Having failed to resolve the fundamental policy issues of global climatic disruption, the major players at Durban pushed them off into the future. The ‘Durban Framework’ for continuing negotiations is so skeletal that it essentially allows everyone to hold their current position on commitments for emissions limits and engage in hard bargaining from there. The US continues to play a central role in refusing to take responsibility for leading a climate change response that is commensurate with the historic US contribution to the problem.

I would say the results of the Durban climate summit were disappointing — except that, having observed the process leading up to Durban, my excpectations of significant progress were so low that the disapointment was factored into my reaction up-front. Expectations generally were so low that some observers seem to have convinced themselves that the conference was a major step forward.

Here’s the bottom line of what was agreed at Durban with regard to negotiations on future commitments (I’ll look at the Green Climate Fund in subsequent posts) — the Conference of the Parties document establishing the Durban Framework begins by:

Recognizing that climate change presents an urgent and potentially irreversible threat to human societies and the planet and this requires to be urgently addressed by all Parties, and acknowledging that the global nature of climate change calls for the widest possible cooperation by all countries and their participation in an effective and appropriate international response, with a view to accelerating the reduction of global greenhouse gas emissions,

Noting with grave concern the significant gap between the aggregate effect of Parties’ mitigation pledges in terms of global annual emissions of greenhouse gases by 2020 and aggregate emission pathways consistent with having a likely chance of holding the increase in global average temperature below 2o C or 1.5o C above pre-industrial levels,

Recognizing that fulfilling the ultimate objective of the Convention will require strengthening the multilateral, rules-based regime under the Convention….”

So far, so good.

Following this intro, the conference decision document established an Ad Hoc Working Group on the Durban Framework for Enhanced Action “to launch a process to develop a protocol, another legal instrument or an agreed outsome with legal force under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change applicable to all parties.” The Ad Hoc Working Group “shall start its work as a matter of urgency in the first half of 2012 … complete its work as early as possible but no later than 2015 … in order to adopt this protocol, legal instrument or agreed outcome with legal force … for it to come into effect and be implemented by 2020.”

The Ad Hoc Working Group is directed to include, in its work: “mitigation, adaptation, finance, technology development and transfer, transparency of action, and support and capacity-building…”  Further, “the process shall raise the level of ambition and shall be informed, inter alia, by the Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change…”

That’s it, essentially. Pretty skeletal. Doesn’t require anyone to agree to or to implement anything in particular, and leaves virually all process and substantive matters on the table for negotiation — though it doesn’t prevent negotiating parties from agreeing to whatever they are willing to agree to. This is where things stand, 21 years after the publication of the first IPCC climate change scientific assessment and 19 years after the Earth Summit in Rio.

In contrast with the dichotomy of developed and developing countries that is central to the Kyoto Protocol framework, the Durban Framework gets all the major players on board with an agreement to negotiate “an outcome with legal force applicable to all parties,” whatever that might turn out to mean.  The Obama Administration, and even some in the environmental community, have praised this outcome of the talks as a major step forward. ClimateWire (subscription required) reported on December 12:

“We’re pleased with that,” [US lead climate negotiator Todd] Stern said in a courtyard outside the plenary hall after the sunrise decision. “Fundamentally, we got the kind of symmetry we have been focused on since the beginning of the Obama administration.” …

Stern characterized the Durban Platform as the seeds of the only type of global warming agreement Congress and the American public could ever accept: one that puts the United States and China on a level legal playing field. Democrats in Washington echoed that.

“This agreement moves us away from an unhelpful paradigm,” Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) said in a statement. “It sets up a transparent process that forces China and the major emerging economies to keep their word on climate change. Now all major greenhouse gas emitting countries will be on-record contributors to a solution.”

Human-caused climate disruption is a global problem and will require a global solution, with the participation of all of the major economic powers. But I think there is a big difference between the developed, wealthy, industrialized countries, most notably the United States, and the emerging economies and less-developed countries, most of whose people are still at a much lower material standard of living.

The US has taken a hard-nosed, conservative negotiating position in these talks. It’s not clear to me that the Obama Administration’s position and rhetoric have been dramatically different in their priorities and demands from what a Bush Administration’s position might be at this point. It seems closer to the Bush Administration’s approach than it is to a position that would be commensurate with the urgency of the climate change problem and the actions that will be needed to deal with it effectively.

The US has made no commitments to reducing its own emissions. The US has become a wealthy and powerful nation whose development was fueled by fossil energy, and now sits with its high standard of living in fossil-fueled comfort, without being willing to make any commitment to fundamentally altering its trajectory of contributing to climate change.  And yet the US position has been to insist that all other countries agree to negotiate reductions in their own emissions – including still-developing countries that have been and remain at a much lower level of economic development and standard of living for their populations.

Of course China and India, as well as Brazil and other emerging economies, will need to be actively involved in an overall solution to the climate change problem. If the OECD countries had zero carbon emissions, the developing countries on their current trajectory would have enough emissions to raise the atmospheric concentration high enough to drive global warming above the 2 degrees C threshold – and vice versa if the current trajectory of the OECD countries alone were counted.  But the US has been unwilling to acknowledege the implications of the great global economic inequalities.  China ranks 90th in per capita income; India ranks 129th.

Under the just-agreed Durban Framework, all the specifics are to be negotiated as China, India, and others are brought into a new framework agreement with legal force. But given the negotiating position of the Obama Administration, it is difficult to be optimistic that the US will be willing to (a) contribute significant support to aid mitigation and adaptive preparedness in the lower-income nations, and (b) take the radical steps necessary to phase out our own fossil fuel emissions in a time frame consistent with seeking to avoid disastrous climate change impacts.

The Obama Administration appears to be accommodating, to a large extent, the opposition of the right wing in the US to taking  meaningful action, rather than risking any significant amount of political capital by articulating a position of more cutting-edge progressive leadership and seeking to build public support for it. The White House appears to have essentially avoided dealing with Durban, except to constrain the politics of the State Department sub-cabinet-level negotiating team.


UN Framework Convention on Climate Change – Durban climate conference home page (has  links to decision documents, including “Establishment of an Ad Hoc Working Group on the Durban Platform for Enhanced Action”

World Wildlife Fund: Governments Fail on Ambition, Courage at UN Climate Change Talks

Earlier post:

A comment on the UN climate treaty negotiations