Policy Brief: Durban talks make key progress on overarching issues but urgent action is still required to fill the 'gap'
The seventeenth Conference of the Parties (COP 17) of the UN Climate Change Conference held over the last two weeks in Durban marks a turning point in the almost 20-year history of the Climate Change Convention. Next year, in December 2012, the Kyoto Protocol – currently the only legally binding agreement under the Convention – will expire, and without a successor there is little hope that we will succeed to mitigate and adapt to the impacts of climate change.
The Durban Platform, as it is being called, therefore represents a key step forward in our efforts to create a global, legally binding treaty to combat climate change. The Platform is the first attempt to create an international treaty that encourages all Parties to take on emissions reductions targets. But it fails to address two fundamental concerns. The Durban Platform does not address either the severity or the urgency of the issue of climate change. Action must therefore follow two paths. Firstly, continued attention needs to be focussed on progressing - with the utmost urgency - a new legally binding treaty under the Durban Platform that encompasses all Parties and all actions including REDD+. In the short term, however, efforts will also need to be scaled up outside of the auspices of the climate convention, in unilateral, bilateral and multilateral arrangements that enable developed and developing country Parties to make deep and lasting cuts in their emissions.
The need for urgent action
The science warns us that to avoid the dangerous impacts of climate change we need to limit global warming to just 2°C (with more cautious advocates urging for just 1.5°C temperature increase). But in September this year, the International Energy Agency warned that without action the world is heading to global temperature increases of 6°C and that our window of avoiding this is rapidly closing. With current countries under the Kyoto Protocol covering only 35% of global GHG emissions and Japan, Russia, US and Canada stating that they will not join a second commitment period of the Protocol, many have turned to the Copenhagen Accord as a benchmark for global ambition to combat global warming. Yet even under these targets, which are neither legally binding nor associated with international financing mechanisms, global temperatures are still predicted to rise to over 3.5°C above pre-industrial levels.
The Durban Agenda
The biggest agenda item on the table at Durban by far, therefore, was a plan to rescue or replace the Kyoto Protocol and thereby establish a comprehensive, legally-binding agreement with agreed timeframes and milestones to limit global warming to 1.5 - 2°C. Other key issues were the establishment of the Green Climate Fund, as a mechanism to scale up long-term climate finance to the agreed level of USD 100 billion by 2020, and as always the issue of reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation (REDD+) was followed by many as a potential source of success amidst what was otherwise expected to be an unsuccessful outcome at Durban.
With much of the hope riding on the success of REDD+, however, one has to ask the question: how much can REDD+ achieve in the absence of a broader climate change agreement and how successful can REDD+ be without a comprehensive and legally-binding climate change agreement.
After two weeks of negotiations, the answer to that question appears to be somewhat clearer. While we can agree on the details of how a REDD+ mechanism might work and prepare countries in their ability to implement REDD+, without an overarching framework for the delivery of climate finance and strong commitments from both developed and developing country Parties to reduce their GHG emissions, there is a limit to what can be achieved within REDD+ under the banner of the Climate Change Convention.
The Durban Package
The outcomes from Durban therefore, while presenting hope on the one hand, raise issues on the other. In the early hours of Sunday morning, Parties agreed to the establishment of an Ad Hoc Working Group on the Durban Platform for Enhanced Action The Durban Platform - as it is being called – at its most basic level sets out to address the fundamental concerns outlined above, that without a new protocol or legal outcome under the Convention - that encompasses all Parties - there will be little chance of success in our efforts to limit global warming to less than 1.5 or 2°C. In Durban, Parties also approved the Green Climate Fund and set out an ambitious timeline for the establishment of the fund with support from Switzerland and South Korea. Parties also resolved most of the outstanding issues under the AWG-LCA including a section on financing options for REDD+.
Yet, while all of these are extraordinary outcomes given the low expectations going into Durban and remaining up until even the last few days of the conference, there remains one cloud on the horizon. The Durban Platform establishes a process going forward. And while this process is essential it will not facilitate direct and meaningful action on climate change mitigation and adaptation; the Durban Platform is scheduled to conclude its programme of work in three years so that the new protocol or legal instrument can be adopted at COP 21 in 2016. But the new protocol or legal outcome itself will only finally come into effect in 2020, nine years from now. The Durban Platform therefore fails in one quite fundamental aspect: it fails to address both the severityand urgency of climate change and its threat to human societies and the planet.
Learning from Bali
This failure, however, is perhaps not the fault of the Durban climate change conference, but lies in the lack of concerted political will following the Bali Conference in December 2007. The Bali Action Plan similarly had a three year programme of work, that was to conclude in Copenhagen, to discuss a successor or replacement to the Kyoto Protocol. In Bali, the AWG-LCA was established to advance this precise issue and included for the first time a mandate to explore the role of deforestation in developing countries. Yet instead of progressing and resolving the fundamental issue within the Convention of a post Kyoto successor, Parties became entrenched in the details of what became an increasingly complex landscape of negotiation tracks. In some regards then, the Durban Platform was the only successful outcome that could have been achieved in South Africa; Parties now have the opportunity to begin with a clean slate to negotiate a comprehensive and legally binding treaty that encompasses all Parties in a global solution to climate change. How this process develops will again depend on the political will of the key countries at the table and on the efforts of these Parties outside of the climate change discussions.
Progress will therefore need to continue along two paths. To ensure that we stay within safe limits for global warming, action will rapidly need to scale up outside of the Climate Change Convention, in domestic, bilateral and multilateral efforts to reduce emissions from all sectors including REDD+. Meanwhile the negotiations will need to progress both on some of the technical issues on REDD+ (e.g. MRV, Forest Monitoring, etc.), but REDD+ proponents will need to increasingly direct their attention and efforts to the broader climate change agenda to ensure that REDD+ exists within a comprehensive and legally binding climate change agreement that limits global warming to less than 2°C.
 Italicised text taken from the preambular text of the Durban Package.