Climate Change negotiations: Durban’s Platform for [Potential] [In]Action

By Alex Lenferna

At 5am this morning, the final session of Durban’s COP 17 came to a close over a day and a half  behind schedule, with some delegates having not slept for close on 40 hours after two weeks of grueling negotiations. Many decisions have been rushed through in the last minute, and while there is a self-congratulatory air among those key to the design of the architecture of what is now being referred to as the Durban Package, there is much dismay in the air as well. The Durban Package has come to a number of rather controversial decisions around many of the major issues carried over from the Cancun Agreements, but many of the elements have also been postponed and unfulfilled. Furthermore there is an air of confusion around the Durban International Convention Centre (ICC), as many aren’t sure what was just signed onto, as many of the final decisions involving relatively new texts were rushed through at such a fast pace that understanding was hard to attain.

While I was assured by the South African lead negotiator, Alf Wills, that the Durban Package is a comprehensive deal that has taken into account the necessary compromise and has produced a credible outcome, I am not sure I am convinced. The decisions that were passed, despite the COP president’s constant insistency on a transparent and inclusive process, were decried by numerous parties as being one of backdoor intimidation and marginalization guided by the interests of a few parties, with many pointing or alluding towards the USA. In the final plenary discussions on both the Kyoto Protocol and Long Term Cooperative Action, disagreements were gaveled past and disputed texts were forwarded to the main COP plenary despite objections. In the COP plenary decisions were pushed through at an incredibly quick rate, so much so that it was not clear that all parties understood what was going on and many objections from the earlier sessions were not dealt with. At one stage the Russian ambassador declared, that although he did not know what was going on, or what was being passed, he would nevertheless not block progress. Just how many other parties were similarly confused as decisions were gaveled through remains to be seen. So what did they actually decide on, and how is it going to affect our future? I think many of the negotiating teams are going to be spending the next few days figuring out just that, but here is what I have been able to decipher throughout the rushed process.

Firstly, one of the major objectives of the conference was to secure a 2nd commitment to the Kyoto Protocol (KP). While parties were successful with this in so far as we now have a 2nd commitment to the Kyoto Protocol (KP2C), the KP2C is weak and unambitious and does not include many of the major polluters. As far as the legal form of the emission reduction targets under KP2C is concerned, it was decided that quantifiable emission reductions targets, which are only set to be decided on in May 2012, will be “an agreed outcome with legal force”. This statement while seemingly politically potent does not necessarily mean that the targets are legally binding, and is has varied meaning depending on the context. Christiana Figueres, executive secretary of the UNFCCC, simply referred to the implementing reduction emissions in a “legal way”. According to Wills, ambiguity in the text is necessary in order to ensure agreement among divergent parties, but to me because of the ambiguity that means that parties are agreeing to disagree at a later stage, and thus are not really agreeing at all. This will most certainly be a hot spot of controversy in the climate negotiations to come.

Furthermore, the USA, Canada, Japan and Russia are all not party to KP2C and because of lack of ambition in emission reduction targets the KP2C will cover less than 15% of global emissions. Unless ambition is increased drastically at some point then KP2C could potentially lock us onto a pathway to dangerous climate change to the tune of 3.5 degrees, as opposed to the 2 degrees currently aimed for and the 1.5 degrees many claim is necessary for a safe climate future. This, however, is where tonight’s establishment of the Ad Hoc Working Group on the Durban Platform for Enhanced Action (AWG-DPEA) comes in to play. According to the Durban Package, the results of a review set to take place from 2013-15 will inform a work plan to raise ambition. Given the resistance of many nations to increase their reduction ambition targets, the AWG-DPEA will have its hands full trying to raise ambition to the necessary level.  Furthermore, there are serious problems with monitoring and reducing greenhouse gas emissions from Land Use and Land-Use Change and Forestry (LULUCF), which is a critical structure under the Kyoto Protocol. Given that current LULUCF loopholes in forest management would allow developed countries to increase their emissions by up to 6 gigatonnes by 2020, the fact that these loopholes weren’t properly addressed remains worrying. What is clear is that the KP2C as currently proposed is weak, lacks much ambition and, as it isn’t legally binding, gives much room for countries to wangle out of their already flexible emission reduction targets.

With a weak KP2c in place this puts a lot of pressure on a post-Kyoto global climate change regime. Decisions on that rather controversial topic, however, have been postponed until COP 18, which is set to take place in the rather controversial Qatar. Throughout COP 17 there has been a stand-off between most developing countries and the EU, who want the new regime to come into place as early as 2015, and developed countries plus China and India, who would like it to only come into force in 2020. The new regime, it is hoped, will be a global climate regime that brings all parties into a legally binding ambitious framework that aims to bridge the ever-increasing gigatonne gap. One thing is clear, if we lock in the low ambition of the KP2C until 2020, the possibility of halting climate change below 2 degrees becomes increasingly difficult, if not politically impossible.

One of the other major outcomes that was expected from COP 17, was the establishment and, so it was hoped, a plan to fill, the Green Climate Fund (GCF). There has been progress on this front, however, nowhere close to the hopes going into COP17. The GCF has a structure in place, however, who will oversee the fund and how they will do so, as well as it’s legal status remains highly controversial, with many (mostly developing) nations vehemently opposed to the Global Environment Fund (which falls under the World Bank) operating the fund because of issues of manipulation that are associated with the World Bank, as well as its perception as being a puppet of the first world. Other countries, unsurprisingly within the developed world (especially America), are more in favour of the proposal.  This is not the only shortcoming, for reliable sources of long-term finance for the GCF are yet to be secured. The much called for financial transactions tax and maritime and aviation tax were hoped to be secured as potential sources, but all that is secured is a reference for a working group to work on securing innovative sources of finance from both the public and private sector. The GCF thus, apart from a few noble pledges from Germany and Norway, remains a largely empty shell, and it’s not clear how funds are going to be scaled up to provide the agreed upon $100 Billion by 2020. Many are unhappy with the progress and Nicaragua, a bit more upset than most, went a step further and argued that by waiting until 2020 we are squandering a crucial window period for meaningful action on climate change. Their spokesperson decried our inability to bail out nature, when we so readily bailed out banks in 2009, as being indicative of a skewed sense of priority.

One of the more worrying developments that was also passed last night, was the inclusion of carbon capture and storage underneath the clean development mechanism. This inclusion, because of the possibility of encouraging and subsidizing further fossil fuel developments that lack environmental integrity, will certainly be an issue of much contention among environmental groups for years to come. Another disappointment was that the programme on National Adaptation Plans is another decision that has been postponed until COP18. Furthermore the heavily contentious issues of hot air or assigned amount units has also been delayed until COP 18. There were many other decisions that were made and not made at COP 17, but to go into them all would get too “wonky” (i.e. too deep in policy), these, however, were the major decisions that were made at COP17.

Given these decisions, how do we go about assessing the progress that was made? Alden Meyer from the Union from Concerned Scientists had the following to say:

“While governments avoided disaster in Durban, they 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.”

I am very much in agreement with Meyer. The decisions made under the Durban Package lack much needed ambition, and the gap between political will and scientific dictate is massive. Legal and other ambiguities abound, which will provide fertile soil for disagreement as well as ducking and hiding from responsibilities, both political and ethical, in the future. What we have in Durban is a roadmap, but if the Bali Road Map is something to learn from, we need strict rules and guidance, as well as adequate provisions and will power, in order to ensure we get to the end of the road. The Durban Package so far lacks most of that, and if we are to salvage the road map we are going to have to work incredibly hard to ensure that the correct turns are taken along the way. We need to increase ambition and ensure that it is enforceable, and the sooner the better. For as Faith Biriol, chief economist of the International Energy Agency, points out, “delaying action is a false economy: for every $1 of investment in cleaner technology that is avoided in the power sector before 2020, an additional $4.30 would need to be spent to compensate for the increased emissions.”   The Durban Package hasn’t delivered much on the need for immediate action, and thus unless we can drastically alter the rules of the road map or the direction thereof, we may be heavily locked into Biriol’s false economy, complete with the suffering, food insecurity, displacement and global instability that is set to come with climate change above 2 degrees Celsius.

The Durban Package for the moment has created a very loosely bound not-quite-global climate regime, which grants many nations the ability to not contribute to their fair share under a view of climate change guided by the principles of common but differentiated responsibilities (CBDR) and equity. During the final hours, the Indian Environment Minister, Jayanthi Natarajan, even went so far as to say that equity had been forsaken and CBDR inverted. A compromise was reached after she said so, but for a large part, her statement is still relevant. Our climate regime is far from a just one and the major polluters with the greatest historical responsibility as well as some of the major emerging polluters are under little pressure to change that.

Having arrived at this point the importance of domestic pressures in order to establish the building blocks of a truly just climate regime is of utmost importance, for we cannot deliver a more ambitious package unless civil society acts more decisively to pressure their governments into more meaningful climate action and to take more meaningful action themselves. An important step in order to do this, is an increased recognition of the inextricable link between environmental and social justice, which is fueling movements the globe over. It’s time to reinvent, redefine and grow the global climate movement and work together, globally and locally to ensure that our governments do not use the Durban Package to lead us to disaster. It is ambiguous and flexible enough that they may be able to do so, but it is also ambiguous and flexible enough to provide the climate movement with a few grapples upon which to hoist their movement to the next level. Durban has shown us that we cannot rely solely on international governance to answer our calls for climate justice, we need to take a more active role in doing so ourselves in order to avoid looking back and blaming a faulty international governance system for runaway climate change, when true power for change, lay within our own hands.

It’s 09h30 and I’ve been awake for longer than I care to think about, but I know that rather than allow Durban to drive me to despair, having met truly great people who are fighting for social and environmental justice, I am inspired I am disappointed with our current global governance systems, but I have seen youth stand bravely against the most powerful entities in the world in order to fight for their future and progressive thinkers of the older generation stand with them. Having seen all of this, I aim to continue to fight for climate justice never forgetting inextricable link between social and environmental justice. I will play my part in defining what the Durban road map will actually take us. Will you heed the call for justice and do the same? Because we the people of the world, the rich and the poor, the vulnerable and secure, the present and the future, everyone needs you, I implore you to do so.

Alex Lenferna is the lead tracker of the South African Government during COP 17 under, as well as chairperson of the South East African Climate Consortium Student Forum ( Follow Alex as he tracks South Africa’s progress within COP 17 on Twitter (@al_lenferna), Facebook/Alex Lenferna or (


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