Stavins: Assessing the Climate Talks — Did Durban Succeed?

— Robert Stavins, in a Harvard repost

The 17th Conference of the Parties (COP-17) of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) adjourned on Sunday, a day and a half after its scheduled close, and in the process once again pulled a rabbit out of the hat by saving the talks from complete collapse (which appeared possible just a few days earlier).  But was this a success?

The Durban Outcome in a Nutshell

The outcome of COP-17 includes three major elements:  some potentially important elaborations on various components of the Cancun Agreements; a second five-year commitment period for the Kyoto Protocol; and (read this carefully) a non-binding agreement to reach an agreement by 2015 that will bring all countries under the same legal regime by 2020.

Is This a Success?

If by “success” in Durban, one means solving the climate problem, the answer is obviously “not close.”

Indeed, if by “success” one meant just putting the world on a path to solve the climate problem, the answer would still have to be “no.”

But, I’ve argued previously – including in my pre-Durban essay last month – that such definitions of success are fundamentally inappropriate for judging the international negotiations on the exceptionally challenging, long-term problem of global climate change.

The key question, at this point, is whether the Durban outcome has put the world in a place and on a trajectory whereby it is more likely than it was previously to establish a sound foundation for meaningful long-term action.

I don’t think the answer to that question is at all obvious, but having read carefully the agreements that were reached in Durban, and having reflected on their collective implications for meaningful long-term action, I am inclined to focus on “the half-full glass of water.”  My conclusion is that the talks – as a result of last-minute negotiations – advanced international discussions in a positive direction and have increased the likelihood of meaningful long-term action.  Why do I say this?

The Significance of Durban

Let’s look at the three major elements of the Durban outcome.

1.  Putting More Flesh on the Bones of the Cancun Agreements

First, the delegates agreed to a set of potentially important details on various components of the Cancun Agreements.  This progress may turn out to be very important indeed, and helps advance – at least for the interim – a workable bottom-up, pledge-and-review approach to international climate cooperation.  The progress on this front includes work done on the Green Climate Fund to help mobilize public and private funding of climate change mitigation and adaptation in developing countries; more specifics on technology transfer mechanisms; mechanisms to enhance the transparency of national commitments under the Cancun Agreements; and an international scheme to reduce deforestation, which – importantly – includes market mechanisms.

2. A Second Commitment Period for the Kyoto Protocol

Second, the delegates agreed to a second five-year commitment period for the Kyoto Protocol.  Without this element, the talks would have collapsed, because the key emerging economies of China, India, Brazil, South Africa, Korea, and Mexico (not to mention the much larger number of truly poor, developing countries) would have walked out.  Would this have been so bad?

I have long argued that the Kyoto Protocol – with its structure of relatively ambitious targets for a small set of industrialized countries (the Annex I countries) and no targets whatsoever for the much larger set of other nations in the world (the non-Annex I countries) – is fundamentally flawed as a basis for addressing the climate change problem in a meaningful way, that is, in a way that can eventually limit global temperature increases to no more than 2 or 3 degrees Centigrade above pre-industrial levels.  In the past, some observers have gone so far as to argue that such a collapse of the talks would be necessary to free the world to consider alternative and ultimately more productive routes going forward.  Eventually, that may turn out to be true, but extending the Kyoto Protocol at this time for another period does little mischief.

The major effect – in addition to keeping the emerging economies (and developing countries) from walking out of the room – was to place the European Union in a position of accepting a target (for a second five-year period) that is no more stringent than what it has already committed to do under the European Union Emission Trading Scheme (EU ETS).  The United States is not a party to the Kyoto Protocol, and Canada, Japan, and Russia have indicated that they will not take up targets in a second commitment period.  Europe (and New Zealand, and possibly Australia) will be doing what they would have done anyway.  In exchange for this, the key emerging economies agreed to the third key element.

3. The Durban Platform for Enhanced Action

Third and finally, the delegates reached a non-binding agreement to reach an agreement by 2015 that will bring all countries under the same legal regime by 2020.  That’s a strange and confusing sentence, but it’s what happened, and – in my opinion – it’s potentially important, although it’s much too soon to say for sure.

The anchor that has been preventing real progress in the international climate negotiations for the past fifteen years has been the Kyoto Protocol’s dichotomous distinction between Annex I and non-Annex I countries.  With 50 non-Annex I countries now having greater per capita income than the poorest of the Annex I countries, it is clearly out of whack.  But, much more than that, this dichotomous distinction means that the world’s largest emitter – China – is unconstrained, that half of global emissions soon will be from nations without constraints, it drives up costs to four times their cost-effective level, and it creates a structure that makes change and progress virtually impossible.

Fortunately, the Copenhagen Accord and the Cancun Agreements began the process of blurring the Annex I/non-Annex I distinction, which was an important accomplishment, although it was only in the context of the interim pledge-and-review system, not in the context of an eventual successor to Kyoto.  Now, the COP-17 decision for “Enhanced Action” completely eliminates the Annex I/non-Annex I (or industrialized/developing country) distinction.  It focuses instead on the (admittedly non-binding) pledge to create a system of greenhouse gas reductions including all Parties (that is, all key countries) by 2015 that will come into force (after ratification) by 2020.  Nowhere in the text of the decision will one find phrases such as “Annex I,” “common but differentiated responsibilities,” or “distributional equity,” which have – in recent years – become code words for targets for the richest countries and a blank check for all others.

We should not over-estimate the importance of a “non-binding agreement to reach a future agreement,” but this is a real departure from the past, and marks a significant advance along the treacherous, uphill path of climate negotiations.

The Path Ahead

In my previous essay at this blog, I expressed the fear that contentious debates over a possible second commitment period for the Kyoto Protocol might disrupt the Durban talks, divert them from making sound progress on the Cancun structure, and keep the delegates from moving toward a sound foundation for meaningful long-term action.  I worried, in essence, that Durban – despite the weather – might resemble Copenhagen more than Cancun.

My conclusion is that this did not happen.  Not only did Durban not undo the progress made in Cancun, it built upon it, and moved forward.  This won’t satisfy the crowd, and it must greatly annoy the opponents of sensible climate policy, but in the real world of international negotiations on this exceptionally difficult global commons problem, this is what success looks like.

Robert Stavins is Director of the Harvard Environmental Economics Program


15 Responses to Stavins: Assessing the Climate Talks — Did Durban Succeed?

  1. TKPGH says:

    My questions is this: how does this reconcile with the information we have coming out of the oceanographic community? Last year, Richard Feely testified before a Congressional committee that if we get to 450ppm in the atmosphere, the polar oceans will turn corrosive to pteropods and other calcium-carbonate-dependent marine life. Given last year’s record CO2 increase, back-of-the-napkin math indicates a disruption in the oceanic food chain in less than 30 years. My gut reaction is that we don’t have more than the five years Fatih Birol of IEA says we have to take action.
    Feedback, please.

  2. Ed Hummel says:

    In my opinion, this whole essay is just an academic exercise whose basic assumptions are fatally flawed. To say that the major goal of the talks was to come to an agreement to keep global average temperature less than 2 or 3 degrees C makes the whole exercise meaningless. First of all, there is a huge difference between 2C and 3C and to express them as one would 2 or 3 drops of water in a bucket, for example, is a gross distortion of what each temperature actually means for Earth’s climate. Secondly, evidence is rapidly accumulating that even 2C is too high since all the positive feedbacks that have been identified as accelerating any warming have already been kicking in and are themselves accelerating as they feed on each other. It has become obvious to me that it’s already too late to stop the warming from reaching dangerous levels because of these feedbacks as the whole climate system is being pushed into a new state comparable to one that Earth hasn’t seen for many millions of years when the whole planet was ice free, or nearly so. I’d like to know which national economy is going to survive such a rapid change to conditions very alien to what our agriculture and infrastucture are based on. It seems to me that any future international conferences would do well to consider what measures would have to be taken to deal with the millions, if not billions of climate refugees that will be swamping any efforts at relief. How are nations and the global economy going to deal with such things? How are they going to deal with the inevitable wars that will arise over dwindling water and food, never mind energy and commercial disruptions on an unprecedented scale. Why is no one at these talks except for a few brave young activists or a few doomed island countries talking about these things? It sure looks like the Titanic on a global scale to me while the band plays on.

  3. Raul M. says:

    From what I’ve gathered, the IPCC does not have science to say the definitive outcome in the short term of arctic melt. We do have something for a 3 month weather forecast.

  4. I really appreciate the detailed discussion. I kinda got stuck here:

    “…addressing the climate change problem in a meaningful way, that is, in a way that can eventually limit global temperature increases to no more than 2 or 3 degrees Centigrade above pre-industrial levels.”

    What is Robert’s basis for not making a major distinction between 2 degrees and 3 degrees?

    If we can’t tell the difference between 2 and 3 degrees C of global average temperature rise… then, it seems the science suggest, we’re blowing by the tipping points, and horrible failure is the only predictable description.

    How would this discussion look different, if we agreed to the importance of holding the line at 1.5 to 2 degrees C?

  5. Mark says:

    If I Major Elements 2 and 3 correctly, it boils down to this:

    Most countries agreed to come back in the future to renegotiate the basic premise of Kyoto without Annex 1 (etc) distinctions, and meanwhile everyone would just do what they were going to do anyway.

    I sure hope progress on Major Element #1 can assuage the national arguments based on perceived disparities, because if not, those arguments in some new form will be just as big a block to binding global action as when Kyoto was first debated.

  6. Thorn says:

    If there are no real reductions in GHGs over the next 5 years, or so, is it safe to say that the next two generations’ heat increase is unalterably in the pipeline?

  7. Lou Grinzo says:

    “…in the real world of international negotiations on this exceptionally difficult global commons problem, this is what success looks like.”

    I respectfully disagree with the use of the word “success” in the above snippet.

    “Success” is keeping us below 2C (and yes, 2C is probably a too high target, but that’s a different argument for another time). What we got out of Durban is likely the best we could have hoped for, given the entrenched positions of the major players involved. It could indeed become the foundation for the agreement we need and not merely what’s politically possible; we simply don’t know in 2011 how things will play out. It could be the diplomatic equivalent of a wedge of climate change mitigation: By itself it leaves us far short of the goal, but it was a necessary prerequisite to achieving our goal of avoiding catastrophic climate impacts.

    I wish we could all stop trying to force everything into one end or the other of a black/white scale, and admit that this is a century-long problem, possibly longer, and there will be a lot of uncertainty and some setbacks along the way, even in the best of circumstances.

    We have to find the courage to say that we simply don’t know how the human part of this will turn out, and therefore we should work even harder to get the needed binding international agreement(s). Given what’s at stake, the last thing we should do is trust the future version of ourselves to get it right and deliver solutions on time.

  8. Pete Dunkelberg says:

    Public education still plays some part in what governments decide to, even if the public counts less than a Koch brother. Teachers are really in need of resources for teaching about climate. After all, hardly anyone learned it in school, teachers included. Is there a way for Climate Progress to highlight this treasure trove for educators?

  9. Dan says:

    Sorry, Robert, but I cannot agree with you. Durban’s COP17 has created a sham, and in that sense it has been an abject failure. It will be business as usual for emissions growth for at least the next 10 years. In the meantime, the UN process will spend the next 4 years doing what they have been doing for 20 years, which is talking. Assuming an agreement is reached in 2015, it is likely to be so weak and watered-down that when it comes into effect in 2020, it will achieve little. The COP17 “agreement” does not refer to differentiated responsibilities. However, it does not preclude differentiated responsibilites, which means that non-Annex I countries will continue to argue that after 2020 they will have commitments but those commitments should be less stringent than those of developed countries. Moreover, any future pledges made may be ignored, which is exactly what happened with Canada and its “legally binding” commitments under the Kyoto Protocol (emission targets were ignored and now Canada has formally withdrawn from the Kyoto Protocol).

  10. nosoyyo says:

    I think it’s possible that overall the likelihood of reaching a legally binding agreement amongst all the parties that takes effect before 2025 has increased, although it’s not that clear to me, given the non-binding, “be informed by” the fifth IPCC report, etc., whether that agreement will happen or mean much. (and the Cancun refinements weren’t really fleshed out, either)

    However, the likelihood of reaching a legally binding agreement amongst all the parties that takes effect before 2020 has without a doubt decreased dramatically — it’s probably close to nil now. I’m not sure how that can be considered a success. lives in the real world where 450/2 deg is a dangerous risk to take, and where putting off an agreement for a goal of 450/2 deg means much higher than the untenable risk of 450/2 deg. Young people will live in a world that is virtually guaranteed to be worse than ours. The world’s poor who are suffering already at 390 live in a world that’s much more real than the halls of Harvard. They are not asking to marry Angelina Jolie (Sunday’s post by Joe), live in a perfect world (yesterday’s post by CAP), nor look for someone being proud of them (post by Steven) nor an unreal world (today). They are asking for a chance for survival. There is absolutely no evidence that Durban gave them that. Dissatisfaction isn’t the right word to describe reactions to the delays when people are already dying. There is a minority opinion (though unanimous amongst posters at this site) that Durban increased the chance for increasing their chance for decreased suffering and deaths in the future. Even if true, “success” seems a bit strong.

  11. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    Let us get real. Time was up at 350 ppm, because by then the processes were already in train, and irreversible, to produce cataclysmic climate destabilisation. The venting of the methane has been predicted, and expected, for years, if not decades, and here it is. The certain response of those in power-absolute indifference, followed by mealy-mouthed platitudes and mendacious promises of remedial action, never to be implemented because they were lies from the start. I think that things falling apart with be rapid now, not just in geological terms, but in human terms.

  12. Kevin says:

    As I understand it, 2 degrees is already in the rear view mirror. Wishing it were otherwise doesn’t do much to change that fact. We are now in a world where we are just trying to do the best we can given the different factions/interests involved, which is probably higher than 2 degrees. Unless you become the global despot, I don’t think you can change that.

    The point of the discussion is to put the international negotiation in context. Debating the 2 to 3 degree point is, well, pointless.

  13. Kevin says:

    I think it is you. ;^)

    “increasing their chance for decreased suffering and deaths in the future” may be a good summary. The dial may have been nudged a bit.

    Success in the context of the UNFCC these days is simply taking a step in the right direction and removing some of the key blocks to a workable agreement. Not great, but all you’ve got.

  14. Donald Brown says:

    One cannot judge the failures in Durban without considering the lack of leadership from the United States. In the original climate convention, the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, the United States agreed in 1992 under the first President Bush that the developed countries, who at that time were the major ghg emissions, should go first to reduce emissions. The treaty never prevented future negotiations from bringing in the non-Annex I countries, yet the developed countries including the United States agreed to go first. Yet, the United States has since then insisted that it would not commit to make reductions until other large economies made similar commitments including China and India despite promising to take the first steps in 1992. The United States also pulled out of the Kyoto Protocol, failed to develop a meaningful national emissions reduction strategy, and has been a major barrier to a global deal, for the most part, since 1992. This is not to claim that other countries cannot also be accused of failing to negotiate in good faith, but only that the United States has failed to do what it promised to do under the UNFCCC and any close observation of the 20 year history of climate negotiations reveals a consistent failure of the United States to do what equity and justice would require of it. No nation, including the United States, may claim as a matter of justice that it need not reduce its emissions to its fair share of safe global emissions until other nations agree to do so also. The world has been waiting in vain for the United States for 2o years. During this time, the United States failed to adopt a meaningful climate change reduction strategy largely because of a huge, well-financed, well-organized disinformation campaign funded in part by some fossil fuel interests. Given this, one cannot honestly look at the failure of Durban without acknowledging the unfortunate role the United States has played in international climate leadership.