As negotiators and campaigners flew home from the UN climate change summit in Durban, a battle was brewing over the meaning of the hard-fought text that they had signed up to.
On Sunday (11 December), weary diplomats from 194 nations finally inked a roadmap that could deliver a legal deal for a second round of global carbon dioxide cuts by 2015, and then come into force by 2020.
But one veteran observer compared the means chosen – intense negotiations beginning in 2012 – to George W. Bush’s 2002 Middle East roadmap, saying it would keep a climate "process" going, while "environmental facts on the ground" were established.
“What we’ve done is all smoke and mirrors,” said another senior campaigner, Asad Rehman, of Friends of the Earth. “Without a clear endgame, the roadmap could well be a recipe for a lost decade of talk and inaction leaving us facing a potential four to five degrees of global warming. We need more action and less talk.”
Tomasz Chruszczow, one of the EU’s lead negotiators and chair of the summit’s Climate Working Group, strongly disagreed on what happened in South Africa.
“I think it’s a breakthrough,” he said, “a definite and important success. We pushed the whole process forward. Maybe some time is needed to understand the significance of what we delivered.”
Walk this way
The day before the text was agreed, nobody had expected developing countries to accept a legally binding agreement, the EU negotiator pointed out.
“But they walked this way,” Chruszczow said, “and they really joined Europe – not the others – and Europe had to demonstrate some imagination" to persuade them.
Evans Davie Njewa, a climate negotiator for Malawi, praised the EU’s role in achieving the deal, saying that “more pressure” should now be put on countries which had not offered future CO2 cuts like the US and Canada.
But, as things stood, he had no confidence that the Durban text would prevent a climate disaster.
“The projections are that – for us – global warming could reach six degrees,” he said by telephone from Lilongwe. “The consequences for my country – droughts and heatwaves – would be very bad. Already, our crops are failing because we’re having prolonged dry spells.”
“This has very negative consequences,” he said.
EURACTIV understands that towards the end of the Durban negotiations, the BASIC group – Brazil, South Africa, India and China, which have traditionally allied with least developed countries like Malawi – were privately divided.
India in particular held out against any legal commitment to a second round of emissions reductions until rich nations had implemented the cuts they promised in Kyoto.
Finally, Delhi was persuaded to sign up to the Durban summit text by a change in the proposed Kyoto-type commitment from a “legally binding agreement” by 2015 to an “outcome with legal force.”
But nobody seemed quite sure what that meant.
“Ask the lawyers,” Chruszczow said when pressed on the matter. “I’m not a lawyer”.
“Nobody has defined that,” Davie Njewa said. “Maybe the Kyoto Protocol only achieved 50% of [the rich nation’s pledges] it was meant to, so that’s why we wanted legally binding language.”
China’s position on the question of whether developing countries should be legally obliged to make emissions reductions was always ambiguous.
“We hope all countries can fulfil in good faith their own commitments before 2020 and further study post-2020 measures after the scientific assessment in 2015,” Wang Zhou, an attaché at the Chinese embassy in Brussels, told EURACTIV.
By 2015, the Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) should have delivered its fifth scientific assessment.
The IPCC has previously calculated that global carbon emissions must peak in 2020 and fall rapidly after that if global warming above 2 degrees Celsius is to be avoided.
The effects of global warming could soon become disastrous and runaway if this is not done, they say.
Other concords at Durban will set up a Green Climate Fund – albeit without any money yet – and new market-based mechanisms covering adaptation and technology transfers.
Second wind for Kyoto
Most importantly, the teetering but symbolically vital Kyoto Protocol was given a second wind with the EU bringing its voluntary pledges of the Copenhagen Summit under its auspices.
But without comparable pledges from big emitters like the US and China, for the next few years the Protocol will only cover about 15% of the world’s emissions.
Diplomats such as Chruszczow say that perhaps the greatest success at Durban was that a global deal was reached at all.
Little had been expected, and the EU’s negotiating stock had fallen after the bloc’s divisions at the Copenhagen Summit in 2009 allowed the US to move the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) process away from Kyoto’s binding legal framework towards a voluntary pledge and review system.
By the end of the Durban Summit, a whiff of optimism was in the air, but environmentalists warned against smelling the roses just yet.
“I predict that the next meetings of the UNFCCC will be dominated by a fight over the agenda between rich countries that want a new protocol and developing countries that want to see a delivery of the existing mandate,” Rehman said.
A hard three years of addressing the tough climate decisions kicked down the road in Durban lies ahead.