Posted by: Matthew Hoffmann | November 12, 2011

Why Durban Matters for Climate Governance

With less fanfare than there has been in years, the next installment of the UN negotiations on climate change are set to begin in Durban, South Africa in less than three weeks.  To no one’s surprise there has been scant media attention on the run-up to the meetings.  Imminent climate change negotiations cannot compete with an ongoing economic crisis for air time, especially when the expectations for Durban are so low as to be non-existent.  The fundamentals of the political gridlock that hampered the previous two UN negotiations have not changed substantially–the US will not move quickly given its domestic political situation and economic woes; the EU is pushing for ambitious targets given that it has already achieved almost 20% reductions from 1990 levels (see this Reuters article); and China is beginning to show signs of leadership but is not yet willing to commit to large binding reductions.  The likelihood that a follow up, second commitment period for the Kyoto Protocol will be agreed to in 2011 is close to nil.

Yet, though obscurity relative to earlier negotiations may be Durban’s fate, that does not mean that this year’s incarnation of the climate talks is unimportant.  Ironically, they are important even though and perhaps even because nothing substantial is likely to be agreed to.  First, the annual multilateral gathering is important for more than the negotiation of international agreements.  The UN meetings are forums that draw a multitude of diverse organizations involved in the global response to climate change.  At UN approved side events and at other forums in Durban, cities, corporations, states, regions, NGOs, and others will converge to share their expertise, urge further action, network, and discuss fruitful ways of moving forward.  The importance of these actors and initiatives that work outside the UN process is now being recognized within the negotiating halls.  In a recent speech (see this Bloomberg article), the head of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change Secretariat, Christiana Figueres, noted the dynamism of climate innovation outside the negotiations and urged actors working in these areas to help break the deadlock in the UN negotiating halls. This is another indication of how the center of gravity in the global response to climate change is shifting from the multilateral negotiations to innovative climate governance experiments. Yet without the annual UN meetings, efforts to publicize and link the activities of these crucial innovative initiatives would be hampered. Even when very little is expected from the negotiations, the UN meetings are a focal point for the global response to climate change.

Second, the Durban meeting is important because nothing substantial is likely to happen. There is value in continuing to meet and negotiate in the face of low expectations, maintaining the practice and institutions of multilateral cooperation and forging agreement on parts of the problem where there is relative consensus (e.g. REDD+), so that when political momentum does emerge behind significant action on climate change, the infrastructure for making a comprehensive treaty is in place. The impetus for far-reaching action on climate change is not likely to come from the multilateral negotiations, but multilateral treaty-making processes need to be maintained so that when (or if for those feeling pessimistic) the catalysts from outside the negotiating halls create a surge of possibilities, the tools are in place to harness global cooperation.

So do not expect much from Durban, but resist the temptation to call for an end to the UN negotiations.  Durban matters both for how it can continue to feed and grow the innovation to be found amongst climate governance experiments and for how it maintains the continuity of a multilateral process that may some day be called upon to implement a global response to climate change catalyzed elsewhere.

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