Durban: our reflections on COP17

Immediate reaction to the outcome of the United Nations climate negotiations in Durban was decidedly mixed. Some commentators acclaimed the conference for having achieved what more than a decade of climate change negotiations had never done before. Others slated it as an abject failure, accusing world governments of turning their backs on the stark realities of climate science.

A month on, with the spin on both sides having died down, what does a sober look at the facts tell us about what actually happened in Durban and what the implications might be?

The Durban Platform

The most notable outcome of the Durban summit was the "Durban Platform for Enhanced Action." This commits governments to developing "a protocol, another legal instrument or an agreed outcome with legal force," under the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, that would be "applicable to all parties", be agreed "no later than 2015" and "be implemented by 2020."

This agreement would be comprehensive in scope and include commitments on climate "mitigation, adaptation, finance, technology development and transfer, transparency of action, and support and capacity-building."

The ground breaking element of the Durban Platform is that it promises to lead to an agreement that involves action by all countries, not just the developed ones, as is the case under the Kyoto Protocol. With China now the world's largest emitter and other emerging economies close behind, this change now undeniably makes sense.

The other positive element of this decision is that it commits countries to reaching an agreement that will be binding, not just a set of voluntary commitments. Although some have claimed the precise language around legality may leave governments with some wriggle room, this represents a significant shift for countries such as China and India, which in summit after summit, year after year, had resisted calls to be part of a legally binding agreement of any kind.

However, the major flaw of the Durban Platform is that it only commits governments to trying to reach agreement on a new treaty by 2015 that will only take effect in 2020. The first problem with this is that we have been here before and have been disappointed. In Bali back in 2007, governments agreed to reach a global agreement two years later, at the summit that took place in Copenhagen in 2009. Famously, they failed to do so. Governments can promise to reach deals, but if they don't, the only sanction that can be applied is by the court of public opinion, and on this issue, that cannot be counted on, especially in times of economic hardship.

Secondly, as anyone familiar with the science of climate change will know, to stand a reasonable chance of keeping global temperature rise to less than 2°C (the widely acknowledged threshold for avoiding dangerous climate change), global emissions need to peak and decline by the middle of this decade. An agreement that only comes into force at the end of the decade won't help with that - a substantial limitation on what anyone can claim about Durban.

Nor does the agreement reached in Durban give us any clue as to how ambitious any action governments are promising to agree to by 2015 and begin implementing in 2020 will be. Once again, the hard task of negotiating actual numbers for emissions cuts or limitations has been postponed - with no guarantee what the outcome will be.

The future of Kyoto

On the Kyoto Protocol, the Durban negotiations achieved a largely symbolic success. The first commitment period of the Kyoto Protocol containing emissions reduction targets for developed countries (excluding the US) is due to expire this year. Developing countries have led the call for a second commitment period to be agreed, with a new round of targets for the developed world.

The Durban summit did reach agreement that there will be a second commitment period of the Kyoto Protocol, beginning in 2013 and ending in either 2017 or 2020.

However, the only group of countries to commit to targets under it were in Europe - with the EU listing its existing pledge to reduce emissions by 20-30% by 2020, Norway by 30-40%, Switzerland by 20-30% and the Ukraine by 20%. Most of the other major developed countries - the United States, Canada, Japan and Russia - announced that they would not take part. Indeed, as soon as the conference ended, Canada pulled out of the Kyoto Protocol entirely. That means that by 2013, Kyoto will only cover about 15% of global emissions and even then will include no new commitments.

Climate finance and other issues

One of the other major items on the agenda of the Durban summit was the future of the "Green Climate Fund" agreed at Copenhagen. On this, some technical progress was made in Durban, mainly in relation to decisions approving its governance structure, with the World Bank being appointed as its interim trustee. However, no progress was made in coming close to agreeing how it will be funded (to the tune of $100 billion per year by 2020).

Durban also made some progress on adaptation issues, capacity-building and accounting, as well as reaching agreement on rules for including Carbon Capture and Storage projects under the Clean Development Mechanism. But it made less progress on reducing emissions from deforestation, and none at all on the issue of agreeing a long-term vision, with neither a long-term goal for 2050 nor a timetable for the peaking of global emissions being agreed.

Where this leaves us

The Durban summit saw a welcome change in the global politics of climate change. It saw the breakdown in the barrier between developed and developing countries within the architecture of the UN climate regime and the emergence of a new coalition of countries pushing for more ambition - with pressure emerging from the most vulnerable developing countries on the big beasts of the developing world, like India and China, to do more.

But in the end, it is essentially an agreement to carry on talking with the hope of reaching a deal that will only lead to action a whole decade away. It is clearly better for governments to carry on talking than not to, and the fact that the major emitters demonstrated that they did not want to walk away is clearly better than the alternative. But if you subscribe to the science and believe a legally binding global agreement is important for driving action now, it would be difficult to see Durban as a great success.

However, it has at least removed any ambiguity over the reality that for the rest of this decade, another approach will be needed if the world is to decarbonise in time to prevent dangerous climate change.

Country by country, company by company, the case will have to be made, arguments won, policies put in place and support provided to drive change. And on that score, the world isn't doing too badly, with a growing number of countries and companies committing to action. Of course, much more is needed, but at least we know at what level to direct most of our efforts - think global, yes, but act local.