Posted by: Matthew Hoffmann | December 14, 2011

Durban Climate Conference Post-Mortem: Drifting Between Despair and Muted Optimism

Confusion reigned in the immediate aftermath of the climate change negotiations that went overtime by almost 48 hours in Durban, South Africa.  When the dust settled, one thing became clear.  Whereas the worries heading into Durban and even the trends from late in the final week of the negotiations pointed to an epic disaster for the multilateral negotiations, the international community managed to eke out agreement on a number of issues that may portend success in the future.  The process of developing an international response to climate change continues to move.  Whether that motion is forward or in the correct direction remains to be seen.

What Happened?

Sorting through the varied dimensions and discussions that make up the decisions made at a major UN conference of this complexity can be a daunting task.  At the risk of oversimplifying, the following can be considered key ‘results’ of the negotiations:

  • All countries attending the negotiations (194) agreed to “ to launch a process to develop a protocol, another legal instrument or an agreed outcome with legal force under the Convention applicable to all Parties”  (  These negotiations will begin in 2012 and are to be completed by the end of 2015.  The new agreement is mandated to come into force in 2020.
  • The Cancun Agreements will continue to govern climate change for those who are not parties to the Kyoto Protocol  (US, Canada, Japan, Russia) and for those who do not have emissions reductions obligations under the Kyoto Protocol (e.g. China) until 2020.  Countries are still obligated to work towards the emissions reductions goals that they pledged in Cancun.
  • The Green Climate Fund, which is designed to facilitate the flow of billions of dollars (up to $100 billion per year by 2020) to the most vulnerable countries to aid in adaptation to climate change, was approved and operationalized.
  • Those countries that were parties to the Kyoto Protocol agreed to a second commitment period (recall that the Kyoto Protocol goes out of force at the end of 2012).  However, this was a relatively hollow victory. Russia and Japan signaled well-before the Durban meetings that they had no intention of signing on to a second commitment period. Canada confirmed what everyone already knew would happen by officially withdrawing from the Kyoto Protocol on Dec 12th (after destroying what was left of its international reputation in climate change by trashing the protocol and telegraphing its impending withdrawal during the negotiations). Those countries still committed to the Kyoto Protocol agreed to decide relatively quickly in 2012 what the targets for the second commitment period will be and decided that it will run from 2013 until 2017 (or perhaps 2020), but it is hard to see how this second commitment period could possibly be relevant

What Does it Mean?

The results from Durban do not warrant despair, but neither should they engender much enthusiasm.  There are positives to take away. The prospect of a legally binding global treaty is still on the table when it seemed far-fetched to predict this even two weeks ago.  This will keep the multilateral process moving forward.  Perhaps more importantly, this outcome provides critical signals for long term investments and planning along with a boost for extra-UN initiatives taking place in cities, amongst NGOs and MNCs and others dedicated to dealing with climate change.  In addition, it is a breakthrough that India and China agreed for the first time, in principle, to negotiate emissions reductions comparable to developed countries and that the US was convinced to participate as well.

But let’s not kid ourselves, there is a large gulf between agreeing to launch negotiations toward a relatively ambiguous end and accomplishing an effective, legally binding treaty that will move the world towards decarbonization and away from climate crisis.  The politics involved in achieving such a treaty have not gotten any easier because new negotiations have been agreed to and there are serious questions about how binding a pledge to negotiate a treaty by 2015 can ever be.  In some ways the Durban Platform is actually quite reminiscent of the Bali Roadmap from 2007 in which countries pledged to negotiate a replacement for the Kyoto Protocol by 2009—a pledge that went spectacularly unfulfilled.  Further, while nations agreed, in principle, to ramp up their commitments in the coming negotiations, it is far from clear that the size and speed of emissions reductions being considered will be sufficient to aggressively confront climate change.

For now the pledge and review mode of climate governance enshrined at Cancun, with its woefully inadequate pledges, will remain operative through 2020 and it will take significant political shifts from key players arising from as of yet unclear sources to change the fundamental dynamics of the climate negotiations. Starting from scratch with a 2015 deadline to reach an ambiguous goal of a legal instrument will be difficult.   Two years may well be insufficient to build the kind of political momentum behind a large-scale global accord that would be necessary to fulfill the mandate.

The size of challenge involved in shifting to a more stringent legal agreement after 2020 was made clear by the hollowing out of the second commitment period of the Kyoto Protocol mentioned abovethe political difficulties that were obvious in the discussions over the future of the Kyoto Protocol have the potential to plague the negotiations over the 2020 commitments as well.

So if there is optimism to be found it is in the fact that the multilateral process did not collapse and has taken tentative steps forward.  The solution to climate change is still not likely to be found in a global, legally binding treaty.  It is more likely to be found in the diffuse actions of multiple actors working to decarbonize the energy system and economy.  What Durban may end up providing is the kind of encouragement for global city networks, regional emissions trading systems, corporate-NGO alliances, community activities and more that increases their motivation and enhances their activities.  In turn the action outside the negotiating halls may provide the kind of political momentum and shifts necessary to make it possible to actually agree on an effective treaty by 2015.  This is the best case scenario.  Time will tell.


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