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|The Durban Platform: Failing People and Planet|
After two weeks of negotiations in Durban, governments at the COP17 talks agreed to work towards a new legally binding treaty to enter into force by 2020. But with the window to act to contain catastrophic climate change closing, this outcome could prove devastating for the planet and its poorest inhabitants.
13th December 2011
12th December 2011 - Tim Gore, The Guardian
In the early hours of Sunday morning, governments meeting at the UN climate change conference in Durban, South Africa, set a path towards a new legally binding agreement for all countries to cut emissions. But the deal did little to meet the needs of poor people already fighting climate change, and risked blurring important distinctions between the responsibilities of developed and developing countries.
In a significant political breakthrough, governments in Durban shunned voluntary pledges of action and turned decisively towards legal commitments. The Kyoto protocol will continue as the foundation of global efforts to fight climate change, albeit without Japan, Russia and Canada, and negotiations will be launched to conclude a wider legal agreement for all countries by 2015, to enter into force from 2020.
But we need to act much sooner. The science of climate change tells us that, to avoid catastrophic levels of warming – and the droughts and floods that would inevitably follow – global emissions, which are rising at record speed, must peak within the next five years. The Durban deal's provisions for action within this time period are vague. The risk of a 10-year timeout in doing more than was pledged two years ago in Copenhagen is far too high.
Many developing countries are concerned the terms of the new agreement will pressurise them to act in the same vein as developed countries. The impassioned appeals of India and others to keep fairness at the heart of the new regime are not reflected in the text of the final agreement, which makes no distinction between the relative effort required by large and small historic and per-capita polluters, or between the richest countries and those where millions of people still live in poverty and hunger.
The progress in Durban on the legal form of a future agreement came at the expense of the ambition of short-term action and long-term equity. Meanwhile, poor people on the frontline of climate change got little in the deal to help them here and now. Further decisions helped define the shape of the Green Climate Fund, which will channel resources for climate action to developing countries, but no progress was made in identifying its funding sources. News of a future, legally binding international agreement will be of little comfort to the rural women who marched outside the conference centre in Durban. They and their communities need immediate support to adapt to the impact on their crops of changing seasons and rising temperatures, not promises of future action.
So who were the winners and losers in this deal? The European Union (EU) prioritised an agreement from all major emitters to take on legally binding commitments, stood their ground and won. Climate diplomacy continues to be the best reflection of the EU's global influence. But countries highly vulnerable to the changing climate, including island states and Least Developed Countries, had to settle for the bare minimum.
China and, particularly, India came under real fire for their caution in taking on legally binding future commitments, but despite their protestations, were unable to ensure the different responsibilities of rich and poor countries was reflected in the final deal.
Africa ensured the Kyoto protocol did not die on its soil, but was unable to force decisions on the source of long-term finance it and others urgently needs.
The real winner, perhaps, was the US. Despite arriving in Durban with nothing to put on the table beyond what had been pledged two years ago in Copenhagen, America secured all its key objectives. The prospect of stronger action on emissions in the years ahead was minimised, ensuring no new, deeper targets would take effect before 2020. The US kept any decisions on new sources of climate finance for developing countries off the table, and insisted any future agreement treat developed and developing countries equally.
In the final tense hours, the EU may have had an opportunity to strike a deal with India and China on a future legal agreement based on the fair shares of developed and developing countries, which would have piled the pressure on the US to sign up or step aside. Vital as it is that the world's largest historic polluter be bound by the new agreement, we must hope American intransigence on climate change does not succeed in watering down the action needed in the years ahead, and particularly in that future deal. It is, of course, possible to have legal commitments to do absolutely nothing. The EU must work with developing countries to ensure the US does not drag the world in that direction.
Tim Gore is international climate change adviser for Oxfam
12th December 2011 - Jeremy Hance, Mongabay.com
Early Sunday morning over 190 of the world's countries signed on to a new climate agreement at the 17th UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) in Durban, South Africa. The summit was supposed to end on Friday, but marathon negotiations pushed government officials to burn the midnight oil for about 36 extra hours. The final agreement was better than many expected out of the two week summit, but still very far from what science says is necessary to ensure the world does not suffer catastrophic climate change.
While the UN hailed the agreement as making good on the pledge to "save tomorrow today," and a "historic breakthrough to save the planet", some NGOs saw the agreement as another disappointment in a long-string of disappointments on mitigating global climate change.
"This empty shell of a plan leaves the planet hurtling towards catastrophic climate change," said Andy Atkins, executive director of Friends of the Earth.
Most NGOs, however, were more circumspect. "This deal is a lot better than no deal," said Ruth Davis, Greenpeace UK chief policy advisor.
What was decided?
The deal was not so much an agreement, but a 'roadmap' for a future agreement. According to the final two page draft, a legally-binding agreement must be hammered out by 2015 that would include greenhouse gas emissions cuts for every nation. The cuts will begin to go into effect no later than 2020. The Durban negotiations also saved the Kyoto Protocol with the EU and a few other developed countries signing up for a second commitment period.
The biggest success out of Durban was garnering a commitment from the world's largest polluters—the U.S., China, and India—to agree to cutting greenhouse gas emissions. In fact, for the first time the upcoming agreement will include 100 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions. But the biggest drawback to the draft is the timeline: the vast majority of the world's nations won't have to legally begin cutting greenhouse gas emissions until 2020, while recent science has shown that the emissions need to peak before 2020 and decline rapidly thereafter if nations are to have any chance of keeping their pledge of holding temperatures from rising above 2 degrees Celsius. In addition, there remains a significant gap between current emission pledges made at Copenhagen two years ago (that lack the force of law) and what is required to keep the climate from seriously over-heating.
Durban also approved a Green Climate Fund that will raise $100 billion a year by 2020 for the world's poorest and most climate-vulnerable nations. However, a decision on how the money will be raised will be decided at a later date, leaving another portion of the agreement unsettled. A proposal to raise funds through a tax on shipping or aviation was not approved, largely due to opposition from the U.S.
Few major decisions were made on the UN's deforestation program, Reducing Emissions from Degradation and Deforestation (REDD). REDD proposes to pay developing countries to preserve forests through carbon payments. However, a lack of progress has again stalled widespread implementation of the program for another few years, meaning forests will likely continue to fall at staggering rates.
One of the most notable shifts at Durban from previous meetings was an alliance between like-minded poor and rich nations. Forty-two nations with the Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS) and 49 nations with the Least Developed Countries (LDC) formed an alliance with the EU to apply constant pressure on long-time hold-outs like the US, China, Canada, and India to approve the Durban roadmap. Without the alliance between the EU, the AOSIS, and the LDC, it's safe the say the deal in Durban would have been significantly watered down.
Loopholes and lackluster ambition
However, many onlookers fear the document that was finally signed already has too many holes. Last-minute negotiations focused on the nitty-gritty language over the legal constraints of future emissions cuts. India opposed strong language, and in the end more timid legal language was agreed on.
"If that loophole is exploited it could be a disaster," Kumi Naidoo, executive director for Greenpeace International, said. India and China believe they should not be legally committed to cutting greenhouse gas emissions until developed nations do more. While their argument has moral force and history on its side, the alliance of the EU, AOSIS, and LDC argued forcefully that all nations must begin cutting emissions soon if there is to be any chance of mitigating climate change.
"The challenge is that we begin the talks from the lowest common denominator of every party's aspirations," said Jennifer Haverkamp, director of the international climate program for Environmental Defense Fund. "For this effort to be successful, countries need to be ambitious in their commitments and to refuse to use these negotiations as just another stalling tool."
A number of nations have been accused of stalling action on climate change at the meeting, including the U.S., China, and India. Meanwhile Canada was slammed for all-but-confirming it was pulling out of the Kyoto Protocol after the Summit was finished. Canada is the world's only nation to have signed onto the Kyoto Protocol and not kept its emissions pledges.
Falling behind reality
The largest criticism of the Durban agreement was that it is not nearly a strong enough reaction to the growing realities of climate change. The UN has reported that concentration of greenhouse gases have hit a new high in the atmosphere, and emissions levels for last year beat worse-case-scenarios. Recent research argues that waiting a decade to cut emissions will basically ensure that temperatures rise over 2 degrees Celsius. In fact, the International Energy Agency (IEA), not known as alarmist, recently announced that the world had five years to slash emissions or face dangerous climate change. Still, nations like the U.S. insisted on a slow path to the next treaty.
"[Governments] by no means responded adequately to the mounting threat of climate change. The decisions adopted here fall well short of what is needed. It's high time governments stopped catering to the needs of corporate polluters, and started acting to protect people," Alden Meyer, director of strategy and policy at the Union of Concerned Scientists. "We are on a path to 3-3.5 degree Celsius increase if we don't make aggressive cuts by 2020. And there is nothing to suggest this deal will alter that."
The effects of climate change are now being felt far-and-wide. This year saw the Arctic's sea ice hit its lowest volume on record and its second lowest extent. Ice shelves in the Canadian Arctic have halved in the last six years. With wider recognition of the impacts of climate change on severe weather, this year was also notable for an unusually large number of extreme weather events. A devastating drought set the stage for a famine in East Africa that killed tens-of-thousands of people. Massive flooding was seen in Asia and the Americas, with Thailand suffering its worst natural disaster in its history. The U.S. also saw its most-expensive year of extreme weather with a record 12 billion dollar disasters, including an extended drought and heatwave in Texas.
"We can't keep coming back to these annual talks to agree deals that fall so far short of what the science, rather than the politics, requires. Every December the mismatch grows between what the world is committing to and what nations should be delivering. In the current vernacular, we're kicking the climate can down the road," said Ruth Davis, Greenpeace UK chief policy advisor.
12th December 2011 - David Roberts, Grist
After running 36 hours into overtime, the climate talks in Durban, South Africa, finally wrapped up this weekend. As usual, all the dramatic stuff happened in the last 12 hours, after everyone had been beaten into submission by sheer exhaustion. I do not envy my brothers and sisters in the media who attend these things.
So what came out of it? Does it matter at all?
It gets a bit tedious writing about climate policy, since every single development warrants some variant of the same verdict: compared to what's needed, a failure; compared to what's possible, decent. And so it is with Durban. Here are what I consider the top five take-home points, in descending order of significance:
1. The world is still on course to 4 degrees C (7.2 degrees F) and higher, i.e., disaster.
Durban could not be expected to change this, of course, nor could any single event or any single decade's worth of events. Nonetheless, as tedious as it gets, this is the context in which Durban must be understood. The nations of the world have repeatedly agreed to target a 2 degrees C (3.6 degrees F) temperature rise and they have repeatedly failed to pledge or implement the policies necessary to get there.
According to the indispensable Climate Action Tracker, if every country enacted and maintained every policy it has proposed thus far, temperature rise would reach 3.5 degrees C (6.3 degrees F) by 2100.
That would dramatically raise the risk of triggering self-reinforcing feedbacks that send temperature farther upward, pushing them forever outside of humanity's control.
At the last minute, a deal was struck: the "Durban Platform for Enhanced Action." (DPEA; see Kate Sheppard for a nice summary.) In it, all the signatories to Kyoto (and the U.S.) agreed to forge a treaty by 2015 that would bring all countries, developed and developing, under the aegis of a legally binding agreement by 2020.
Here's one thing you can say for the DPEA: it probably saved the U.N. climate process from total dissolution. But, as Michael Levi argues, it is far from the triumph a credulous media is peddling. It initiates "a process to develop a protocol, another legal instrument, or an outcome with legal force under the Convention applicable to all Parties."
Most reporters are taking "outcome with legal force" to mean "legally mandated reductions in emissions for everyone." But that's a rather heroic assumption. As Levi notes, it's not exactly clear what "legal force" means. Any formal decision of COP could be taken to have some legal force -- just maybe not that much. And what's to say the legal force might not just apply to transparency or technology transfer, not emission reductions? And what does "applicable to all Parties" mean? Kyoto was applicable to all parties, but it didn't require emission reductions of all them.
The E.U. undoubtedly has emission reductions in mind, but the U.S. might not, and India -- which fought the deal up to the last minute and is responsible for "outcome with legal force" being added to the language -- almost certainly doesn't. There's nothing to stop China and India from continuing to argue for "differentiated responsibilities" under the new agreement.
And let's get serious: agree in 2015 to do something in 2020? Anyone think that will be a serious constraint on President Romney? Or any government four years from now, much less nine years from now? Even if all countries do follow through, delaying that long will, as the Climate Action Tracker notes, almost certainly put 2C out of reach, make 3.5C much more likely, and make the needed reductions much more expensive. Global emissions need to peak by 2020.
3. Nonetheless, there has been an important shift in climate geopolitics.
I think Levi is right that the DPEA is largely symbolic, but I think he's too cynical about symbolism.
The fundamental division in climate geopolitics has been the one Kyoto cemented in place: developed (Annex 1) countries, which are expected to reduce emissions sharply, and non-Annex 1 (developing) countries, which aren't. Much has changed since that division was put in place, obviously. China is now the world's biggest emitter. Virtually all the rise in emissions in the next decades is expected to come from non-Annex 1 countries. They will determine the fate of the climate.
Yet they have strenuously resisted being brought under a treaty that puts legally binding requirements on them. (They'd rather just extend Kyoto, but the U.S. and E.U. won't go along with that.) At Durban, Indian negotiator Jayanthi Natarajan, feeling that India was being made the scapegoat for the lack of a deal, made an impassioned plea that she could not "sign away the rights of 1.2 billion people" who are still in poverty and in need of energy and development.
Something different happened this time, though. Pressure on the BASIC countries (Brazil, South Africa, India, and China) came not just from Annex-1 countries (though E.U. climate rep Connie Hedegaard was reportedly relentless), but also from the Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS) and the Least Developed Countries (LDCs). AOSIS chair Karl Hood put it bluntly: "While they develop, we die; and why should we accept this?"
AOSIS and LDC are tiny countries, but for obvious reasons, they have unique moral authority: They quite literally face annihilation if temperature is not restrained. They have much to be angry with developed countries about, obviously, but they also have much to fear from BASIC countries' explosive growth. This fragile alliance between climate change's primary perpetrators and its primary victims seems to be dragging BASIC countries grudgingly into the fold.
The DPEA will not force developing countries to cut emissions more than they've already planned -- in that sense it is "symbolic" -- but it is a marker and a serious concession. The ones signing the agreement may do it in the spirit of continuing to fight off mandatory cuts, but their pledges are a lever for the younger generation in those countries, which like young people everywhere get it a lot better than their parents.
4. The boring stuff matters.
Outside the sexy DPEA story, small steps were made on several practical initiatives. The design of the much-ballyhooed Green Climate Fund was established, though no one yet knows where the money will come from. There was progress on international technology transfer, reporting/transparency, and deforestation. I cannot personally bear to dig into the details on these issues -- just thinking about it makes me want to play Angry Birds -- but these things, unlike the hypothetical 2020 treaty, are actually happening. They are among the few practical results of the U.N. process. Let us give them praise before, um, skipping over them.
5. U.N. climate talks neither impel nor impede climate policy as much as hyped.
Despite the enthusiasm of greens for the U.N. process, it's always been an illusion that an international treaty could compel national decision makers to cut emissions faster their their domestic populations are willing. The failure of many Kyoto signatories to meet their goals made that clear enough. International climate commitments are reflections of national will, not constraints on it.
But by the same token, folks like David Victor (and many far less credible bandwagoning UNFCCC bashers) go too far when they say the U.N. process has "wasted time" or retarded progress. If an international agreement can't compel nations to cut emissions, it probably couldn't compel them to fund innovation or adaptation either. There are bilateral and multilateral ways to accelerate innovation and adaptation, but they've always been available, and they weren't neglected just because some other people were talking about mitigation. Lots of folks have convinced themselves that there would have been rapid progress if the UNFCCC had reframed or changed its focus several decades ago, but that's always struck me as a highly dubious proposition.
Either way, the problem has always been the same: National governments lack the will to challenge entrenched constituencies and take economic risks in the name of a problem that most populations still see as geographically and temporally distant. Only when a critical mass within those populations becomes noisy and powerful enough to push governments into action will the U.N. process come unstuck.
David Roberts is a staff writer for Grist.
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