, had said no to this demand, then the E.U. would have said no to extending the protocol and, with almost near certainty, the entire meeting would have come to a halt.  And for reasons I will explain below, this would have not only threatened the mechanisms in the Kyoto Protocol, and the mitigation it pays for in developing countries around the world, but also the parts of the Cancun Agreements which I think are the best hope for addressing the gap between current ambition by individual countries and where we need to be by 2020 to still have the door open to a 2C pathway.  The result would be that none of the agreements or mechanisms created since the original framework convention twenty years ago would have been left standing.  This could have been the end of any hope for a comprehensive international agreement.

In this light reading Hertsgaard’s analysis, and many other critical comments on Durban, you would think there was some other achievable agreement that was on the table that could have guaranteed a path to 2C and that the U.S. and China colluded to both keep it from happening and start us down a meandering path to get something done down the road, maybe.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  For the reasons mentioned above the most ambitious proposal on the table was the E.U. bargain for continuing the Kyoto Protocol.  In addition, the South Africans had made it perfectly clear well before the meeting that they would not use their prerogative as hosts to take the reigns and craft something more ambitious than what parties had brought to the meeting as the Mexicans did last year in Cancun.

The Neglected Cancun Agreements

Reading Hertsgaard’s column, and almost everything else I’ve come across this past week, you wouldn’t even know that the Cancun Agreements exist, nor that they were also threatened by the possible collapse of talks in Durban.  Altogether they were a remarkable achievement after the outcome in Copenhagen, detailing everything parties had tried to achieve there with both more substance and successful passage through the UNFCCC consensus process.  Because the reductions pledged under the Cancun Agreements are not legally binding some find it easier to discount them and pretend that the Durban outcome leaves no agreement among the major carbon emitters in tact through this decade.

But in fact, the pledges under the Cancun Agreements give us the best picture of how we can achieve meaningful mitigation goals through this decade.  And the additional institutions created by the Cancun Agreements can be used to increase that ambition.

The mitigation targets of the Cancun Agreements began at 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.  The cumulative submissions account for over 80 percent of global emissions (dwarfing the coverage of the Kyoto Protocol).  Though not impelled by a binding instrument they are motivated by self-interest, such as saving money from improvements in efficiency or reducing dependence on imported fossil fuels, which in the end might be more important.  The reductions identified under the Cancun Agreements are more ambitious than anything legally required under the Kyoto Protocol and the agreements contain protocols for transparency and verification of these pledges not found anywhere else.

Analysis by the Center for American Progress, among others, has shown that if all of these voluntary reductions are implemented then we would achieve two-thirds of the reductions needed to end the decade to plausibly keep the door open to 2C stabilization, though of course with greater reductions needed after 2020.  But not all of those pledges are unconditional.  Some, such as approximately one-fifth of the emission reduction programs submitted by developing countries under the Cancun Agreements, are contingent on financial and technical support.  Once again an ambition gap emerges.

From the point of view of overcoming this gap the most important element of the Cancun Agreements is the creation of a Green Climate Fund.  The Green Climate Fund is tasked with mobilizing a large chunk of the promised $100 billion per year in climate financing by 2020 that was committed to originally at Copenhagen in 2009.  Aside from the obvious advantage of generating this kind of revenue for mitigation and adaptation it’s critical for overcoming the 2020 ambition gap.

The reason is that it’s the only thing that can satisfy the conditions for the full mitigation efforts offered by developing countries as part of the Cancun Agreements and potentially the key to an integrated effort to pay for additional measures out to 2020.  While the price tag for closing this gap is less than $100 billion annually it is still substantial enough.  As I argued in a recent column, it could greatly benefit from a functioning climate fund up and running as soon as possible aimed at ramping up climate finance on the way to hitting the $100 billion 2020 goal.

This is why I argued for much of the year that the most important thing that could emerge out of Durban from the point of view of reducing emissions this decade was the Green Climate Fund.  Once the fund launches it’s the only part of the Durban outcome that could be used as part of an overall effort to close the gap between the non-contingent and the contingent pledges under the Cancun Agreements as well as the gap between all of those pledges and an end to this decade with 2C stabilization still possible though of course not ensured.

Again though the timing in Durban was critical.  After Cancun, an official Transition Committee made up of 40 parties was established to create the governing instrument for the Green Climate Fund.  The committee had four meetings this past year working under the assumption that if they achieved consensus on the governing instrument then the fund would launch in 2012.  But at the last meeting of the committee in Cape Town last October the United States and Saudi Arabia blocked consensus on this critical agreement.  It took the rest of the Durban meeting for the problems raised by these parties to be resolved so the governing instrument was waiting, along with everything else in Durban, for a resolution of the grand bargain offered by the E.U. necessary to move everything forward.

Critics coming out of Durban say the fund is am empty shell since there is not yet an agreement on sourcing it.  My view is that while there is some justification for such worries no one can write a check to a fund that doesn’t exist.  It was enough to get the fund operational coming out of Durban.  Now, in addition to this year’s work of selecting a governing board and a home for the fund, decisions need to be made about sourcing the fund either through the UNFCCC or preferably other forums supported by finance ministries who will have to sign off on any plan for sourcing.  At the end of the day though that’s a better plan to have than what could have happened.  If Durban had ended with a collapse of the talks then the fund would only be a very good idea and not a reality.

The Durban Outcome

But thankfully that didn’t happen.  The whole package went through.  And while somehow the outcome is being read by Hertsgaard and others as condemning us to a future well over a 2C rise in average temperature, what it actually ensured was that those products of the framework convention that do work, and could get us through the rest of this decade on a respectable mitigation path, will continue moving forward.

In addition, as previously mentioned, the Durban Platform also includes other elements aimed at the ambition gap which critics either tend to discount to the point of not mentioning them or overlook entirely.

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 I believe 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.

None of this ensures that this part of the international process will deliver everything it can toward 2C, or whatever the best science will reveal is possible at this juncture.  But there are six key changes in the architecture of international climate agreements that changed before and after Durban that make describing it as a “disaster” fairly absurd.

1.  Before Durban there was no second commitment period for the Kyoto Protocol.  After Durban we know the protocol and its component parts will continue.  Even critics of the effectiveness of the Kyoto Protocol like me acknowledge that without a second commitment period there was a better than average chance that the institutions created as part of it like the CDM might disappear.

2.  Before Durban the new Green Climate Fund – the key to the promise to mobilize $100B annually by 2020 for mitigation and adaptation – was nothing more than a concept.  After Durban the fund is a reality and along with it other component parts of the Cancun Agreements like the new Clean Technology Center and Network.

3.  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 2C path plausible.  After Durban there is a work plan for addressing the ambition gap.

4.  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 the second commitment period of the Kyoto Protocol.  After Durban there is a process to produce a legal instrument to replace both.

5.  Before Durban we could expect that this process would forever be hampered by the firewall between developed and developing countries.  After Durban that wall has been torn down.  The Durban Platform was built explicitly on the promise that the framework convention would not again produce a treaty which 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, end this differentiation between the developed and the developing, in terms of what we all have to do to meet this global challenge.”

6.  And finally, something I did not discuss previously in this piece, before Durban the ability of the United States to sign onto any international climate treaty coming out of this or any other international process was hamstrung by the 1997 Byrd-Hagel Resolution where the Senate stated unequivocally (95-0) that they would not even look at a climate treaty that divided the world between the responsibilities of developed and developing countries. This decision 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 won’t 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.

Those who claim Durban is a failure are missing the big picture.  It emerged out of an incredibly hard process with multiple trip wires for failure.  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 a forthcoming report I’ve been working on – Durban was a critical success at a critical time in the history of this process.

Do we need to do more?  Absolutely.

Andrew Light is Associate Director of the Institute for Philosophy and Public Policy at George Mason University and a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress in Washington, DC.