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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.”

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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?

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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.

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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.