Stavins on “Vast Potential Importance” of Durban Climate Talks

JR:  From the perspective of putting global emissions on a path to avoid catastrophic climate change, Durban was a failure.  But as I’ve said many times, that failure was “baked in” because the two key players — the U.S. and China — simply refuse to act to stop the planet from baking, among others reasons.  That said, Durban was consequential, and Harvard’s Robert Stavins explains why.

Photo: Inhabitat

by Robert Stavins, cross-posted from Harvard’s Economic View of the Environment Blog

In my previous essay – following the 17th Conference of the Parties (COP-17) of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), which adjourned on December 11, 2011 – I offered my assessment of the Durban climate negotiations, addressing the frequently-posed question of whether the talks had “succeeded.”  I took note of three major outcomes from the negotiations:  (1) elaboration on several components of the Cancun Agreements; (2) a second five-year commitment period for the Kyoto Protocol; and (3) a non-binding agreement to reach an agreement by 2015 that will bring all countries under the same legal regime by 2020.  My conclusion was that this package – in total – represented something of a “half-full glass of water,” that is, an outcome that could be judged successful or not, depending upon one’s perspective.

However, something I did not discuss last month is that this third provision ­– the “Durban Platform for Enhanced Action” – has opened an important window.  To explain what I mean requires a brief review of some key points from twenty years of history of international climate negotiations.

The Rio Earth Summit (1992)

The U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change, adopted at the U.N. Conference on Environment and Development (the first “Earth Summit”) in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, in 1992, contains what was to become a crucial passage.  The first “principle” in Article 3 of the Convention reads as follows:  “The Parties should protect the climate system for the benefit of present and future generations of humankind, on the basis of equity and in accordance with their common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities. Accordingly, the developed country Parties should take the lead in combating climate change and the adverse effects thereof.” [emphasis added]  The countries considered to be “developed country Parties” were listed in an appendix to the 1992 Convention ­– Annex I.

The phrase – common but differentiated responsibilities – has been repeated countless numbers of times since 1992, but what does it really mean?  The official answer was provided three years after the Earth Summit by the first decision adopted by the first Conference of the Parties (COP-1) of the U.N. Framework Convention, in Berlin, Germany, April 7, 1995 ­­– the Berlin Mandate.

The Berlin Mandate (1995)

The Berlin Mandate interpreted the principle of “common but differentiated responsibilities” as:

(1) launching a process to commit (by 1997) the Annex I countries to quantified greenhouse gas emissions reductions within specified time periods (targets and timetables); and

(2) stating unambiguously that the process should “not introduce any new commitments for Parties not included in Annex I.”

Thus, the Berlin Mandate established the dichotomous distinction whereby the Annex I countries are to take on emissions-reductions responsibilities, and the non-Annex I countries are to have no such responsibilities whatsoever.

The Kyoto Protocol (1997)

It was in direct response to this Mandate that the U.S. Senate subsequently passed unanimously (95-0) the Byrd-Hagel Resolution in August of 1997 (Senate Resolution 98, 105th Congress, 1st Session) stating that:

“It is the sense of the Senate that the United States should not be a signatory to any protocol to, or other agreement regarding, the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change of 1992, at negotiations in Kyoto in December 1997, or thereafter, which would mandate new commitments to limit or reduce greenhouse gas emissions for the Annex I Parties, unless the protocol or other agreement also mandates new specific scheduled commitments to limit or reduce greenhouse gas emissions for Developing Country Parties within the same compliance period.”

So, in a very real sense, the Berlin Mandate brought about sustained bi-partisan opposition in the United States to the international climate regime and the Kyoto Protocol.  This sealed the Protocol’s fate in terms of ever being ratified by the U.S. Senate.  President Clinton did not submit the Protocol to the Senate for ratification, nor would Al Gore have done so had he been elected to succeed Clinton.  Likewise, Senator John Kerry was explicit about his opposition to Kyoto when he ran for President against George W. Bush, and President Bush was subsequently more than explicit about his lack of support for the Protocol and, for that matter, the UNFCCC process.  When Barack Obama ran against John McCain for President in 2008, one thing on which they agreed was their opposition to the Kyoto Protocol.

Beyond those decisive impacts on U.S. climate politics, the Berlin Mandate had wide-ranging and worldwide normative consequences, because it became the anchor that prevented and has – until very recently – continued to prevent real progress in international climate negotiations.  With 50 non-Annex I countries having greater per capita income than the poorest of the Annex I countries, the distinction is clearly out of whack.  But, more important than that, this dichotomous distinction means that:

(a) half of global emissions soon will be from nations without constraints;

(b) the world’s largest emitter – China – is unconstrained;

(c) aggregate compliance costs are driven up to be four times their cost-effective level, because many opportunities for low-cost emissions abatement in emerging economies are taken off the table; and

(d) an institutional structure is perpetuated that makes change and progress virtually impossible.

Fast Forward to Copenhagen (2009) and Cancun (2010)

The dichotomous Annex I/non-Annex I distinction remained a central – indeed, the central – feature of international climate negotiations ever since COP-1 in Berlin in 1995.  Then, at COP-15 in 2009, there were hints of possible change.

The Copenhagen Accord (2009) and the Cancun Agreements (2010) began a process of blurring the Annex I/non-Annex I distinction.  However, this blurring was only in the context of the interim pledge-and-review system established at COP-15 in Copenhagen and certified at COP-16 in Cancun, not in the context of an eventual successor to the Kyoto Protocol.  Thus, the Berlin Mandate retained its centrality.

Finally, We Arrive in Durban (2011)

The third of the three outcomes of the December 2011 talks in Durban, South Africa, which I mentioned at the beginning of this essay – the Durban Platform for Enhanced Action – completely eliminates the Annex I/non-Annex I (or industrialized/developing country) distinction.  In the Durban Platform, 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 it’s potentially important.

Rather than adopting the Annex I/non-Annex I (or industrialized/developing country) distinction, the Durban Platform 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,” “distributional equity,” “historical responsibility,” all of which had long since become code words for targets for the richest countries and blank checks for all others.

A Dramatic Departure

Thus, in a dramatic departure from some seventeen years of U.N. hosted international negotiations on climate change, the 17th Conference of the Parties in Durban turned away from the Annex I/non-Annex I distinction, which had been the centerpiece of international climate policy and negotiations since it was adopted at the 1st Conference of the Parties in Berlin in 1995.

Because of this, the international law scholar, Daniel Bodansky, has labeled “the Durban Platform a complete departure from the Berlin Mandate.” Likewise, Indian professor of international law, Lavanya Rajamani says that Durban delivered a “new process and with it, a clean slate on differentiation.” And Elliot Diringer of the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions, finds the overall Durban deal to be “delicately poised between two eras – the fading age of Kyoto, and a new phase … with developed and developing countries presumably on a more equal footing.”

This is of vast potential importance, but – of course – only “potential” importance, because just as it was the Kyoto Protocol’s numerical targets and timetables that fulfilled the Berlin Mandate’s promise, it remains for the delegates to the UNFCCC to meet this Durban mandate with a new post-Kyoto agreement by 2015 (to come into force by 2020).  Only time will tell whether the Durban Platform delivers on its promise, or turns out to be another “Bali Roadmap,” leading nowhere.

So, with such uncertainty, what’s the “unambiguous consequence” of Durban that I refer to in the title of this essay?

An Unambiguous Outcome:  The Platform Opens a Window

The Durban Platform – by replacing the Berlin Mandate – has opened an important window.  It is this.  The national delegations from around the world now have a challenging task before them:  to identify a new international climate policy architecture that is consistent with the process, pathway, and principles laid out in the Durban Platform, namely to find a way to include all key countries (such as the 20 largest national and regional economies that together account for upwards of 80% of global carbon dioxide emissions) in a structure that brings about meaningful emissions reductions on an appropriate timetable at acceptable cost.

Having broken the old mold, a new one must be forged.  There is a mandate for change.  Governments around the world now need fresh, outside-of-the-box ideas from the best thinkers, and they need those ideas over the next few years.  This is a time for new proposals for future international climate policy architecture, not for incremental adjustments to the old pathway.  I trust that this call will be heard by a diverse set of universities, think tanks, and – for that matter – advocacy and interest groups around the world.  With 48 research initiatives in Australia, China, Europe, India, Japan, and the United States, the Harvard Project on Climate Agreements is prepared to contribute to this effort.  Please stay tuned.

Robert N. Stavins is the Albert Pratt Professor of Business and Government, Director of the Harvard Environmental Economics Program, and Chairman of the Environment and Natural Resources Faculty Group. This piece was originally published at the Havard Economic View of the Environment Blog.


16 Responses to Stavins on “Vast Potential Importance” of Durban Climate Talks

  1. Mike Roddy says:

    Thanks for this information, especially concerning the clarification about ceasing to differentiate countries by 2020. The double tier has always been a big obstacle, in obvious and subtle ways. The Right in developed countries found an excuse to block action, and leadership in less developed countries saw no reason to act.

    Please clarify the legalities for us. Several Kyoto signatories, such as Canada, have abandoned their original agreements. Will the 2020 agreement contain language that includes enforcement?

    Also, in the likely event that global climate events accelerate in the next several years, can the 2020 goals be executed sooner?

  2. Leif says:

    If Governments are not in collusion with corporations/capitalism how come they always win over the common man? Clearly not because they don’t run up debts. The GOP call the Military “OK debt” because it helps corporations of every stripe,(that can jump through the hoops), collect tax payer dollars. Homeland Security, bring it on.

    Now if “we” can just get Government out of the picture… The sky is the limit!

    The interests of the commons becomes a constant losing fight against the exploitation of the commons. We have reached the point where the rubber hits the road. Nature has sided with the 99%, in that if we fail, all will. Getting a seat at the table is a big deal. It is only a matter of time before humanity gets its “rightful seat”, CEO. (Hopefully constrained by the moral and ethical responsibilities befitting a just society and a sustainable future. Clearly absent in the current reality. I don’t like that part.)

  3. Peter Mizla says:

    Its really nice. The 1%, the CEO’s, the Fascist Corporatist- all are being trumped by Science & Mother Nature. They continue to Deny that science- but in the end they must know the end is near.

  4. Rabid Doomsayer says:

    I do not see how the Durban talks can in any way be considered a success. Unless just short of utter failure is success.

    No progress on action, just small movement towards how we might move towards action. Agreement that we need agreement.

  5. There is an overwhelming need for a new form of governance at the UNFCCC and elsewhere. The one country one vote and all decisions requiring consensus is unworkable. Here’s some insight on this from Alden Myer who’s been at all 17 COPs (3 min podcast from Durban):

  6. Hank says:

    I agree, we are just ‘kicking the can’ further down the road.
    People need to stop trying to find little successes in the failure that was Durban and start being angry about it!

  7. Merrelyn Emery says:

    Thanks you for that Stephen but the problem goes much deeper than the rules. The problem lies in the very structure of the representative system.

    Representative systems suffer from many serious faults but the one most relevant here is that the representative’s primary responsibility is to their constituency not to the total population covered by all reps. This creates an adversarial system where the bahviour of each rep is governed by the self interest of the constituency. Consequently, solving the problem takes second place to ensuring the greatest gain, or least loss, to each rep and their constituency.

    People have been fiddling with the rep system for hundreds of years but the structure beats them every time.

    The only way to get over this is to change the structure entirely to a participative democratic one where each member’s responsibility is to the whole. When people are equals, acting in the interests of the whole, they cooperate to solve the common problem and aim for the highest common denominator, not the lowest.

    Please don’t write in and tell me it is pie in the sky or rank idealism: it has been tried thousands of times around the world, including for international conflicts, and it works just fine. You can find a very small part of the evidence at and ME

  8. Spike says:

    India and China may be taking note of some of the impact assessments coming through such as those presented at Durban by the UK Met Office below. The realisation may be sinking in that there will be no economic progress of note if climate chaos of the kind highlighted by Jeff Masters kicks in.

  9. John McCormick says:

    Merrelyn, I noticed in your bio posted in the link yu provided, the following:

    “She is currently working on two research projects, the first of which will result in practical strategies for organisations and communities to more effectively address the causes and effects of climate change.”

    Has that research been completed/published and could you provide a link?


  10. John McCormick says:

    Merrelyn, I found your poignant comment on another blog and am going to spend more time reading your work:

    “Democratizing work: Why and how”


    and suggest the big green leaders read it as well.

    ME: “As we move into a world which is going to be devastated by climate change and its effects, the thing we have to hang onto is that we are not bound by the recent (last 250 years) past but have the conscious conceptual knowledge to change the way we organize ourselves.”

    This perspective deserves a stand alone post on CP and I would urge you to contact Joe and do a Guest Post.

  11. john atcheson says:

    It seems to me that “success” must be measured by whether the agreements reached were adequate to prevent global catastrophe with a margin of safety added in to allow for feedbacks.

    The politically possible is scintillatingly irrelevant to the calculation.

    Anyone acquainted with the science would have to judge it a complete failure.

    Hope is a tow edged sword. It empowers us to act, but our need for it can also deceive.

    We should all be jumping up and down declaring the failure in the hopes that we will act more aggressively than the agreement calls for.

  12. John McCormick says:

    John, most commenters on the matter of Durban ‘success’ share your frustration and anger.

    Having read carefully Stavins comments, I am beginning to see a reason to be less critical of the Durban outcome.

    “the Durban Platform, namely to find a way to include all key countries (such as the 20 largest national and regional economies that together account for upwards of 80% of global carbon dioxide emissions) in a structure that brings about meaningful emissions reductions on an appropriate timetable at acceptable cost.”

    Yes, this time related climate chaos cannot be shoved aside until 2015?, 2020? or whenever but it is the painful fact that the US will never go into a full-out mitigation program unilaterally. And the BRICS have been hiding behind the Annex 2 curtain. Durban lowered that curtain and it remains to be seen how they (we) will prepare to meet the challenge of a post-Kyoto.

    Stavins made the point so clearly that Kyoto was our undoing since 1997. Its time to get with the Durban Platform because it is the only game in town for the next 10 years. Damn it!

  13. Peter Anderson says:

    This exhaustive line of legalities crystallizes the quip from Shakespeare’s Henry VI about the first thing we’ll do is kill all the lawyers.

    Might we intrude some realities into this blizzard of meaningless legalese.

    Absent a deus ex machina event, neither China nor India have given a scintilla of evidence that they will consign their population to peasantry while American’s drive around in plug in hybrid BMWs. Ditto, neither will our compatriots s give up “THE American Way of Life,” so that the poor in the developing world may improve their lot in life.

    Mr. Stavins may continue parsing treaties until he’s blue in the face, but that will not amount to a hill of beans unless we can envision a way to alter those realities with facts on the ground.

  14. Merrelyn Emery says:

    John, thank you for your interest. We have a design which has been piloted in both the business and environmental communities and it works well. We now want to roll it out across the country, starting with Victoria where my colleague works, which will provide an adequate database.

    The problem is getting support to do this but we are hopeful that a new partnership between one of our peak orgs and one of the unis will fill the bill and allow us to generate enough action and data for a reasonable publication, ME

  15. Merrelyn Emery says:

    Sorry, put under the wrong reply.

    Re your second comment John, I have been posting material about this stuff in comments on CP for a while now. I think some people have to see it to believe it.

    To this end, and others, some colleagues of mine are still trying to organize a Search Conference in Canada to devise effective, coordinated strategies. I am going to get a progress report today. Depending, I will let CPers know about it, ME

  16. Raul M. says:

    Is Mother Nature playing nice?
    Older thought was that we probable won’t be caught in a really bad storm, but just in case there is the storm cellar.
    Newer thought is we may well be caught in a really bad storm, but we’ve got no storm cellar.

    And here in Fla. There is the thought that by some way the storms will just turn to the north before hitting Fla.
    That must be it as there is no obvious changes seen from the street. You know, that community wide pull together let’s be prepared effort.
    Beautiful place to live and play.