Durban Conference Yields Climate Agreement
December 12, 2011

Durban Conference Yields Climate Agreement

UN leaders at the Durban climate conference (COP17) in South Africa reached a climate agreement on Sunday after embroiled talks led the summit to run 36 hours past its scheduled deadline.

The 194-nation conference agreed to begin negotiations on a new climate accord that would ensure that countries start being legally bound to carry out pledges and vows that they make. The deal would take effect by 2020 at the latest.

The deal, however, doesn´t explicitly compel any nation to take on emissions targets, although most developing economies have volunteered to cut their emissions growth. The European Union vowed it will place its current emission-cutting pledges inside the legally-binding Kyoto Protocol, a key demand of developing countries.

The new deal covering all countries will continue in the talks phase next year and end by 2015, then take effect by 2020.

Currently, only industrial countries have legally binding emissions goals under the 1997 Kyoto Protocol. Those commitments were to expire next year, but will now be extended at least another 5 years under the new accord adopted on Sunday in Durban.

The proposed Durban Platform offered answers to issues that have tormented climate negotiations for years about sharing responsibility for controlling carbon emissions and aiding the poorest and most climate-vulnerable nations deal with the changing forces of nature.

Ever since 2009´s disappointing Copenhagen climate summit, the 194-nation UN members have remained indecisive on a climate deal. That ended Sunday in Durban. But because the measure will not take force until 2020, the most-polluting nations will only have to make voluntary strides to curb emissions.

South Africa´s International Relations Minister, Maite Nkoana-Mashabane, said: “We came here with plan A, and we have concluded this meeting with plan A to save one planet for the future of our children and our grandchildren to come.”

“We have made history,” she said, after concluding the Durban conference early Sunday morning.

Sunday´s conclusion was delayed by a dispute between the EU and India over the precise wording of the “roadmap” for a new global deal. India did not want a specification that it must be legally binding.

However, Brazil´s head delegate came up with a formulation that the deal must have “legal force,” which proved acceptable.

The roadmap proposal originated with the EU, the Alliance of Small Island States (AoSIS) and the Least Developed Countries bloc (LDCs). They argued that only a new legal deal eventually covering emissions from all countries could keep the rise of global average temperatures since pre-industrial times below 3.6F, the internationally-agreed threshold.

“If there is no legal instrument by which we can make countries responsible for their actions, then we are relegating countries to the fancies of beautiful words,” said Karl Hood, Grenada´s Foreign Minister, speaking for AoSIS. “While they develop, we die; and why should we accept this?”

Delegates from Brazil, South Africa, India and China criticized what they saw as a tight timetable and excessive legality.

“I stand firm on my position of equity,” said Jayanthi Natarajan, India´s environment minister. “This is not about India, it is about the entire world.”

India believes in maintaining the current stark division where only countries labeled “developed” have to cut their greenhouse gas emissions. Natarajan said western nations have not kept up on their pledges to curb their own emissions, so why should poorer countries have to do it for them?

Xie Zhenhua, the Chinese delegate, agreed. “We are doing things you are not doing... we want to see your real actions,” he said of the developed countries.

AoSIS and the LDCs agree that the wealthy nations need to do more. But they also have accepted analyses concluding that fast-developing nations such as China will need to cut their emissions several years in the future if governments are to meet their goal of keeping the rise of the global average temperature below 3.6F.

The United States was also a reluctant supporter of the Durban deal, concerned about agreeing to join an international climate system that would most likely find opposition in the US Congress.

“This is a very significant package. None of us likes everything in it. Believe me, there is plenty the United States is not thrilled about,” said U.S. climate delegate Todd Stern. But the package captured important advances that would be undone if it is rejected, he told the delegates.

Sunday´s climate deal also set up the Green Climate Fund that will eventually collect, govern and distribute upwards of $100 billion per year to help poor countries develop cleanly and adapt to climate impacts.

Other goals of the deal included rules for monitoring and verifying emissions reductions, protecting forests, transferring clean technologies to developing nations and score of technical issues.

U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said the deal represents “an important advance in our work on climate change.”

But the language of the deal left some analysts worrying that the wording could leave huge loopholes for countries to avoid tying their emissions to legal constraints, and noted there was no mention of penalties in the agreement.

“They haven't reached a real deal,” said Samantha Smith, of World Wildlife Fund International. “They watered things down so everyone could get on board.”

Most environment groups were divided in their reaction, with some finding it a significant step forward, while others believing it will do nothing to change the course of climate change.

Many studies indicate that current pledges on reducing emissions are not going to be enough to keep the global average temperature rise below 3.6F (2C), and could actually double that -- 7.2F (4C).

Michael Jacobs, visiting professor at the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment in London, said the agreement could bring real changes.

“The agreement here has not in itself taken us off the 4C (7.2F) path we are on,” he told Richard Black of BBC News. “But by forcing countries for the first time to admit that their current policies are inadequate and must be strengthened by 2015, it has snatched 2C (3.6F) from the jaws of impossibility.”

“At the same time it has re-established the principle that climate change should be tackled through international law, not national, voluntarism,” he added.

“We have saved Planet Earth for the future of our children and our great grandchildren to come,” said Nkoana-Mashabane.

But that may well not be the case.

What the results of the conference have certainly done is to save the climate negotiations, confounding skeptics´ predictions that Durban would prove “the final nail in the coffin” of international attempts to tackle the issue. But, in themselves, they will not save the climate.

That is because -- as even the International Energy Agency insists -- global emissions will have to start to decline well before 2020 if the world is to have a decent chance of keeping the rise in temperatures below 3.6F that scientists warn is the threshold for dangerous climate change. And as a giant United Nations Environment Program study has shown, the mainly voluntary commitments due to take effect before that date are simply not enough to do the job.


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