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Assessing the Climate Talks -- Did Durban Succeed?

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The 17th Conference of the Parties (COP-17) of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) adjourned on Sunday, a day and a half after its scheduled close, and in the process once again pulled a rabbit out of the hat by saving the talks from complete collapse (which appeared possible just a few days earlier). But was this a success?

The Durban Outcome in a Nutshell

The outcome of COP-17 includes three major elements: some potentially important elaborations on various components of the Cancun Agreements; a second five-year commitment period for the Kyoto Protocol; and (read this carefully) a non-binding agreement to reach an agreement by 2015 that will bring all countries under the same legal regime by 2020.

Is This a Success?

If by "success" in Durban, one means solving the climate problem, the answer is obviously "not close."

Indeed, if by "success" one meant just putting the world on a path to solve the climate problem, the answer would still have to be "no."

But, I've argued previously -- including in my pre-Durban essay last month -- that such definitions of success are fundamentally inappropriate for judging the international negotiations on the exceptionally challenging, long-term problem of global climate change.

The key question, at this point, is whether the Durban outcome has put the world in a place and on a trajectory whereby it is more likely than it was previously to establish a sound foundation for meaningful long-term action.

I don't think the answer to that question is at all obvious, but having read carefully the agreements that were reached in Durban, and having reflected on their collective implications for meaningful long-term action, I am inclined to focus on "the half-full glass of water." My conclusion is that the talks -- as a result of last-minute negotiations -- advanced international discussions in a positive direction and have increased the likelihood of meaningful long-term action. Why do I say this?

The Significance of Durban

Let's look at the three major elements of the Durban outcome.

1. Putting More Flesh on the Bones of the Cancun Agreements

First, the delegates agreed to a set of potentially important details on various components of the Cancun Agreements. This progress may turn out to be very important indeed, and helps advance -- at least for the interim -- a workable bottom-up, pledge-and-review approach to international climate cooperation. The progress in Cancun includes work done on the Green Climate Fund to help mobilize public and private funding of climate change mitigation and adaptation in developing countries; more specifics on technology transfer mechanisms; mechanisms to enhance the transparency of national commitments under the Cancun Agreements; and an international scheme to reduce deforestation, which -- importantly -- includes market mechanisms.

2. A Second Commitment Period for the Kyoto Protocol

Second, the delegates agreed to a second five-year commitment period for the Kyoto Protocol. Without this element, the talks would have collapsed, because the key emerging economies of China, India, Brazil, South Africa, Korea, and Mexico (not to mention the much larger number of truly poor, developing countries) would have walked out. Would this have been so bad?

I have long argued that the Kyoto Protocol -- with its structure of relatively ambitious targets for a small set of industrialized countries (the Annex I countries) and no targets whatsoever for the much larger set of other nations in the world (the non -- Annex I countries) -- is fundamentally flawed as a basis for addressing the climate change problem in a meaningful way, that is, in a way that can eventually limit global temperature increases to no more than 2 or 3 degrees Centigrade above pre-industrial levels. In the past, some observers have gone so far as to argue that such a collapse of the talks would be necessary to free the world to consider alternative and ultimately more productive routes going forward. Eventually, that may turn out to be true, but extending the Kyoto Protocol at his time for another period does little mischief.

The major effect -- in addition to keeping the emerging economies (and developing countries) from walking out of the room -- was to place the European Union in a position of accepting a target (for a second five-year period) that is no more stringent than what it has already committed to do under the European Union Emission Trading Scheme (EU ETS). The United States is not a party to the Kyoto Protocol, and Canada, Japan, and Russia have indicated that they will not take up targets in a second commitment period. Europe (and New Zealand, and possibly Australia) will be doing what they would have done anyway. In exchange for this, the key emerging economies agreed to the third key element.

3. The Durban Platform for Enhanced Action

Third and finally, the delegates reached a non-binding agreement to reach an agreement by 2015 that will bring all countries under the same legal regime by 2020. That's a strange and confusing sentence, but it's what happened, and -- in my opinion -- it's potentially important, although it's much too soon to say for sure.

The anchor that has been preventing real progress in the international climate negotiations for the past fifteen years has been the Kyoto Protocol's dichotomous distinction between Annex I and non-Annex I countries. With 50 non-Annex I countries now having greater per capita income than the poorest of the Annex I countries, it is clearly out of whack. But, much more than that, this dichotomous distinction means that the world's largest emitter -- China -- is unconstrained, that half of global emissions soon will be from nations without constraints, it drives up costs to four times their cost-effective level, and it creates a structure that makes change and progress virtually impossible.

Fortunately, the Copenhagen Accord and the Cancun Agreements began the process of blurring the Annex I/non-Annex I distinction, which was an important accomplishment, although it was only in the context of the interim pledge-and-review system, not in the context of an eventual successor to Kyoto. Now, the COP-17 decision for "Enhanced Action" completely eliminates the Annex I/non-Annex I (or industrialized/developing country) distinction. It focuses instead on the (admittedly non-binding) pledge to create a system of greenhouse gas reductions including all Parties (that is, all key countries) by 2015 that will come into force (after ratification) by 2020. Nowhere in the text of the decision will one find phrases such as "Annex I," "common but differentiated responsibilities," or "distributional equity," which have -- in recent years -- become code words for targets for the richest countries and a blank check for all others.

We should not over-estimate the importance of a "non-binding agreement to reach a future agreement," but this is a real departure from the past, and marks a significant advance along the treacherous, uphill path of climate negotiations.

The Path Ahead

In my previous essay at this blog, I expressed the fear that contentious debates over a possible second commitment period for the Kyoto Protocol might disrupt the Durban talks, divert them from making sound progress on the Cancun structure, and keep the delegates from moving toward a sound foundation for meaningful long-term action. I worried, in essence, that Durban -- despite the weather -- might resemble Copenhagen more than Cancun.

My conclusion is that this did not happen. Not only did Durban not undo the progress made in Cancun, it built upon it, and moved forward. This won't satisfy the 350.org crowd, and it must greatly annoy the opponents of sensible climate policy, but in the real world of international negotiations on this exceptionally difficult global commons problem, this is what success looks like.

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