The official theme of the recently concluded United Nations climate conference in Durban, South Africa -- the 17th such meeting since national governments committed to combating climate change in 1992 -- was "Working Together, Saving Tomorrow Today." But while a rough accord was ironed out at the 11th hour in Durban, there remained some disagreement over what it means, and whether the contentious two-week meeting lived up to its ambitious motto.
Some environmental groups saw the agreement as being far less ambitious than what is needed to curb rising temperatures and prevent the potentially devastating impacts of a substantially warmer planet.
"While governments avoided disaster in Durban, they by no means responded adequately to the mounting threat of climate change," Alden Meyer, the director of strategy and policy at the Union of Concerned Scientists, said in a statement issued from the Durban talks. "The decisions adopted here fall well short of what is needed. It's high time governments stopped catering to the needs of corporate polluters, and started acting to protect people."
"These talks started with low-level ambitions, and they achieved what at best could be described as baby steps in the right direction," said Kumi Naidoo, the executive director of Greenpeace International, in a phone call from Durban. "But it is an agreement that is out of touch with the urgency on the ground, and one that fails to reflect the sort of ambition that the situation calls for."
But others saw a victory, however modest, snatched from the jaws of defeat -- particularly given the rancorous tenor of the talks and what at times seemed the almost impossible task of getting 194 nations to agree on anything.
"We really were on the brink of total disaster here," said Andrew Light, a senior fellow and director of international climate policy at the Center for American Progress. "We almost saw the complete collapse of everything that's been accomplished in this process since 1992."
After negotiating into the early hours Sunday, delegates ultimately overcame some of the more vexing disagreements that had threatened to derail the talks completely. Chief among these was agreeing to pursue an entirely new climate accord that would bring all nations under greenhouse gas restrictions, with an aim of hammering out such an accord by 2015.
The U.N.'s original climate compact divided the globe into rich nations and poor ones, seeking binding emissions restrictions only for nations of means. But the United States -- the largest emitter among developed nations -- had entered the negotiations in Durban insisting that developing nations with substantial economies like China and India were responsible for huge and growing amounts of global emissions themselves. In that light, American negotiators steadfastly refused to discuss a future compact unless a goal was set for creating a system that would eventually bind all nations to some sort of emissions cuts.
China overtook the United States in overall emissions in 2007. Some analysts suggest that China could be the largest cumulative emitter of greenhouse gases by mid-century.
After hours of niggling over language in Durban -- including parsing the differences between terms like "legally binding" and "legal force" -- India, China and other nations among the developing bloc agreed, along with all other U.N. member nations, to negotiate "a protocol, legal instrument or legal outcome" by which all nations would be bound by some sort of emissions restrictions. The parties agreed to begin pursuing the agreement in earnest in the first half of 2012, with an aim toward having a final document by 2015.
Nations would then begin the long process of signing and ratifying the pact, which would likely not go into effect until a certain percentage of nations representing a certain percentage of global emissions had done so. Delegates agreed to a goal of having the document "come into effect and be implemented from 2020."
That nearly decade-long path forward -- as well as the linguistic jujitsu that led to dropping the term "legally binding" from the Durban agreement -- left some critics decrying the talks as producing too little and increasingly, too late.
"I think the real people who won here, the ones who will be celebrating today, are the major polluting corporations of the world," Naidoo said, "because they will essentially be able to continue with business as usual."
Naidoo described the current climate regime as "nothing more than a voluntary deal that's put off for a decade." That, he said, threatens to take the world well over the 2-degree Celsius uptick in temperatures -- compared to pre-industrial levels -- that scientists generally agree is the threshold for preserving the planet's delicate ecosystems and avoiding some of the worse potential impacts of climate change.
The Climate Action Tracker project, a joint scientific effort of the German non-profit Climate Analytics and the renewable energy consultancy EcoFys, issued a statement on Sunday declaring that despite the Durban agreement, the world remained on track to see well over a 3-degrees Celsius rise in average temperatures by the end of the century. Such an outcome could mean a possible "dieback" of the Amazon rainforest, destruction of coral reefs, loss of Greenland ice sheets and other effects.
"At best this was about saving face," said Naidoo, who was ejected from the conference on Friday after protesting the lack of progress. "It was not about saving the planet and saving and securing our children's and our grandchildren's future."
But Light and other observers said that such grievances fail to appreciate the accomplishments of the Durban talks.
"What would you rather have, no language whatsoever, or this?" Light said, adding that the agreement at Durban continues to recognize and aspire to the 2-degree limit.
The consensus on negotiating a new climate pact also provided a crucial pathway for the European Union to agree to an extension of the Kyoto Protocol, the only current legal mechanism in place that has put limits on carbon dioxide emissions among wealthy nations. The United States never took part in the Kyoto pact, but developing nations were adamant at Durban that it be preserved beyond 2012. The E.U., however -- as the chief participant in Kyoto -- wanted assurance that something broader and more inclusive would be pursued in its place before agreeing to bind itself to a new phase of the 1997 protocol.
"If parties had said no to the E.U., and we did not have this compromise document," Light said, "then the E.U. would have said no to a new phase of the Kyoto protocol, which would have prompted many of the developing countries to simply walk out of the meeting."
The meeting also produced a path toward establishing the so-called Green Climate Fund, which would provide up to $100 billion annually to help poor nations develop and implement clean-energy technologies, reduce their emissions and adapt to changes in the climate that can't be avoided. But while the concept of the fund was preserved, and sources for start-up capital were identified, major questions were punted down the line -- including identifying sources for long-term financing of the fund, as well as its management, oversight and location.
Other steps taken by the delegates include establishing general tenets on transparency for reporting and monitoring individual national emissions, a commitment to creating new market mechanisms for reducing greenhouse gases and new rules for earning emissions credits tied to carbon capture and storage projects. Carbon capture and storage is a controversial technology that critics say has not yet proven able to permanently remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.
But critics worried that all of this amounted to precious little progress on a problem that could quickly spiral out of control.
"The impacts of climate change are ever more evident, and we pump ever more carbon pollution into the atmosphere each year," said Meyer of the Union of Concerned Scientists. "We are in grave danger of locking in temperature increases well above two degrees Celsius, which would foreclose our ability to avoid the worst impacts of climate change."
"Powerful speeches and carefully worded decisions can't amend the laws of physics," Meyer added. "The atmosphere responds to one thing, and one thing only -- emissions. The world's collective level of ambition on emissions reductions must be substantially increased, and soon."
But Andrew Light of the Center for American Progress suggested that, if nothing else, Durban's real success was leaving open at least some possibility of raising ambitions on emissions reduction -- an outcome that was far from assured during the two weeks of acrimonious debate in Durban.
Light said, "It almost went down the toilet."