OPINION: How significant was Durban?
Paige Andrews, Executive Director of Climatico Analysis, discusses the outcomes of CoP-17.
The UN climate conference in Durban, South Africa, resulted in three major achievements for climate policy: the ‘operationalisation’ (a plan for putting into practice) of key elements of the Cancun Agreements that were reached at CoP-16; the agreement on a second commitment period for the Kyoto Protocol; and the establishment of the Durban Platform for Enhanced Action, tasked with getting countries to reach a new universal agreement. While many have praised the conference as a great success, we wanted to consider the real significance of the outcomes of Durban for combating climate change.
Strengthening the Cancun Agreements
Negotiators in Durban helped solidify the institutions and processes established in the Cancun Agreements including the operationalisation of the Technology Mechanism this year, approval of the Green Climate Fund (GCF), and the launch of the Adaptation Committee. Of these, perhaps the most important was the launch of the GCF, which is designed to serve as a financing mechanism to help mobilise funding for mitigation and adaptation efforts in developing countries, and also to implement better transparency rules for pledges to the Fund made by developed and developing countries.
In and of itself, strengthening the Cancun Agreements will do little to limit the rise in average global temperature. But this represents operational progress: it should help advance a workable pledge-and-review approach to international cooperation, something that may help negotiators in future rounds of climate negotiations.
Second Commitment Period of the Kyoto Protocol
With the first commitment period for the Kyoto Protocol concluding in 2012, negotiators also needed to decide on a second commitment period, or else determine how to manage a potential gap between agreements and its subsequent impact on the international emissions market. Also of concern was the symbolic fallout of letting Kyoto expire without another agreement reached in its place. After much posturing and debate, negotiators eventually agreed to a second commitment period, beginning on 1 January 2013 and ending in 2017 or 2020.
The agreement to a second commitment period will help give certainty to the emissions markets and ease concerns about ongoing climate change projects that rely on the Kyoto Protocol. However, the agreement may have less of an impact on global carbon emission reductions than many had hoped. While Parties to Kyoto succeeding in cutting their own carbon emission levels during the first commitment period, worldwide CO2 levels soared 35 percent since Kyoto was agreed in 1997. In the 1990s, the Protocol countries accounted for only 33 percent of global emissions – a number that will drop to about 15 percent after 2012 with the recent defection of Canada from the Protocol, as well as the announcements by even more countries that they will let their targets expire at the end of the first commitment period.
The Durban Platform for Enhanced Action
The negotiations in Durban also resulted in a breakthrough document called the ‘Durban Platform for Enhanced Action‘ that sets in motion the development of a universal climate change agreement for implementation from 2020. While this may be an ‘agreement to agree’, the significance of the Platform is huge. It eliminates the distinction between Annex I (developed) and non-Annex I (developing) countries in determining who should reduce carbon emissions. This has been a sticking point for many Parties for years, who have argued that an agreement such as the Kyoto Protocol could not be effective if it does not hold the world’s largest emitters – such as China and the United States – accountable for reducing their carbon emissions. However, at second glance the timeline is less encouraging: it allows an eight-year window during which time only about 15 percent of the world’s carbon emissions will be covered by the Kyoto Protocol before a new agreement goes into effect. This could lead to a significant gap between countries’ mitigation pledges, and the emissions reductions required to limit a global average temperature rise of below 1.5-2°C.
What does this mean?
Following years of struggle to rescue the international climate regime, negotiators turned a corner in Durban with decisions that will lead to a more inclusive regime with more reporting systems. While the decisions failed sufficiently to strengthen mitigation commitments as recommended by climate scientists, and delayed a universal emissions regime for another eight years, these decisions signalled a restored momentum to move beyond traditional North-South lines and work together on a climate agreement. Durban can therefore be read as a success compared to previous international climate negotiations, but in terms of achieving the goal of preventing or reducing the threat of climate change, without securing agreement in the near term the outcomes will remain inadequate.
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Image courtesy of The International Transport Workers Federation.