IDSA COMMENT

Durban Platform for a New Climate Change Agreement: An Assessment

December 21, 2011

Was the 17th Meeting of the Conference of Parties (COP 17) of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCC) a success or a failure? Shorn of rhetoric, there was no urgent action to ensure that the global mean temperature does not rise beyond the critical 2 degree Celsius above pre-industrial levels. There was little progress on Green Climate Fund, technology transfer and capacity building issues. On the other hand, there was considerable heated rhetoric indicative of new battle lines for future negotiations. India was happy that its plea for incorporating ‘equity’ in the agreed document was accepted. The world heaved a sigh of relief that the Kyoto Protocol did not collapse and was extended for another five years up to 2017.

The stark reality is that CO2 emission reduction obligations for the first commitment period of the Kyoto Protocol, which ends in 2012, have been breached by Annexure I countries with impunity. Their emissions have increased and not reduced by five per cent from the 1990 level as was agreed to in the Kyoto Protocol. It is doubtful whether meaningful emissions reductions will emerge during the second commitment period of the Kyoto Protocol (2012-2017).

The most significant outcome of the parleys at Durban was that fresh negotiations will be launched to develop “a new protocol, another legal instrument or an agreed outcome”. The new document will be negotiated by 2015 and adopted by 2017 at what has been called the “Durban Platform”. The COP 17 has decided

“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, through a subsidiary body under the Convention hereby established and to be known as the Ad Hoc Working Group on the Durban Platform for Enhanced Action…”

Further,

“…the Ad Hoc Working Group on the Durban Platform for Enhanced Action shall complete its work as early as possible but no later than 2015 in order to adopt this protocol, legal instrument or agreed outcome with legal force at the twenty-first session of the Conference of the Parties and for it to come into effect and be implemented from 2020…”

Under the Kyoto Protocol, only developed countries, known as Annexure I countries, were asked to undertake legally binding emission cuts. The crucial difference between the new and earlier negotiations is that all countries will now have to accept emissions cuts which would have ‘legal force’, a euphemism for legally binding emission cuts. This is the price before the second commitment period under the Kyoto Protocol which the EU and other countries have extracted. Thus, China and India, which have so far resisted legally binding emission cuts for themselves and have only accepted voluntary emissions cuts, may be compelled to take legally binding emissions cuts, even though their per capita emissions are much below those of the developed countries.

The EU is satisfied with the outcome of the Durban conference. It had insisted that it would not undertake new commitments under the Kyoto Protocol unless it got a “roadmap” for the future. According to Connie Hedegaard, European Commissioner for Climate Action, the new legally binding framework will involve all countries in combating climate change. The US has also expressed a similar sentiment.

Discussions were also held at Durban on how to operationalise the Green Climate Fund (GCF). Germany has so far pledged €40 million and Denmark €15 million towards the operationalisation of the GCF. A new Technology Mechanism and Adaptation Committee have also been agreed to. The Adaptation Committee will coordinate world-wide efforts towards adaptation. A new process relating to climate change and its impact on agriculture has also been launched. However, most of these measures will take time to take effect.

In a shocking development, a day after the conclusion of the Durban meeting, Canada announced its withdrawal from the Kyoto Protocol. Canada is one of the major polluters. Its withdrawal has been justified on the ground that the Kyoto Protocol covers only 30 per cent of global emissions and leaves out the world’s two largest emitters – China and the US. The Canadian decision delivers a major blow to the cause of the fight against global warming. According to Canada’s Environment Minster, the cost to the Canadian economy of meeting the targets under Kyoto for 2012 would have been “the equivalent of ... the transfer of $14bn (£8.7bn) from Canadian taxpayers to other countries.” Canada’s obligation under the Kyoto Protocol was to reduce its emissions by six per cent by 2012 on 1990 levels; in reality, its emissions have gone up by about a third. Russia and Japan had already stated that they would not accept new commitments under the Kyoto Protocol. China has described the Canadian decision as “irresponsible”. Many developed countries are having second thoughts about the Kyoto Protocol.

We should also take note of the statements made by the Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS) at the Durban conference. Small island countries are extremely vulnerable to sea level rise and extreme weather conditions as a consequence of climate change. The Foreign Minister of Granada, quoting the new UNEP Bridging the Emissions Gap Report, warned that the “gap between ambition and emission pathways for staying below 2º C had widened” from 5-9 Gt CO2 e to 6-11 Gt CO2 e.” AOSIS has been demanding a legal instrument for emissions cuts. Its chief negotiator Selwin Hart welcomed the agreement for further talks but wanted more action. AOSIS has emerged as a powerful pressure group of 42 small Island countries. AOSIS works with the European Union and the Least Developed Countries (LDC).

Another informal pressure group, the Cartagena Dialogue for Progressive Action consisting of 30 countries, emerged at Copenhagen in 2009. This Group also demands an ambitious, comprehensive and legally binding climate change regime within the UNFCC.

India has been active as a part of the BASIC (Brazil, South Africa, India, and China) grouping, which has been insisting on equity and Common But Differentiated Responsibility (CBDR). BASIC is a powerful group of countries but is seen with suspicion by many. It will come under pressure from groups like AOSIS and Cartagena Dialogue in future.

While climate change treaty negotiations are making dismally slow progress, CO2 emissions are increasing at a rapid rate. According to Global Carbon Project (GCP), a forum of scientists, green house gases registered an increase of 5.9 per cent in 2010, the fastest annual increase ever recorded. Furthermore, there has been a net increase of 49 per cent in CO2 emissions from the 1990 levels. These are alarming statistics. If emissions continue to increase at this rate the tipping point of 2º C above the pre-industrial levels may be crossed sooner than later. The lack of urgency shown at Durban is, therefore, disappointing.

Climate change discussions may not have collapsed but difficult and bruising negotiations lie ahead. There will be immense pressure on developing countries like China, India, Brazil and South Africa to accept legally binding cuts. Developed countries are adamant that all major ‘polluters’, which include countries like India and China, be included in any future emissions cut agreement. While complex negotiations can be expected, stronger action to limit CO2 emissions will have to await 2020 when a new climate treaty is expected to come into force. Furthermore, mobilising $100 billion per year in Green Climate Fund at a time when the world is facing the threat of serious economic slowdown will be difficult. At Durban, the parties managed to buy time but failed to show the urgency to tackle climate change issues.

Arvind Gupta is Lal Bahadur Shastri Chair at the IDSA. Akash Goud is an Intern at the IDSA. The views expressed are personal.

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