12/20/2011 11:30 am ET | Updated Feb 19, 2012

Durban: Progress for the Planet

The international climate talks that recently wrapped up in Durban, South Africa, could prove to be an historic turning point in the international community's efforts to overcome global warming. While the urgency for overcoming global warming has never been greater, it was actually helpful that expectations for this meeting were quite low.

Durban achieved significant progress in helping the world to address both the causes and consequences of global warming.

What was the potentially historic progress that Durban achieved? Its greatest breakthrough came in the area of overcoming the causes (also known as mitigation).

In a brief document approved at these negotiations, called the Durban Platform for Enhanced Action, all countries agreed:

"to launch a process to develop a protocol, another legal instrument or an agreed outcome with legal force under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change applicable to all Parties."

Now some of you could be wondering, "They agreed to launch a process to develop ... something ... a something that sounds like legal hairsplitting. Gee, that sounds underwhelming."


Agreeing to a process to create what sounds like legal mumbo jumbo doesn't sound like much. But it's actually a significant accomplishment in a process that must come to fruition if it is ultimately to be meaningful.

Some quick background.

For the United States government, by necessity these international climate negotiations have been guided by two basic facts that lead to the same conclusion. The first is a political fact, the second a substantive one.

The political fact is this: the Senate would never ratify a climate treaty that didn't include China and India having the same types of commitments as the U.S. If the U.S. was to have legally binding caps on emissions, then China and India would also have to have such restraints. Any agreement must clear this hurdle. One without it, like the Kyoto Protocol, is a total nonstarter.

Here's the substantive fact: Today, China and India are the world's first and third largest emitters of global warming pollution. As I noted in an earlier blog, worldwide energy consumption is projected to grow by over 30 percent by 2035, and 50 percent of this will come from China and India -- much of it produced by coal if things continue along their present path.

Thus, both politically and substantively China and India must take on the same types of commitments as developed countries like the U.S. if the world is to have a shot at overcoming global warming. (To be clear, the same type doesn't mean the same level of commitment of emissions reductions, something that will comprise very hard negotiating as the final deal is reached.)

Movement had to come from China and India -- and at Durban it did. These words are the kicker:

"an agreed outcome with legal force ... applicable to all Parties."

For the first time the world's top three global warming polluters, China, the U.S., and India, agreed to work toward a legally-binding agreement to reduce the world's emissions.

What created the Durban breakthrough was three things:

  1. The willingness of the European countries as represented by the European Union (EU) to meet a major demand of the developing countries that the Kyoto Protocol and its emissions reductions and other programs be continued for another term.
  2. The willingness of other developing countries who will be impacted most severely by global warming to challenge China and India to step up and accept binding commitments.
  3. The U.S. holding firm to the goal of having all major emitters be subject to the same types of requirements.

This troika-of-the-moment led China and India to agree to a process whereby all countries will take on legal requirements. This treaty/protocol/instrument is to be negotiated by 2015 and come into force by 2020.

When combined with continued progress on the political commitments made in the last two international climate negotiations in Copenhagen and Cancun, this gives the world a shot at overcoming the causes of global warming.

Credit should be given where credit is due.

  • Perhaps no one person had more to do with Durban's success than the E.U.'s representative, Connie Hedegaard. According to various accounts, she helped bring together the E.U., small island states, and least developed countries to forge an alliance that put China and India in a position where they needed to make a deal.
  • The representatives from small island states and least developed countries (e.g. Grenada) that pressured the emerging economies of China and India also deserve praise. This was the first time that countries within those designated as "developing countries" challenged the major players in this bloc.
  • Finally, the U.S. negotiating team, headed up by Todd Stern and Jonathan Pershing, are to be commended for holding firm to the goal of having all major emitters be subject to the same types of requirements. This was always the only way forward, and is now what everyone has agreed to work toward.

As for overcoming the consequences through adaptation, some progress was made with the approval of the Green Climate Fund's organizational structure. This entity will be established this coming spring. However, there was no agreement on how it will be funded as part of the fulfillment of the $100 billion pledge made by the rich countries in Copenhagen. In terms of funding the Green Climate Fund as well as bi-lateral efforts to help poor countries adapt, the U.S. needs to play a much more substantive role in the future.

Clearly there is a tremendous amount of work left to be done. But internationally we now have a path forward with the Durban Platform and the Green Climate Fund that gives the world a fighting chance. Whether we will take that path remains to be seen.

Finally, none of this will have any meaning if the U.S. doesn't get its act together and pass major domestic legislation in the next several years. The world needs us to lead the way in creating the clean energy revolution and in helping the poor in poor countries adapt to the impacts of climate change.

Put together, all of this means that the 2012 election is the most important U.S. election there will ever be when it comes to overcoming global warming. Without strong leadership from the next President, I don't see how we will get there. Thus, we need presidential candidates to affirm that overcoming global warming will be a top priority in the next Administration.

The Rev. Jim Ball, Ph.D., is author of Global Warming and the Risen LORD.