The Durban Climate Agreement: A Four-Year Punt

The 17th Conference of Parties (COP17) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) wrapped up Sunday morning, nearly 36 hours after it was scheduled to end. The final outcome, worked out over the last three days, was an agreement to kick the can of an emissions reduction agreement further down the road to 2015. While this agreement is certainly sub-optimal, it is indeed better than some had feared at the outset. The final agreements call for a continuation of the current Kyoto abatement period for Annex I countries (countries labeled by the Kyoto Protocol as industrialized or in transition that have committed to emission reductions over the course of the agreement period) and a new regime “with legal force” to be negotiated in 2015.

Key Conclusions

The outcome agreement of COP17 is not an ideal solution for maintaining global temperature averages under the 2-degree target deemed “safe” by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). It does, however, begin to get at the fundamental divide between Annex-I/non-Annex I dichotomy that has caused so much acrimony over the course of Kyoto. While not explicitly calling for a legal instrument, the agreement did leave the door open in that regard.

Unfortunately, all of this comes when the world is nearing dangerous territory. The 2-degree limit—a limit whose safety has long been debated by climatologists—seems to be increasingly out of reach. The website Climate Action Tracker estimates that current policy puts the world on a path to a 3.5-degree increase above pre-industrial levels by 2100. After promising emissions reductions following the financial crisis, emissions increased substantially in 2010 to their highest levels yet. Additionally, the IEA recently reported that we are quickly nearing the point at which we are “locked-in” by infrastructure to unsustainable emissions trajectories. In the end, nations’ inaction today will cause the necessary emissions reductions to be much more painful down the road.


There were few surprises over the course of the two-week conference. Leading up to COP17, a cadre of Annex I countries, including Canada, Russia and Japan, explicitly rejected the prospect of entering into the second period of more stringent commitments envisioned in the original Kyoto Protocol. India, and to a lesser extent China and other developing nations, have actively lobbied against non-Annex I, or developing country, emissions targets in any new agreement. At a seeming impasse, the bar for success was low from the get-go.

In order to stave off a descent into total depression, it is good to begin by looking at what was achieved in Durban. Organizers managed to bring delegations back for an additional day and a half of negotiations and pull off an agreement. Though the agreement is nowhere near complete enough to stave off disaster in the long term, it does represent an important step forward. Baby steps were made towards dismantling the poisonous Annex I/non-Annex I differentiation. Getting beyond this dichotomy will be crucial for successfully reaching a substantive agreement in the future.

It should be remembered that Kyoto included countries such as South Korea, Saudi Arabia, China and India in the list non-Annex I nations, which are not responsible for emissions reductions. Since these countries now account for 58% of global emissions, their cooperation will be necessary going forward.

The other bright light was a bit of flesh on the bones of the Green Climate Fund (GCF). This will be the $100 billion mechanism to be implemented by 2020 for addressing developing countries’ energy needs as the world shifts away from a carbon economy. Unfortunately, while delegations agreed on the broad strokes of the GCF, no one is still quite sure where the money will come from.

At the end of the day, it seems that Kyoto is essentially dead in the water. The EU delegation agreed to enter into the 2nd Kyoto Abatement period until 2015 without any commitments by any of the other major emitters. Though the EU accounts for approximately 14% of emissions, China, the US, India and Russia account for over 50%. Without these countries on board in some respect, there will be absolutely no direct progress towards maintaining the climate within safe bounds, at least in the short term.

This is a terrible place to be in a process begun almost 20 years ago. The planet is currently on a trajectory that will lead us to at least a 3.5-degree temperature increase by the end of the century. Though it is true that the real goal is to stabilize concentration levels by 2050, because of issues like infrastructure lock-in, the time needed to “turn the ship around” is growing short. As Harvard Professor Robert Stavins likes to say, “It’s not a sprint, it’s a marathon.” Unfortunately, globally we are quickly nearing the point of exhaustion.

Going Forward

The next decade will be crucial if we wish to minimize the negative consequences of climate change. The Durban agreement states that beginning in 2012, UNFCCC member states will negotiate an agreement to be signed in 2015 and implemented by 2020. The scale and scope are indeterminate except that it will include reductions by both developed and developing countries and will be “a protocol, another legal instrument or an agreed outcome with legal force.” This last turn of phrase was apparently instrumental in getting India (fearful of a binding instrument) and the EU (absolutely wedded to a legally binding outcome) to sign off on the agreement.

Regardless of the outcome of these negotiations, the issue is not going away. Serious cracks are showing in the G77 coalition, which will only increase over time. States such as the BRICS need to maintain the last decade’s rapid pace of growth, and this will be extremely difficult to do while also pledging to engage in serious carbon reduction. At the other end of the spectrum, some nations are facing truly existential threats, most specifically the Pacific Small Island Developing States (PSIDS). As talks falter within the UNFCCC, countries such as the SIDS will increasingly push the issue into other arenas such as the Security Council.

Not all is doom and gloom. Most promisingly is China’s recent unilateral action on developing clean alternatives to fuel their growth. The 12th Chinese 5-year plan prominently addressed climate, energy and the environment, and set energy intensity and emissions reduction targets at 16 percent and 17 percent respectively. Indeed, China seems not only to be less averse to their inclusion in reduction targets but also are aggressively investing in the technology necessary for global emissions reductions to be met.

Additionally, since we are entering into a period of less visible (and ideally less politically contentious for a couple of years at least) negotiations, there is an opportunity for fostering mutually-enforcing institutions. Non-negotiating institutions need to be seen as less of a threat and more as an opportunity. Though faced with many pressing matters, the G20 needs to rise to the occasion and provide leadership on this issue. The Major Economies Forum has done much to foster dialogue among major developed and developing economies, and should continue to do so. The UNFCCC, for its part, should not feel threatened and should encourage these alternate forums. This has been the case since current UNFCCC head Christiana Figueres assumed control and should be continued.

The final assessment remains that Durban represents baby steps in the right direction, but there is still much, much further to go.