Dissecting Durban: A Fighting Chance for Progress on Climate Change

December 16, 2011 10:00 AM

Reactions to the results of the annual UN climate change conference that wrapped up last week in South Africa have been all over the map. The AP heralded the outcome as a "landmark deal," The New York Times and Reuters called it "modest." And the always astute Michael Levi at the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) cautioned that even this level of celebration is misplaced. This wide range of reactions is understandable, as there wasn't one agreement reached in Durban, but three. And the value of each of those agreements depends entirely on your view of how best to tackle climate change.

What Was Agreed

The negotiations in Durban resulted in three major outcomes. The first was an extension to the 1997 Kyoto Protocol. The Protocol's first commitment period (applicable to developed countries only—excluding the United States) expires at the end of next year, and while the Protocol itself continues, there was no assurance that developed countries would agree to a second commitment period. A second commitment period will now take place (either through 2017 or 2020) though not all developed countries will participate. Canada, for example, announced its withdrawal from the Kyoto Protocol shortly after the Durban conference ended.

The second outcome was progress in implementing the Copenhagen Accord negotiated during the 2009 conference. This Accord, hammered out by 30 heads of state in the eleventh hour (full analysis available here), is a politically binding agreement covering the 2010-20 period that addresses many of the shortcomings of the legally binding Kyoto Protocol. Where the Kyoto Protocol includes emissions reduction commitments from developed countries only (excluding the United States and Canada), the Copenhagen Accord includes emissions reduction commitments from both developed (including the United States and Canada) and developing countries, as well as transparency provisions to help ensure that those commitments are implemented. The Accord also goes far beyond the Kyoto Protocol in terms of technology cooperation, adaptation, and financial support for vulnerable countries. The Accord was officially adopted by all 194 members of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) during the Cancún conference in 2010 (known as the Cancún Agreements). In Durban, negotiators moved on to implement many of the Accord's provisions, including transparency mechanisms, technology and adaptation cooperation, and the establishment of the Green Climate Fund.

The third outcome, and the one that has received the most attention, was an agreement to start negotiations on a post-2020 climate agreement. That task was delegated to a new "Ad Hoc Working Group on the Durban Platform for Enhanced Action." The working group was given a mandate to "develop a protocol, another legal instrument or an agreed outcome with legal force under the Convention applicable to all Parties." Work is to be completed by the end of 2015 to enable the new agreement to go into effect in 2020.

What It Means

In terms of tangible near-term action on climate change, the outcome that matters most is the implementation of the Copenhagen Accords. As discussed here, the emission reduction and financial commitments made under the Accord would (if implemented) significantly slow the rate of global emissions growth between now and 2020. There are still very real questions about whether those commitments will be realized, particularly in the United States, given the current political and economic climate, but the international mechanisms are now in place to turn domestic action into international progress should that domestic action occur. Of particular importance are the transparency provisions fleshed out in Durban that are designed to build international confidence in purported domestic action, and the establishment of the Green Climate Fund, which is aimed at building vulnerable countries' confidence that rich countries will make good on their financial commitments. This forward movement received little attention in press reports.

By contrast, the agreement on a second commitment period to the Kyoto Protocol will have little direct impact on the global climate. It covers an increasingly small share of global emissions thanks to the fact that the United States and Canada have pulled out and developing countries are exempt, and any commitments made under a second Kyoto period have already been made under the Copenhagen Accord. The Kyoto Protocol extension was, however, very important in one regard—it was the leverage used by the European Union and supported by the United States to win a pretty good post-2020 negotiating mandate.

In international climate diplomacy, mandates matter a lot, as they considerably bind the hands of negotiators later on. The mandate that resulted in the Kyoto Protocol (agreed to in 1995 in Berlin) called for developed countries to act first, and it insisted that economic development is the overriding priority for developing countries. It also argued that current, historical, and per capita emissions in developed countries are higher than those of developing countries, which gives the developed countries a much greater responsibility to act. With all that in the mandate, it's no surprise that the Kyoto Protocol only included emissions reduction commitments for rich countries and no surprise that the United States bowed out.

The "Bali Action Plan" that launched the current round of negotiations did a little better. It called for some action from developing countries but expected much more of developed countries, including calling on them to finance developing country action. It did not include reference to historical or per capita emissions, but reaffirmed economic development as the overriding priority for developing countries. These details made it impossible to negotiate an agreement that was symmetrically and legally binding on all countries—a US requirement. Instead, the United States pursued a politically binding agreement that included action from both developed and developing countries—the Copenhagen Accord.

For the next decade, this politically binding approach is the right one to take—a point on which CFR's Michael Levi and I agree. Countries are still trying to sort through the politics and mechanics of domestic climate action and building confidence in the ability of other countries to act. As such, a legally binding approach right now is both impossible and unadvisable, because it will either reduce ambition, exclude important countries, or both. (My full argument to this effect can be found here and Levi's can be found here.)

But beyond 2020, a treaty could be a very useful instrument in increasing global ambition, provided that it is crafted in the right way. And the Durban Platform has created the possibility of that happening—not by what it includes, but by what it leaves out. There is no mention of historic responsibility or per capita emissions. There is no mention of economic development as the priority for developing countries. There is no mention of a difference between developed and developing country action. Rather, it calls climate change a problem requiring urgent action by everyone, and calls for the widest possible collaboration. It also calls for a "legal instrument or an agreed outcome with legal force" applicable to all Parties. That is very different from either the Berlin Mandate or the Bali Action Plan.

Levi correctly points out in his Durban critique that developing countries will look to insert legal asymmetry in negotiations going forward. But that is very different from having asymmetry baked into the mandate from the start. And given how the world will look in 2020, it will be a lot easier for American diplomats to push back as negotiations for a post-2020 agreement unfold (provided, of course, that the United States moves forward on domestic action—a prerequisite for any meaningful international progress).

Consider the following. By 2020, China's annual emissions will be roughly double those of the United States. Chinese per capita emissions will be higher than European per capita emissions, and China's historical responsibility (when calculated properly, see analysis here) will be close to exceeding Europe's. In the face of these trends, it will be much tougher for large developing countries to argue for the exemption from legal commitments they won in past agreements, particularly when the negotiating mandate calls for the legal instrument to apply to all parties.

None of this makes me an optimist about the world's ability to effectively address climate change, mind you. But the European Union and United States were able to leverage the expiration of the Kyoto Protocol (the best leverage available now or for the foreseeable future) to win a mandate that gives us a fighting chance.