Mixed reactions to the Durban agreement

Analysis by: Jeremy Hance
December 12, 2011

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Early Sunday morning over 190 of the world's countries signed on to a new climate agreement at the 17th UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) in Durban, South Africa. The summit was supposed to end on Friday, but marathon negotiations pushed government officials to burn the midnight oil for about 36 extra hours. The final agreement was better than many expected out of the two week summit, but still very far from what science says is necessary to ensure the world does not suffer catastrophic climate change.

While the UN hailed the agreement as making good on the pledge to "save tomorrow today," and a "historic breakthrough to save the planet", some NGOs saw the agreement as another disappointment in a long-string of disappointments on mitigating global climate change.

"This empty shell of a plan leaves the planet hurtling towards catastrophic climate change," said Andy Atkins, executive director of Friends of the Earth.

Most NGOs, however, were more circumspect. "This deal is a lot better than no deal," said Ruth Davis, Greenpeace UK chief policy advisor.

What was decided?

 Kentish Flats wind power in the UK.  Photo by: Phil Hollman.
Kentish Flats wind power in the UK. Scientists say we need rapid deployment of clean energy sources, such as wind, solar, and geothermal, to bring down emissions. Photo by: Phil Hollman.
The deal was not so much an agreement, but a 'roadmap' for a future agreement. According to the final two page draft, a legally-binding agreement must be hammered out by 2015 that would include greenhouse gas emissions cuts for every nation. The cuts will begin to go into effect no later than 2020. The Durban negotiations also saved the Kyoto Protocol with the EU and a few other developed countries signing up for a second commitment period.

The biggest success out of Durban was garnering a commitment from the world's largest polluters—the U.S., China, and India—to agree to cutting greenhouse gas emissions. In fact, for the first time the upcoming agreement will include 100 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions. But the biggest drawback to the draft is the timeline: the vast majority of the world's nations won't have to legally begin cutting greenhouse gas emissions until 2020, while recent science has shown that the emissions need to peak before 2020 and decline rapidly thereafter if nations are to have any chance of keeping their pledge of holding temperatures from rising above 2 degrees Celsius. In addition, there remains a significant gap between current emission pledges made at Copenhagen two years ago (that lack the force of law) and what is required to keep the climate from seriously over-heating.

Durban also approved a Green Climate Fund that will raise $100 billion a year by 2020 for the world's poorest and most climate-vulnerable nations. However, a decision on how the money will be raised will be decided at a later date, leaving another portion of the agreement unsettled. A proposal to raise funds through a tax on shipping or aviation was not approved, largely due to opposition from the U.S.

Few major decisions were made on the UN's deforestation program, Reducing Emissions from Degradation and Deforestation (REDD). REDD proposes to pay developing countries to preserve forests through carbon payments. However, a lack of progress has again stalled widespread implementation of the program for another few years, meaning forests will likely continue to fall at staggering rates.

One of the most notable shifts at Durban from previous meetings was an alliance between like-minded poor and rich nations. Forty-two nations with the Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS) and 49 nations with the Least Developed Countries (LDC) formed an alliance with the EU to apply constant pressure on long-time hold-outs like the US, China, Canada, and India to approve the Durban roadmap. Without the alliance between the EU, the AOSIS, and the LDC, it's safe the say the deal in Durban would have been significantly watered down.

Loopholes and lackluster ambition

However, many onlookers fear the document that was finally signed already has too many holes. Last-minute negotiations focused on the nitty-gritty language over the legal constraints of future emissions cuts. India opposed strong language, and in the end more timid legal language was agreed on.

Castle Gate coal-fired power plant in Utah. Nearly half of the US's electricity is from coal, the most carbon intensive energy.  Photo by: David Jolley.
Castle Gate coal-fired power plant in Utah. Nearly half of the US's electricity is from coal, the most carbon intensive energy. China and India have also come to depend heavily on coal power. Photo by: David Jolley.
"If that loophole is exploited it could be a disaster," Kumi Naidoo, executive director for Greenpeace International, said. India and China believe they should not be legally committed to cutting greenhouse gas emissions until developed nations do more. While their argument has moral force and history on its side, the alliance of the EU, AOSIS, and LDC argued forcefully that all nations must begin cutting emissions soon if there is to be any chance of mitigating climate change.

"The challenge is that we begin the talks from the lowest common denominator of every party's aspirations," said Jennifer Haverkamp, director of the international climate program for Environmental Defense Fund. "For this effort to be successful, countries need to be ambitious in their commitments and to refuse to use these negotiations as just another stalling tool."

A number of nations have been accused of stalling action on climate change at the meeting, including the U.S., China, and India. Meanwhile Canada was slammed for all-but-confirming it was pulling out of the Kyoto Protocol after the Summit was finished. Canada is the world's only nation to have signed onto the Kyoto Protocol and not kept its emissions pledges.

Falling behind reality

The largest criticism of the Durban agreement was that it is not nearly a strong enough reaction to the growing realities of climate change. The UN has reported that concentration of greenhouse gases have hit a new high in the atmosphere, and emissions levels for last year beat worse-case-scenarios. Recent research argues that waiting a decade to cut emissions will basically ensure that temperatures rise over 2 degrees Celsius. In fact, the International Energy Agency (IEA), not known as alarmist, recently announced that the world had five years to slash emissions or face dangerous climate change. Still, nations like the U.S. insisted on a slow path to the next treaty.

Young boy in the Turkana tribe. Living in northern Kenya the tribe is buffeted by drought and food scarcity. Scientists say this will only worsen with climate change. Photo by: Rhett A. Butler.
Young boy in the Turkana tribe. Living in northern Kenya the tribe is buffeted by drought and food scarcity. Scientists say this will only worsen with climate change. Photo by: Rhett A. Butler.
"[Governments] by no means responded adequately to the mounting threat of climate change. The decisions adopted here fall well short of what is needed. It's high time governments stopped catering to the needs of corporate polluters, and started acting to protect people," Alden Meyer, director of strategy and policy at the Union of Concerned Scientists. "We are on a path to 3-3.5 degree Celsius increase if we don't make aggressive cuts by 2020. And there is nothing to suggest this deal will alter that."

The effects of climate change are now being felt far-and-wide. This year saw the Arctic's sea ice hit its lowest volume on record and its second lowest extent. Ice shelves in the Canadian Arctic have halved in the last six years. With wider recognition of the impacts of climate change on severe weather, this year was also notable for an unusually large number of extreme weather events. A devastating drought set the stage for a famine in East Africa that killed tens-of-thousands of people. Massive flooding was seen in Asia and the Americas, with Thailand suffering its worst natural disaster in its history. The U.S. also saw its most-expensive year of extreme weather with a record 12 billion dollar disasters, including an extended drought and heatwave in Texas.

"We can't keep coming back to these annual talks to agree deals that fall so far short of what the science, rather than the politics, requires. Every December the mismatch grows between what the world is committing to and what nations should be delivering. In the current vernacular, we're kicking the climate can down the road," said Ruth Davis, Greenpeace UK chief policy advisor.

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Analysis by: Jeremy Hance
mongabay.com (December 12, 2011).

Mixed reactions to the Durban agreement.