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OPINION: Reflections on the Durban outcomes

A reflection on what was achieved at CoP17 in Durban, by CDKN’s Executive Chairman Simon Maxwell.

Reactions to the outcome of the climate talks in Durban have ranged from elated to deflated, passing by most points in between. The best summaries include those by Jonathan Grant for PwC, Jennifer Morgan and others for the World Resources Institute, and Yvo de Boer and colleagues for KPMG .

We learn from Jonathan Grant that there were 36 separate decision texts in Durban, in addition to the Durban Platform for Enhanced Action, the key document which charted the way forward. These covered the continuation of the Kyoto Protocol, the setting up of the new Green Climate Fund, and a raft of specifics on adaptation, MRV (Monitoring, Reporting and Verification), technology and forestry. The detailed texts – but not, as far as I can see, a summary – can be found on the website of the UNFCCC.

What follows is not an attempt to provide a synthesis, but to make one or two points from the perspective of someone working both on climate compatible development, through CDKN, and on European development cooperation.

Just to clear the decks first, neither the external environment nor the politics were propitious before Durban. The threat of a global recession and the euro crisis had a greater claim on leaders’ attention, for example at the G20. Partly driven by slow growth, carbon prices in the European Emissions Trading Scheme had fallen to record lows. From a political perspective, writing after the Chatham House climate change conference in October, I summarised the prospects as follows:

Expectations are low, despite Christiana Figueres talking up the success of the prep conference in Panama. The political moment is not right, and the focus is on sustaining the credibility of the process until the next breakthrough moment, which will probably not be before 2015. Some (incl Figueres) argued that civil society pressure should be stepped up urgently to accelerate progress. Others disagreed, arguing that powder should be kept dry until the circumstances are more propitious.

In that context, Durban is likely to deliver three main things: (i) a way forward on the Green Fund, with the arrangements (not the money) ‘almost there’; (ii) a Technology Mechanism, with agreement on the policy side and some progress on implementation; and (iii) bringing order on adaptation. That is a pretty modest package, though not so modest that there probably won’t be a row with NGOs about the scope and management of the Green Fund: they (well, anyway, those who spoke) are worried it will be too much focused on mitigation (esp energy), not enough on adaptation.

Christiana Figueres said that the post-Cancun package is much more difficult, with major questions about long-term finance and about post-Kyoto commitments. On post-Kyoto, the most likely outcome is not a single framework, but what Christiana described as a three-cornered hat: (a) agreement in principle to a second commitment period, but (b) dependent on the countries which have announced they are quitting (Russia, Canada and Japan, plus the US, which was never in) being gathered together into a separate ‘container’, along with the pledges they have already made, and (c) a ‘declaration’ or ‘letter of intent’ to move towards a comprehensive agreement.

From this starting point, the Durban Platform looks like a better outcome than Christiana Figueres had hoped for. It is only a page and a half long, and is appended for ease of reference. As many have noted, the key features are:

  • Agreement to launch a process towards a new legal framework;
  • Involving all countries, and not just Annex 1 countries;
  • With a timeline, to begin in 2012, reach agreement by 2015, and implement by 2020;
  • And a commitment to scale up ambition in the light of the next report of the IPCC, due in 2014.

The text goes along with a decision to extend the Kyoto Protocol into a second commitment period, from 1 January 1, 2013, ending at the end of 2017 or 2020.

Of course, this can be read as the glass half empty or half full. Half empty because nobody much except for the EU will sign up to the Kyoto extension, all the work remains to be done on a successor agreement, and anyway, what exactly is meant by an agreement ‘with legal force’? Plus there seems to have been very little discussion of country emissions targets in Durban, in or out of ‘containers’. Half full because the process has been kept alive and made more inclusive. I am inclined to agree with Robert Stavins, who says that ‘in the real world of international negotiations on this exceptionally difficult global commons problem, this is what success looks like’.

Please comment on Simon’s blog using the box, below.

Image of UNFCCC Executive Secretary Christiana Figueres and negotiators, courtesy UNFCCC.

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