The international climate talks were extended over the weekend as countries attempted to save face and hammer out a deal before wrapping up here Durban. After three all-night sessions, passionate exchanges, and even a last minute huddle to agree on the details, exhausted negotiators announced at 5am Sunday that they had finally reached a deal.
The plan calls for Kyoto to be extended--but not strengthened. Originally design to curb the green house gas emissions in 37 developed countries; it will now apply to only the European Union and a handful of minor participants. Notably missing are several key players: Canada, Japan, Russia, and the United States. While Kyoto’s breathing may be labored from the hot air in Durban, it managed to avoid death. Some consider this outcome a success--at least negotiators avoided the “worst case scenario.” Yet others, who perceive Kyoto as the most promising vehicle to spur carbon reductions, see its gutting here as an unconscionable tragedy.
As Kyoto struggled for air, negotiating parties laid out the groundwork for a future protocol. As it stands now, this protocol will enfold all countries and take over for Kyoto after its second commitment period ends. The decision this weekend set forth a timeline for its critical decisions--it will be agreed upon in 2015 and take “legal force” in 2020. Throughout the conference, the timeline debate exposed very divergent perspectives. Island nations and vulnerable states requested that a final agreement be operationalized by 2012 in order to thwart the worst impacts of climate change. A few of the larger emitters however, made numerous requests to enact the agreement by 2020 to give them adequate time to adapt. In the end, the negotiations compromised over a split deal. Those countries wishing to carry on Kyoto would renew their commitments next year. Everyone else in the world will wait until 2020.
The promise of a future agreement has evoked a residual cynicism from many observers. In 2009 the group failed to meet a deadline set forth by the Bali Action Plan to renew the Kyoto Protocol. Now it seems that a final and inclusive decision will have to wait another three years.
Despite this cynicism, it is crucial to acknowledge that negotiations take time. Smaller scale negotiations that are both much less complex and have fewer stakeholders often require more frequent and regular meetings to reach a consensus. COP17, on the other hand, is a conglomerate of 190-some countries each possessing different perspectives, interests, needs, and desires. Together they are trying to tackle a problem that quite literally impacts all economic sectors, global biodiversity, functioning ecosystems, not to mention health, security, water access, cultures, and traditions for billions of people. Complex doesn’t even begin to describe this conflict.
This complexity is reflected in the odd contours that formed Sunday’s final agreement. One of the characteristics worth tracking is the notion that the future protocol will be applied “with legal force.” This curious term accommodates India’s request to avoid a “legally binding” agreement. (More on India’s position in another blog). As it stands, the current Kyoto Protocol is “legally binding”--although the consequences for noncompliance remain rather soft--(as evidenced by Canada’s willingness to renege). More than anything “legally binding” makes it politically more difficult to pull out (as evidenced by the public backlash Canada received throughout the conference.) It won’t be decided until 2015 what a protocol with “legal force” will look like--but as it is left in Durban, it seems to be not much more than a political agreement similar to, but weaker than, Kyoto’s compliance measures.
In addition to the call for a different protocol, negotiators in Durban also set forth agreements supporting the Green Climate Fund. This adaptation fund would help the poorest and most vulnerable countries take measures to protect themselves and their people from the worst consequences of climate change. Everyone at the table seemed to reaffirm their support for the fund but the main functional details needed to enable the fund (where it will be housed and how it will be financed) never managed to reach agreement.
For a climate justice advocate such as myself, the talks resulted as a mixed bag slanted toward cynicism. Negotiators managed to avoid a worst-case scenario that would have ended Kyoto and weakened other climate change adaptation strategies. But the conference fell well short of deciding on any strategy that would prevent the dreaded 2 degree Celsius global temperature increase. By putting off decisions and actions for several more years, the UNFCCC’s actions this year will jeopardize the well-being of far too many human lives.
There is hope, however.