Battle begins to decipher Durban climate deal

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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.

BASIC splits

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.

Connie Hedegaard, the European Commissioner for Climate Action, said that the summit’s outcome showed that the EU’s strategy had worked. “When many parties after Cancun said that Durban could only implement decisions taken in Copenhagen and Cancun, the EU wanted more ambition,” she said, “and got more! We would not take a new Kyoto period unless we got in return a roadmap for the future where all countries must commit. Where the Kyoto divides the world into two categories, we will now get a system that reflects the reality of the today’s mutually interdependent world. And as we are interdependent, what we promise to do must have the same legal weight. With the agreement on a roadmap towards a new legal framework by 2015 that will involve all countries in combating climate change, the EU has achieved its key goal for the Durban climate conference’’.

Polish Environment Minister Marcin Korolec, whose country currently holds the EU presidency, echoed this view. “This is an moment comparable only to, if not surpassing, the success of COP1 from 1995, when the Berlin Mandate was established, which led to the creation and adoption of the only legally binding international agreement to combat climate change – the Kyoto Protocol,” he said. “Today, we adopted a Durban Platform, which will lead us to a legally binding agreement being completed by the year 2015 to engage all parties. A lot of hard work has gone to achieve this. That is significant success of the Polish presidency of the EU Council together with European Commission, the European Union and the global community as a whole.”

BusinessEurope, the European employers lobby group in Brussels, sounded a more wary note, welcoming the EU’s efforts but noting that no new actions had been committed to on the ground, while all major economies would now have to negotiate international emission reduction commitments. “European companies are doing their share in implementing the existing EU climate policies to meet the EU 20% target. But global climate policy commitments to support their investments in low-carbon products and solutions within a global level playing field are essential,” a statement by the group said. “The Durban outcome seems to confirm that the EU is likely to remain almost on its own in making significant emissions reductions until at least 2020. A global level-playing field for European energy- and trade intensive industry remains a distant prospect.

BusinessEurope Director-General Philippe de Buck added: “The conference in Durban provided a start in providing a platform to develop binding international climate policy commitments for all countries. It must be recognized that through to 2020 EU companies may still be alone in being subject to legally binding emission reduction commitments.”

A statement released by the Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) said that "already in its fourth assessment report published in 2007, the IPCC showed that a temperature increase of 2 degrees Celsius could have a damaging effect on water supplies, biodiversity, food supplies, coastal flooding and storms and health."

"The fourth assessment report shows that emissions of the greenhouse gases that contribute to global warming must fall by 2050 by 50-85% globally compared to the emissions of the year 2000, and that global emissions must peak well before the year 2020, with a substantial decline after that, in order to limit the growth in global average temperatures to 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. In the near term, by 2020, emissions from industrialized countries (listed in Annex I of the Kyoto Protocol) need to be reduced by 25-40% below 1990 levels, while substantial deviations from the current trend in developing countries and emerging economies will also be required. This must be borne in mind in the package. The earlier action is taken, the cheaper and more effective it will be."

In the NGO sphere, Bernard Nilles, the secretary-general of CIDSE, a Catholic development agency, said: “This African COP raised a lot of expectations from developing countries all over the world. Developed countries had the responsibility to answer this call for climate justice. These agreements are a first step, but unfortunately they are too small to meet the needs of the poorest countries. Much more needs to be done.”

The message from Oxfam was starker. “Negotiators have sent a clear message to the world’s hungry: ‘Let them eat carbon,’” said Celine Charveriat, director of Campaigns and Advocacy for Oxfam. “Governments must bank the pennies won here in Durban and immediately turn their attention to raising the ambition of their emissions cuts targets and filling the Green Climate Fund. Unless countries ratchet up their emissions cuts urgently, we could still be in store for a ten-year timeout on the action we need to stay under 2 degrees.”

Market perspectives were sanguine. “The most significant outcome in Durban is that the US, China and India have agreed to be included in a legal framework after 2020,” said Stig Schjølset, head of EU Carbon Analysis at Thomson Reuters Point Carbon. “The relationship between the US and China had hampered the progress of global climate talks for several years because neither party had been willing to be the first to move. Now, however, for the first time, they are moving ahead together towards legally-binding reduction targets for all major emitters from 2020. How ambitious those targets will be remains to be seen, but the fact that all countries have agreed to this process is a major leap forward.”

Bas Eichkout, the Green party representative on the official European Parliament delegation to the Durban talks, said: “While today's outcome has opened a door to more effective international response to climate change, delaying comprehensive global climate action until after 2020 is clearly insufficient, given the urgent action scientists say is needed to avoid dangerous climate change. The EU has shown leadership in these negotiations, proactively building alliances within the UNFCCC, but its strategy of pegging the ambition of its own climate action to that of the rest of the world has ultimately fallen short. The Kyoto Protocol remains in limbo and there is no guarantee of any further globally concerted climate action before 2020.”

The Kyoto Protocol was adopted in December 1997 by the 3rd Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) and opened for signature in March 1998.

The protocol commits industrialised countries to reduce during the period 2008-2012 their collective emission of six greenhouse gases by 5.2% from 1990 levels. Under the protocol, the EU committed itself to reduce emissions by 8%.

To enter into force, the protocol had to be ratified by 55 countries, and the developed countries that have ratified must account for at least 55% of 1990 emissions.

  • By Oct. 2014: IPCC to deliver fifth scientific assessment of climate change.
  • 2015: COP17 parties to agree a new legal framework agreement for a second round of emissions reductions under the Kyoto Protocol.
  • 2020: New global climate treaty due to come into force.

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