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Durban Part 4: Conclusion

4 February 2012

Also see Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3 of this series about the significance of last month’s Durban climate talks (COP17).

Grenada said in an opening statement: “AOSIS will not and cannot accept a deal here in Durban that does not provide a means to bring in more ambitious legally-binding commitments for Annex I Parties well before 2020.” But the final outcome looks to me like it has exactly the same fatal flaw. Delegates did not agree any new emissions cuts, let alone binding ones.

The headline result of COP17 is a non-binding agreement to agree in four years on unknown actions in an unknown framework with unknown legal force, with no indication of how it will apply differently to rich and poor, to be implemented when it will be too late to preserve a safe climate. The product of Kyoto negotiations is a non-binding agreement to agree in 12 months on a possibly voluntary commitment period of unknown length, covering an unknown set of countries expected to total less than 15% of global emissions, with unknown but apparently politics-based emissions targets and unknown but likely fraudulent accounting for those in it, and benefits without responsibilities for those outside it. And the outcome of LCA negotiations is a non-binding agreement that doesn’t do much except administrate existing voluntary pledges, open the door to further dubious offsets, and establish a fund without any money in it.

Probably the best part of the whole package is the Durban Platform’s workplan to raise ambition, and it’s far from certain to lead anywhere.

So what are the implications for the future of all these agreements taken together? As the UNFCCC process has not collapsed it appears that multilateralism will continue, though there remains a danger important negotiations could shift to other forums where the poorest countries have no voice at all. The third legal option in the Durban Platform makes it far from certain the advocates of voluntary targets have been defeated even beyond 2020. Either way, with the ambiguous status of Kyoto, most of the world instead covered by a voluntary regime, and any binding global agreement delayed until 2020, pledge-and-review looks set to rule for the next decade.

The first thing Canada did after its delegation got home was to pull out of Kyoto’s current commitment period. This means they will face no penalties for missing their 2012 target! That Combet defended this appalling move by Canada, on the basis that Kyoto does not include all major emitters, is further evidence of which side Australia is really on. As the Grenadian delegate in Durban, speaking for AOSIS, noted about the exodus from Kyoto, “those Parties supposedly most concerned about coverage are the same ones threatening to walk away.”

Some business-oriented commentators argue the prospect of a future global agreement will give confidence to business to invest in low- or zero-carbon technologies. There may be something to this, but this effect is unlikely to be fast enough to drive the rapid emissions reductions that are urgently needed.

As I have explained here, if we want to be sure of preserving a habitable climate and avoiding feedbacks that could send climate change spiraling out of our control, we must aim to reduce CO2 to ~350 ppm (thus limiting warming to about 1°C). Thus a very narrow window remains – only a couple of decades – to phase out fossil fuels. Politically, achieving this has never looked more impossible. After Durban, the Earth remains on a pathway to more than 3°C global warming, and don’t forget feedbacks could cause much higher warming on top of that. If we allow anywhere near this level of warming, humanity faces a very uncertain future, and many small island states face no future at all.

Despite all this, I would not say the protesters made no difference. They may have helped to prevent total collapse of the negotiations. They certainly made their voice heard, and raised my awareness of many key issues. I’m not sure I agree with some of them on the role of the BASIC countries, but on the urgency of the climate crisis they were the only sane voices. It seems topsy-turvy that those protesters were thrown out of the conference while our supposed leaders negotiated an insane outcome.

In the political world, the Durban Platform has been hailed as a breakthrough by many governments (including Australia), and even some environmental groups. In the real world, it is just more talk and does nothing new to cut emissions as is desperately needed. Instead of repetitively unproductive annual conferences, negotiators should meet for as long as it takes to get a global agreement with science-based emissions targets.

The US approach – bilateral, voluntary, and bottom-up – will not work. Bilateralism is a dead end because the countries with highest emissions have lowest ambitions. Voluntary action leaves the door wide open for governments to break or fake their targets. And bottom-up pledges mean ambition will be determined by politics, not science. We need a top-down approach which decides on a global target of 2°C, 1.5°C, or preferably 350 ppm and divides it up among all nations.

The next Conference of Parties will be in Doha, Qatar. Will our leaders finally get their act together and cut global emissions? One thing is for sure: the people cannot sit and wait for governments to decide our future – or for a decade we might find ourselves left waiting on the Platform.

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