@COP17: Gaining Perspective
COP17 is over, delegates are back home and analysts are starting to publish their thoughts on the Durban outcome. So what is left for me is to wrap up my Durban blog with a few comments on the COP17 results.
The conference ended in the early hours of Sunday, December 11th after a second sleepless night for most delegates and probably with quite a bit of anger about the South African Presidency that had not been able to steer the process towards an earlier conclusion.
TEH DURBAN OUTCOME
Two pieces in the long list of items decided by a grumpy COP and CMP Plenary are central:
1. There will be a 2CP of the Kyoto Protocol, but it remains open whether it will end in 2017 or 2020; the emission reduction target for the remaining Annex I countries (Canada, Japan and Russia will drop out at the end of 2012) is 25-40% below 1990 levels by 2020,
2. The UNFCCC will immediately launch a new Ad-hoc Working Group on the Durban Platform of Enhanced Action (AWG-DP),
- The AWG-DP is expected to establish mitigation (and other) obligations for all countries (not only those who currently have those obligations as Annex I parties under the Kyoto Protocol),
- Mainly this means the US and the BASIC (Brazil, South Africa, India, China) countries will take on responsibilities for climate mitigation,
- The AWG is supposed to conclude its work on a new “instrument with legal force” latest in 2015; the instrument is supposed to be ratified (=enter into effect) latest in 2020,
- There will be a ‘work program’ to consider how to “raise ambition” regarding mitigation.
You can tell two very different stories about the decisions taken at the end of COP17.
- The first story praises the Durban outcome as unprecedented political breakthrough and a resounding success for the UN climate regime. Apparently “there are more winners than losers”, nobody got isolated (like the UK managed to do around the same time on Friday night during the EU Summit in Brussels), and the UNFCCC has its work drawn up until 2020. The new Durban Platform is seen as a fundamental shift in climate politics, doing away with the distinction between responsibilities of the developed and developing countries, setting everyone on a path towards a legally binding agreement in the coming years. The emission/ambition gap was recognized and a process set up to close it.
This story is told by major newspapers in Europe and the US, South Africa and Brazil, by a range of blogs but also by the European, US and BASIC governments.
- The second story speaks about a catastrophe for the climate (and humanity), with a growing gap between the post-Durban global carbon emissions trajectory and the goal of limiting warning to 2°C above preindustrial level. We are kicking the can dangerously far down the road with an agreement to agree on a possibly legally binding agreement in four years that might come into force a decade from now.
This story is told by environmental NGOs, Youth Movements from around the world and will probably be echoed by climate scientists.
THE GLOBAL GOVERNANCE CHALLENGE
These starkly contrasting assessments of the Durban Outcome are a beautiful demonstration of a key Global Governance challenge: the permanent disconnect between political feasibility and environmental effectiveness of international agreements. What is hailed as a political game changer in the UNFCCC process will not do anything to solve the climate problem. While the entire political process is completely focused on getting a deal (admittedly, a very difficult goal all by itself), it is completely disconnected from the physical, scientific and social realities of the climate problem. Those 7,000 delegates at the ICC did not talk about a solution and how to get there; hardly anybody mentioned scientific facts and numbers. Instead they spent two weeks discussing why their national interests would not allow them to do X, Y and Z. Sadly, in most cases those national interests are based on a fundamental lack of understanding of the future effects of climate change. But that’s another story.
A GLIMMER OF HOPE?
Despite this rather depressing insight, I’d like to list five reasons why there might still be hope that the UNFCCC process will be able to limit global warming (maybe to 3°C rather than the targeted 2 or the dreaded 4).
- The Durban Platform has removed the Kyoto Protocol “firewall” between developed and developing countries, setting international climate politics on a new, and potentially much more productive foundation. Getting the major economies like India and China on board of the slow mitigation tanker was key to moving forward in the right direction.
- The fact the big emerging emitters (BASIC) are taking on responsibility for climate mitigation could finally unlock the political will in the US, which has remained elusive over the last decade. This was the key condition for the US to withhold support for the Kyoto Protocol. Will they come around or find another excuse?
- Although the current timeframe is very disappointing, the possibility that things could speed up along the way exists. Maybe the AWG-DP could reach an agreement in 2013 (rather than 2015), which could be ratified by 2016 or 17 (rather than 2020)? I admit this kind of optimism is not based on any historical precedent, but let me quote Mandela (like many people did here in Durban): “It always seems impossible until it’s done.”
- Global markets have now been given a clear signal that the world will move towards a low-carbon economy. The prospect of more ambitious carbon regulation a few years down the road gives the private sector time to move voluntarily towards a Green business model, and might spur investment, creativity and entrepreneurship in many unexpected places.
- Finally, the fact that the BASIC countries have in principle accepted binding mitigation targets also sends a strong message to other fast-growing economies, encouraging them to do the same. Growing South-South cooperation (with financial and technological support from the North) could set the still developing countries them on a development path that is more compatible with a changing climate and climate change policies.
The real work starts when the delegates go home. Now it’s time for everyone else to do their share.