In Durban, world's major economies show will to address climate change

Sunday morning around 5 am, almost 36 hours after the UN climate negotiations were slated to conclude, the chair finally banged her gavel and declared the 17th annual UN climate ministers meeting at an end. Exhausted delegates and ministers — those that hadn't already melted away to the airport hours before — emerged from an already partially dismantled venue into the bright clear sunshine and fresh promise of a new day. And just maybe, that's a metaphor for the UN climate talks as well.

Durban was quite the cliffhanger, swinging back from the brink of collapse to produce surprisingly good results compared to the low incoming expectations. Instead of being the meeting that let the Kyoto Protocol "die on African soil", as many had feared, Durban will be known for launching negotiations of a new agreement that encompasses all the major emitters, and thereby beginning finally to erode the rigid old walls between developed and developing countries. The negotiations are to conclude by 2015, and come into effect by 2020, which is far slower than the enormity of the problem requires, but a fair reflection of what the political freight in 2011 can bear. As part of the deal, the EU has agreed to extend the Kyoto Protocol to at least 2017, and Kyoto parties are to finalize their next round of commitments by December 2013. These next couple of years will test whether the parties can now coax into flame the spark of hope struck here, or whether they go back into their respective corners of stalling and delay.

Lack of certainty over whether the global community will move beyond the vague action plans and pledges that were the outcome of previous meetings has hampered the development of robust climate policy in many nations, and threatened to undermine the important national commitments that have already been made in jurisdictions from Australia to California, and Europe to New Zealand. The agreement reached in Durban is an opportunity to improve upon that situation: its goal is an outcome, that is, in the words of the Durban conclusions, "a protocol, another legal instrument, or an agreed outcome with legal force under the UNFCCC", applicable to all Parties. Stronger than the "agreed outcome" language of the Bali Action Plan, the Durban meeting therefore cracks open the door on negotiations which could lead to the kind of comprehensive, legally binding treaty that can serve as a powerful driver of domestic action. But the lack of specificity in this negotiating mandate also means that the Parties could use it to continue to posture, delay, and reargue old fights.

In a top priority for developing countries, the gathered nations also took a critical step toward making the much-anticipated Green Climate Fund a reality, by agreeing on structural details for setting up the fund, which aims to finance efforts of developing countries to adapt to the impact climate change and curb their greenhouse gas emissions. And even though the new fund is not quite yet a functional bank, Germany, Denmark, and South Korea have made the first pledges for contributions in 2013.

In other key developments, there was solid progress on developing standards for anti-deforestation work in developing countries (known as REDD+, for Reduced Emissions from Deforestation and forest Degradation), as well as recognition that carbon markets could be used to finance forest protection. Unfortunately, though, standards were adopted for developed-country forest and land use accounting that create big loopholes in meeting their emission reduction commitments.

The global carbon market dodged a major bullet in Durban. Collapsed talks could have been disastrous. Instead, a positive signal came through clearly: the Kyoto Protocol will be extended; the Ministers endorsed market-based financing for REDD+; they have agreed to define a new market mechanism (in addition to the existing clean development mechanism (CDM) and joint implementation projects); and the EU is already talking about tightening its emissions reduction target, which will increase demand for international credits. And overall, Durban's signal that the world's major economies are serious about addressing climate change over the long term will boost countries' bottom up efforts to institute emissions trading schemes, as in Australia, Korea, Brazil, and China.

Nations that have implemented Kyoto through domestically binding targets, in particular the EU, have learned how powerfully these targets can drive national action, and how domestic carbon markets can drive innovation and the search for better, cheaper faster ways of cutting global warming pollution. It is vital that the next round of negotiations continue this drive.

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