After an all-night overtime session, negotiators at the 17th Conference of the Parties (COP17) climate summit in Durban on the morning of Dec. 11 issued a formal agreement to work towards a new legally-binding treaty limiting greenhouse gas emissions and applying to all 194 member governments of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change. The “Durban Platform for Enhanced Action” pledges a new “agreed outcome with legal force” to be negotiated by 2015 and to take effect by 2020. In principle, the treaty is to ensure that Framework Convention member states take measures to meet the goal agreed to at last year’s climate conference of keeping global temperature rise below 2 degrees Celsius over pre-industrial levels.
The main division at Durban was between the industrial and post-industrial nations led by the US and EU and an informal negotiating bloc known as BASIC—made up of Brazil, South Africa, India and China. The BASIC nations indicated their willingness to sign up to legally binding commitments—but only on the principle that their commitments will be equally binding but not as stringent as those of industrialized countries.
Critics charged that the 2020 deadline makes meeting the 2 degrees goal unrealistic, and could lock in a rise of at least 4 degrees. Additionally, there remains ambiguity as to whether the 2 degrees goal is to be binding. The lead US negotiator Todd Stern made headlines in Durban when he characterized the 2 degrees goal as a “guidance” rather than an actual cap. He told reporters: “We look at 2 degrees as an important and serious goal that will guide what we will do. That is still different from looking at it as an operational cap that you must meet.”
Negotiators also agreed to an extension of the 1997 Kyoto Protocol for at least another five years. A decision on the exact end date for the next commitment period will come at next year’s conference in Qatar. The agreement commits to moving ahead on the Green Climate Fund conceived at the Copenhagen summit two years ago, that is supposed to channel billions of dollars a year to poor countries for adaption to climate change and transition to clean-energy technologies. Members additionally agreed to implement the Cancun Agreements, which emerged from last year’s conference in Mexico. The Cancun measures include establishing a “Technology Mechanism” that will promote access by developing countries to low-carbon technologies, and an “Adaptation Committee” to coordinate “adaptation activities” on a global scale. (We noted during June’s intermediate summit in Bonn that some extremely hubristic schemes have been suggested as “adaptation activities.”)
Reaction to the new agreement varied from the ebullient to the harshly critical. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said the Durban decisions represent “a significant agreement that will define how the international community will address climate change in the coming years.”
Achim Steiner, executive director of the UN Environment Programme (UNEP), said: “The big question many will ask is how this will translate into actual emission reductions and by when? Whatever answer will emerge in the coming months, Durban has kept the door open for the world to respond to climate change based on science and common sense rather than political expediency.” UNEP’s latest “Bridging the Emissions Gap” report emphasized in November that the best available science shows that global greenhouse gas emissions need to peak before 2020 to avoid catastrophe.
Samantha Smith, leader of the World Wildlife Fund‘s global climate and energy initiative, cautioned that the agreement “could result in being legally bound to a 4 degrees world.” Said Smith: “Governments did just enough to keep talking, but their job is to protect their people. They failed to do that here in Durban today. Science tells us that we need to act right now—because the extreme weather, droughts and heat waves caused by climate change will get worse… It is clear today that the mandates of a few political leaders have outweighed the concerns of millions, leaving people and the natural world we depend on at risk. Catastrophe is a strong word but it is not strong enough for a future with four degrees of warming.”
Greenpeace International director Kumi Naidoo warned: “The grim news is that the blockers led by the US have succeeded in inserting a vital get-out clause that could easily prevent the next big climate deal being legally binding. If that loophole is exploited it could be a disaster. And the deal is due to be implemented ‘from 2020’ leaving almost no room for increasing the depth of carbon cuts in this decade when scientists say we need emissions to peak. Right now the global climate regime amounts to nothing more than a voluntary deal that’s put off for a decade. This could take us over the two degree threshold where we pass from danger to potential catastrophe.” (Business Day, South Africa, Dec. 12; ENS, Politico, Oxfam, Climate Action Tracker, Dec. 11; WWF press release via MarketWatch, Dec. 9; PTI, Dec. 7)
The Durban agreement was most harshly assailed by Climate Justice Now!, a broad coalition of social movements that coordinated protests in the South African port city during the summit: “Here in South Africa, where the world was inspired by the liberation struggle of the country’s black majority, the richest nations have cynically created a new regime of climate apartheid.”
Nnimmo Bassey, chair of Friends of the Earth International and a member of the protest coalition, said: “Delaying real action until 2020 is a crime of global proportions. An increase in global temperatures of four degrees Celsius, permitted under this plan, is a death sentence for Africa, small island states, and the poor and vulnerable worldwide. This summit has amplified climate apartheid, whereby the richest 1% of the world have decided that it is acceptable to sacrifice the 99%.”
According to Pablo Solón, former lead negotiator for Bolivia, “It is false to say that a second commitment period of the Kyoto Protocol has been adopted in Durban. The actual decision has merely been postponed to the next COP, with no commitments for emission reductions from rich countries. This means that the Kyoto Protocol will be on life support until it is replaced by a new agreement that will be even weaker.”
Climate Justice Now! leaders called for adoption of the Cochabamba People’s Agreement, which emerged from the World People’s Summit on Climate Change and Mother Earth in Bolivia in 2010. The Cochabamba Agreement was brought before the UN, but has never made it onto the COP’s negotiating agenda. (Climate Connections, Dec. 11)
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