Durban Climate Talks: How Do We Judge Success?

COP 17 President Maite Nkoana-Mashabane speaks during a press conference with Executive Secretary of the UNFCCC Christiana Figueres at the UN Climate Change Conference in Durban.

DURBAN —  “Do you think we’ll actually get anything done this time around?” asked the elderly man sitting at the head of the community table at our bed and breakfast.

This was my first conversation in South Africa with someone other than my colleagues. And almost immediately after introducing himself as a senior delegate with a major U.N. agency, the man summed up the debate over the UN climate negotiations at the Conference of the Parties (COP17) in Durban with one simple, blunt question.

“That depends on how you define success,” said our colleague Andrew Light, an international climate expert at the Center for American Progress. “A lot has already been done.”

Light’s answer sparked an incredulous response from the man, who argued that the feeble, incremental response to the global climate crisis by negotiators over the years in the U.N. climate talks was in no way a success. The conversation quickly escalated into a heated debate over how to judge progress at the Durban climate talks.

Without binding targets for aggressive emissions reductions, said the man, we are simply treading water as it continues to rise around us.

Of course, we all agreed. We wouldn’t be at the COP conference if we didn’t think bold action on climate is needed. But even with such a strong moral imperative, getting 194 countries with competing interests to craft a binding framework for reducing greenhouse gas emissions has proven extraordinarily difficult.

Given that reality, Light argued the importance of celebrating incremental victories that allow parties to take steps toward a larger agreement. That’s the lens in which he sees the Durban negotiations. And as hard as it is to admit that we’ll probably only see marginal victories in the foreseeable future, those victories could add up to something meaningful.

So what does Light mean by “a lot has already been done?” Hasn’t everyone declared the process dead after the implosion of the much-hyped 2009 conference in Copenhagen?

Not necessarily. After adding up all the voluntary pledges from developed and developing countries made shortly after the Copenhagen talks, the Center for American Progress has determined that we can achieve almost two thirds of needed emission reductions by 2020 to keep us on a plausible pathway to eventually hold carbon dioxide and equivalent emissions at 450 parts per million, the commonly recognized level needed to limit a global temperature rise of 2 degrees Celsius.

But many of the pledges made after Copenhagen by developing countries depend on access to financing. And that is why crafting the Green Fund – a global pool of public and private money designed as the principle instrument to mobilize $100 billion per year by 2020 – is so vital for helping developing countries deploy mitigation projects.

After a year of work by an official “Transition Committee” one, of the key agenda items in Durban will be to create the instrument for pooling this money – figuring out where it will come from and how best to deploy it. By many accounts, this meeting may be considered a success only if countries can agree on the details of crafting the fund.

Hammering out the details of the REDD trading program (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation) and for clean energy technology transfer from developed to developing countries are also key on the agenda. Those programs would help countries achieve their unilateral targets, enabling us to start reducing emissions without a binding treaty.

“If people think it’s a total failure, they just don’t understand the negotiations,” said Light.

Even with progress on some of these important programs, it can be pretty depressing watching the negotiations unfold in the context of the growing problem. While diplomats labor over convoluted text, greenhouse gas emissions continue to spill into the atmosphere at a staggering pace. In 2010, we saw a record increase in carbon emissions, putting us on a worst-case scenario for warming.

The chances this year of forging a binding international treaty for emissions reductions are low. For now, the solutions are being deployed on a country-by-country basis. The goal in the short-term is creating the framework for helping developing countries actually meet their voluntary targets through better financing mechanisms, technology transfer arrangements, and programs to prevent deforestation.

Our friend at the breakfast table even agreed that finalizing those details could be considered a “success”

After coming to a tenuous agreement about what success might mean, the man left us to finish our breakfast. “I hope we can continue this conversation,” he said over his shoulder.

Indeed. This is a conversation we will all be having for many years to come.

Climate Progress is reporting from Durban, South Africa this week.


21 Responses to Durban Climate Talks: How Do We Judge Success?

  1. scas says:

    I wonder if 20 years from now, our children will consider us “successful” in these meetings. I think not.

  2. Steve Deitz says:

    I have heard a lot of criticism of the UNFCCC process, and that the best way to move forward for climate change is a “minilateralist” approach (I believe someone from Brookings used the phrase)that gathers the smallest number of largest emitters into the room to hash out a deal. This seems way more promising than getting nearly 200 countries to agree to a deal at once, as the chances of meaningful progress are inversely proportional to the number of negotiating parties involved.

    Climate change seems particularly suited for this approach as China + US + EU + India + Russia + Japan are responsible for about 2/3 of emissions. Let’s face it, what the bottom 180ish countries do won’t matter for the foreseeable future. Once a country’s emisssions rise above a certain level, then they should be pressured to join the club of an expanding international GHG regime, either cap-and-trade, or maybe even a harmonized CO2e global tax (which you can add on border tax adjustments from imports from countries that don’t play along).

  3. Leif says:

    The most important thing in my view is to educate the public and the lame stream press if possible. That can only come with increasingly loud, in your face reports of the perils in store from those voices in high positions. That can be done every day all day. University presidents and facility, church leaders, scientists, business leaders, venture capitalists and each and every one of us on FaceBook, Twitter The Corporations and Wall Street own the media, Wall street, Congress, the President?, the Supreme Court… We own the science, truth and the ear of our family and friends. Use our advantage.

  4. Rabid Doomsayer says:

    What we need is a complete ban on oil sands, new coal mines, coal exports. We need a rapid role out of alternative energies.

    What we will get is an agreement for more talks.

    It is way too late for a seamless transition, probably too late for a soft landing. Do we have to push the bounds of survivability.

  5. Raul M. says:

    It’s important for even the smart ones to realize when they have been excluded from mainstream of mankind and to go on with their own future.
    There probable have been many such realizations for some but they don’t give up on the hope that many more will become aware.

  6. As scas eloquently points to, I don’t think we can talk about success until we’re discussing it retroactively. For me, it depends on whether humanity makes it through this century, and personally, that seems an uncertain proposition.

  7. Leif says:

    It is impossible to silence an idea who’s time has come. Infect all you know. Some will catch on faster than others. All will be infected.

  8. Luc Binette says:

    I cannot see how REDD is part of any solution to reduce CO2 emission by the developped world. It targets developping nations, result in evictions of indigenous inhabitants.
    See for instance Indigenous statement condemns REDD

  9. John Tucker says:

    I dont see any reason to be hopeful. I also dont see people willing or even in a position to offer or make sacrifices.

    Whats really been accomplished in the last year?

    Global Carbon Emissions Reach Record 10 Billion Tons, Threatening 2 Degree Target ( )

    “Global carbon dioxide emissions from burning fossil fuels have increased by 49 per cent in the last two decades”

  10. John Tucker says:

    Counting the Nuclear to go off-line:

    Germany – Eight reactors were shut down earlier this year. 5 reactors shut in Japan. Total 13

    Assuming a average of 400 MW nameplate/reactor gets 5.2 GW and 4/5 of nameplate gives us real capacity so 4.2 GW lost.

    So the Nuclear/solar/wind added this year:

    6 reactors came on-line at about 5 GW – Real 4/5 nameplate so 4 GW

    Word wind expected to end with there being 43.9 GW completed. 1/3 nameplate so 15 GW.

    24GW Solar expected to be deployed in 2011 so 1/5 of nameplate for 5 GW.

    24GW Total installed – 4GW to go off line = 20 GW major renewable/clean added in 2011.

    World electric capacity is around 5000 GW which grows by 2.5 percent per year AT LEAST.

    125 GW/year added.

    Of course the numbers change as you go on but so far we are covering about one sixth of GROWTH with solar/wind/nuclear.


    And somehow people still bash nuclear or haggle away renewables for it thinking we are in a position to do so.

  11. “minilateralist” approach? May be but you cannot allow polluters to talk to themselves and set targets. In the same vein Climate Culnerable Countries cannot do it alone as they need the support of the rich countries. At the end of it we need one another

  12. I think Kyoto was a success because in the end the nations met the goal set out for them. It didn’t happen as planned but the climate doesn’t care why emissions go down…only that they do.

    The world set a climate goal and met it. And yet…global emissions are at worst case scenario levels.

    Now what?

    This is why Durban is interesting to me. The climate clearly needs more than a Kyoto 2…even if that Kyoto 2 were successful.

    USA and China. Playing hardball. Playing chicken with our atmosphere. Even groups like IEA are starting to freak out at what is coming.

    These two have to join the game. They know it. Time is running out. They know that too.

    Easy to poo poo having all the world’s nations at Durban when really just two need to make the move at this point. But maybe the weight and pressure of the rest of humanity is exactly what USA and China need to force a solution they can both agree to.

    Success on the climate at this point comes down to USA and China acting together towards a 2C solution.

  13. Spike says:

    The culpability of denialists in positions of power and influence grows. In the UK the BBC has given space to former Chancellor Lawson to condemn Sir David Attenborough’s attempt to warn us in his series Frozen Planet

  14. Merrelyn Emery says:

    The first, and short term, measure of success will be when we put away our national identities (differences) and start considering the problem from the perspective of the Earthlings that we all are (commonalities). There is hope here. It is finally starting to come together.

    The second, long term, measure will be whether the Earthlings can get the emissions down in time – there is no other measure, ME

  15. berbmit says:

    This discussion is a valuable one, as many will not stop to consider how they measure success before they judge.

    This issue, the COP 17 experiences of last week, and a story of “reality”, spawned this blog on what we’re doing for our children:

  16. Merrelyn Emery says:

    Think of the G20, 120 or number of your choice, sitting around in a room with no tables, no officials, no draft agreements and no documents of any kind.

    This congregation is reminded of the very latest, up-to-the-minute appraisal of the situation so the question is ‘do we want to save Earth as a planet that supports life?’

    Its a ‘yes’!

    So the next task is ‘make a list of the 6 most important things we have to do to now achieve an Earth that continues to support life.’ Groups do this and then compare their answers, recording the commonalities and the very few differences.

    They then continue to work on the commonalities, developing regional action plans for 2020, all of which in their individual ways achieve the planetary goals.

    They agree to meet every year to check progress and do problem solving for the inevitable contingenies that have arisen.

    Its perfectly possible. It’s been used for ever – it’s called task oriented work by equals around a common purpose.

    It won’t come from bureaucratic national ‘negotiating teams’ who start from adversarial positions. But it can come from the new coalitions that are coalescing around our one and most critical common goal, ME

  17. TEBA EMMA says:

    The issues pertaining PASTORAL communities MUST be dealt serious attention. Climate Change is impacting seriously on these communities, yet the great solution seems to lie with Western Countries, as the causes of Climate Change point in that direction. The developed world, like U.S, Canada and China must stand out and stop being big headed as this is a global concern.

  18. Chris Lang says:

    I’m amazed that you can write that REDD “would help countries achieve their unilateral targets, enabling us to start reducing emissions without a binding treaty.” Especially after you described REDD as a “trading scheme”. Carbon trading does not reduce emissions. Emissions may be reduced in one place through reduced deforestation, but through the sale of carbon credits, pollution is allowed to continue somewhere else. The one cancels out the other and the end result is zero emissions reductions.

  19. SD says:

    How do you know

  20. Chris Lang says:

    If your question is how do I know that carbon trading does not reduce emissions?, I’ll refer to something that Lex de Jonge, then-Chair of the CDM Executive Board, said in 2009: “[T]he CDM, at its best, is a zero sum game, because its credits are used to offset reduction obligations of Annex 1 countries.”

    Any carbon trading scheme relies on the cap to reduce emissions. Currently we have no global cap on emissions.