Durban Climate Change Agreement: 'A Remarkable New Phase'?

Crossposted with TheGreenGrok

A Persistent Point of Contention: "Common but Differentiated Responsibilities"

A single phrase in the Kyoto Protocol enshrined the principle that developed economies, but not developing ones, would bear the responsibility for reining in global greenhouse gas emissions. Way back in 1992 when the basis for the protocol was being worked out, many developed nations signed on to that principle, reasoning that the developed economies had been responsible for the lion's share of global emissions while the peoples of the developing world bore the lion's share of the poverty.

But there were those countries that took exception -- most notably the United States. In 1997 the U.S. Senate voted 95-0 against the protocol because "the disparity of treatment between... [Developed] and Developing Countries ... could result in serious harm to the United States economy."  And in 2001, President George W. Bush officially withdrew the United States from the protocol, arguing that it "would cause serious harm to the U.S. economy" and calling its exemption of developing countries "unfair."

Global CO2 Emissions from Fossil-Fuel Burning, Cement Manufacture, and Gas Flaring: 1752-2006


Deadlock in the 2000s

Today, with global emissions some 28 percent larger than when the protocol was first adopted -- and with the treaty about to expire -- the world is struggling to agree on what comes next. The major sticking point: the very same "common but differentiated" principle that has stymied significant climate action in the United States.

Countries like China and India want to keep that principle intact since it doesn't put them on the hook for the developed world's cumulative emissions. However, more and more countries from the developed world (including the United States, still) argue that keeping such a principle in a new agreement is a non-starter and no longer appropriate given the rapid growth in emissions from the developing world.

The debate over the viability of "common but differentiated" has been especially starkly drawn for the United States and China -- with both countries pointing to the other's intransigence as their reason for not agreeing to a new protocol. It kind of reminds me of what happens after the parents of two squabbling siblings tell them to shake hands and make up -- and each child waits for the other to go first.

Tough Going in Durban

Two years ago, negotiators in Copenhagen at the 15th Conference of the Parties (COP15) were unable to agree on how to go forward, and they didn't really even try in Cancun at last year's COP16.

Thus, two weeks ago, when the international community arrived in Durban, South Africa, for COP17, expectations for progress could not have been lower. And as the conference drew to a close late last week, those expectations appeared to have been met, perhaps even signaling the end to the whole Kyoto process.

Overtime at COP17 Results in the Durban Platform

But the negotiators refused to leave Durban without something to show for their efforts, so they extended the conference into the weekend, pulling two all-nighters. And lo and behold, negotiators claim that these 11th-hour deliberations broke the impasse and laid out a course for a new international, binding agreement that would go into effect in 2020 -- a course that has been agreed to by both the United States and China.

What is the nature of the breakthrough? The establishment and empowerment of an "Ad Hoc Working Group" to develop a new protocol and to "complete its work ... no later than 2015 in order ... [for the new protocol] ... to come into effect and be implemented from 2020." The new protocol is to be a "legal instrument or an agreed outcome with legal force" with this critical stipulation: "applicable to all Parties." Nowhere in this agreement do the words "common but differentiated appear." (Full details in this draft document: "Establishment of an Ad Hoc Working Group on the Durban Platform for Enhanced Action.")

But ... Specifics Are Still in the Works

It is the notion of a "legal instrument ... applicable to all Parties" that is being hailed as the kernel of a new world regime in climate change mitigation. Is this one where all countries, developed and developing, will share common, legally binding emissions targets? Maybe, maybe not. As Michael Levi, a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, wrote in the Atlantic magazine, there are lots of loopholes. For instance, what exactly is meant by a "legal instrument"? That could refer to a treaty on emission cuts but not necessarily. And what does "applicable to all Parties" mean? Does it signal the end of the notion of "differentiated responsibilities"? That remains to be seen.

And of course, there is the question of what happens between now and 2020. According to the Durban Platform, the Kyoto Protocol will remain in effect -- a protocol that saw an almost 30 percent increase in global emissions since its inception* and one from which Canada has announced its withdrawal.

So does the outcome in Durban truly represent a "remarkable new phase," as U.N. Climate Chief Christina Figueres put it? Does the Durban Platform really "set a new course for the global fight against climate change" (the phrase from an Associated Press wire story that many media outlets have picked up)? Maybe, but it will require a whole lot of work by the likes of the United States and China to keep the world on that course. At the very least, perhaps one could say, in that regard, that in the Durban Platform two of the world's biggest emitters have agreed to stop squabbling and have shaken hands.


End Note

* Industrialized nations that ratified Kyoto and were legally bound to
make cuts are on track to meet the treaty's goal of reducing emissions by 5 percent as compared
to 1990 levels.