Durban Round-up: Climate deal reached

Updated On: Dec 12, 2011

Negotiators at the UN Climate Change Conference in Durban, South Africa, have reached a deal to fight climate change after gruelling talks which lasted two days beyond the Conference's scheduled conclusion. The deal is seen a step forward in deadlocks in climate talks although some voice doubts that the new deal is sufficient and claim that more should have been accomplished.

Agreement reached at the last minute, with tough work ahead

After hours of deadlock and compromise from all sides, representatives emerged from a tough all-night session on Sunday with a way forward on climate change: the delegates agreed to draft a new global emissions treaty by 2015, which will take effect no later than 2020. Under the deal, most industrial nations currently obligated to reduce emissions under the Kyoto Protocol will extend their commitments after Kyoto expires at the end of 2012.

Many are European Union members already bound by EU legislation to cut emissions to meet Kyoto’s requirements.  Russia, Canada and Japan, which had earlier expressed their reluctance to commit to a Kyoto extension, signed onto the new agreement that will take effect later. China, the US and India, the three largest emitters of greenhouse gases which are not covered by Kyoto, vowed to join the pact and will have voluntary targets until 2020.

After nearly 20 consecutive hours of negotiations, China and India almost caused talks to collapse on Sunday by refusing to accept a strict "legal instrument," to enforce emissions cuts. Instead, the version of the agreement that emerged contained the phrase "legal force"—a broader term that is seen as allowing governments more flexibility to implement emission-curbing measures.

Separately, delegates agreed to establish a Green Climate Fund to guide the flow of an expected $100 billion in annual pledges by 2020 for poorer countries to implement environmental projects to mitigate climate change impacts.

Although the pact created a semblance of common ground among different countries, the meetings highlighted the huge challenge of any future treaty getting domestic political support. Both China and India argued that it would be unfair for any treaty to curb rapid economic development and poverty eradication, for the sake of any offsetting emissions produced by developed countries.

The new agreement aims to reduce global emissions across the board and not just restrain the rate at which they are rising, as countries such as China have already pledged to do. But the benchmark to which nations will be held is open to negotiation, depending on UN-led scientific reviews of global temperature data and on-going emissions policies over the next few years.

Delegates will spend the next four years fleshing out the details of the 2020 deal, with chief negotiators meeting in Qatar next year. The road ahead is seen to be challenging as countries have to iron out differences along the way to an agreement in 2015. In Durban, power plays in climate politics strongly defended their interests and are expected to do so. This will be especially the case if the global economic crisis is prolonged. Coal, oil and gas are currently the backbone of the world’s energy supplies. Improving energy efficiency and switching to cleaner, renewable sources carries a cost that belt-tightening governments may resist.

Other obstacles include defining the status of the compact, which was intentionally left obscure in Durban; satisfying the EU’s call for tough controls over polluters as well as the position of the US whose climate-sceptic Republicans in Congress may hamper the ratification of any climate treaty with tough requirements; and reassuring developing countries that they will not solely bear the responsibility of reducing emissions that historically came from rich economies that were the first to benefit from fossil fuels.

Report: Durban Climate Talks Produce Imperfect Deals (Voice of America, 11 Dec 2011)

Report: China, India, U.S. Take Steps Towards Emissions Deal (Wall Street Journal, 11 Dec 2011)

Report: Durban climate deal leaves difficult road ahead (AFP, 11 Dec 2011)

Agreement seen as a positive step

The agreement is seen as a positive step in terms of keeping climate change talks on track despite fears that talks would collapse and Durban would end without any deal, especially after the failure of the last high profile talks in Copenhagen in 2009. The EU, which attempted to drum up support for a "road map" are praising the Durban agreement as "an historic breakthrough". The group say that this is the first time that the world’s three biggest emitters, the US, China and India have agreed on a legal treaty to cut carbon.

The chief US negotiator Todd Stern interpreted the agreement as a firm collective deal to reduce emissions. As long as India and China agree to emissions cuts that mirror those pledged by the US, Mr Stern said he believed the final treaty stood a chance of passing in a Congress that has been leery against climate legislation.

Report: Durban climate change: the agreement explained (Telegraph, 11 Dec 2011)

Report: China, India, U.S. Take Steps Towards Emissions Deal (Wall Street Journal, 11 Dec 2011)

Agreement seen by some as insufficient

On the other hand, scientists and environmental groups warned that urgent action was still needed to prevent catastrophic climate change. Andy Atkins, executive director of Friends of the Earth, commented, "This empty shell of a plan leaves the planet hurtling towards catastrophic climate change. If Durban is to be a historic stepping stone towards success the world must urgently agree ambitious targets to slash emissions."

Bob Ward of the Grantham Institute at the London School of Economics said the current pledges from countries to reduce emissions were not enough to hold global temperature increases within 2°C above pre-industrial levels, beyond which catastrophic climate change occurs according to scientists.

Celine Charveriat, Director of Campaigns and Advocacy for Oxfam, said the world is "sleep walking" towards a 4°C rise in temperature by failing to obtain tougher goals before 2020. "The failure to seal an ambitious deal will have painful consequences for poor people around the world," she said.

For some, including the US and China, the system of voluntary pledges is adequate for reducing emissions. But for others, including the EU and many developing countries, it is inferior to a legally binding treaty, because the voluntary process is too vulnerable to politicians going back on on their commitments. The countries most vulnerable to climate change said delaying until 2020 to enforce the agreement will be insufficient to save small island states from rising sea levels or prevent droughts and floods.

Report: Durban deal will not avert catastrophic climate change, say scientists (Guardian, 11 Dec 2011)

Report: Durban climate change conference: Big three of US, China and India agree to cut carbon emissions (Telegraph, 11 Dec 2011)

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