Durban climate talks: How not to tackle climate change and call it a success

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By Nele Marien

[Environmental policy analyst Nele Marien helped organise the World People's Conference on Climate Change and the Rights of Mother Earth and was climate change negotiator for Bolivia during from 2009 until November 2011.]

December 13, 2011 -- For Whom the Bell Tolls, posted at Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal with the author's permission -- The official package deal coming out of the Durban climate talks consisted of four main documents, apart of several other decisions, most of them less critical:

  1. A decision on the second commitment period for the Kyoto Protocol.
  2. The LCA [long-term cooperative action] outcome: the partial implementation of the Bali Action Plan and the Cancun Agreements.
  3. The Durban Platform for Enhanced Action: the decision to work towards a new “agreed outcome with legal force, applicable to all”.
  4. The Green Climate Fund.

The package was officially sold to the world as a success, but having a closer look, it’s easy to see it doesn’t do what it is suposed to do, and it does what it shouldn’t do.

Rather than having a look decision by decision, let’s have an overall look on what the “package”implies:

Postponing the urgent

Climate scientists are advising us insistently: the world just has a few years to start acting on climate change, if not we may enter in an irreversible spiral of climate disaster. So the most urgent issue is to start acting NOW on real mitigation.

Unfortunately, the Durban package doesn’t attend this at all. During the whole Durban negotiation, there hasn’t even been a real discussion on the issue.

Mid-term reduction targets

The reduction pledges by developed countries that are on the table are still the same, totally insufficient 13-17% reduction rates (from 1990 levels) since Copenhagen. Increasing the ambition is again postponed indefinitely. Inscribing those pledges in a legally binding Kyoto Protocol doesn’t change the fact that those pledges will cook the world.

But the Durban package -- despite announcing the contrary – didn’t even adopt the second commitment period of the Kyoto Protocol. It just "took note” of the “proposed amendments” to do so. The actual decision is postponed until next year. (More extensive analysis on this here.)

Even developing countries pledged to do more than the developed countries, but lack the financial and technological means to go beyond what they have promised already.

Long-term reduction goal

The other issue postponed since Copenhagen, and once again forwarded to the discussions next year, is the global goal. That is to say, how much should the world reduce its emissions by 2050? This longer term targets are essential if we want to stabilise the climate. Planning for it now is indispensable. But the numbers aren’t even being discussed.

Of course, it is a very difficult discussion. Several important aspects determine it.

  • The carbon budget: a scientific concept that calculates how many emissions the world can afford to allow, without surpassing dangerous limits. Unfortunately, most countries don’t see even the relevance of the concept.
  • How this budget, and thus the atmospheric space, is going to be divided, essentially between developed and developing countries, but also within those groups of countries.
  • In order to decide how to share the burden, a set of criteria for the division of responsibilities has to be decided upon. Some key criteria should be: equity, population, historical emissions. But developed countries don’t even want to talk about such criteria.

So, without criteria for division of the burden, nobody actually wants to talk about the mitigation necessary. But, we can’t negotiate the carbon budget with Mother Earth: if we trespass it, she will act on us!

Again, the world is left waiting for the real answers, while the questions at stake become more urgent year after year.

Throwing away the valuable

Two basic principles, most valuable, embedded in the climate change convention have always led the work until now: the science principle and the equity principle, which is known in the negotiators' jargon as “common but differentiated responsabilities”. Both are being thrown away.

Of course, nobody openly says the science principle will be disregarded. Indeed, there are several references to science and to the work of the IPCC in the different texts. But what is the use of stating “keeping in mind science, I will do the opposite of what science is requires”? And that’s exactly what the Durban decisions are doing. There is no link between the mitigation targets and the scientific requirements. But worse, we are now openly accepting that during the whole next decade, this link won’t be made. It is the reign of the “voluntary pledges”, at least up till 2020.

Also equity is being totally undermined. An agreement to start negotiating an “agreed outcome with legal force” (probably a new protocol) is forced upon developing countries, with the clear addition that it will be “applicable to all”. This contrasts strongly with all the previous decisions about climate change, which were always placed in the context of the "common but differentiated responsabilities". The agreement to negotiate a new legal outcome not only omits all references to "common but differentiated responsabilities", it has been consciously taken out.

Someone tweeted from the final plenary that the principal US negotiator reportedly said: “If equity is in, then the US is out.” It seems the wishes of the United States are being considered as the future of the new climate regime.

In the new climate regime, it seems the same legal commitment is being demanded from those who emit the least as from those who emit the most.

Boosting the bad

Until now, existing carbon markets have proven to be the worse idea for the environment and equity. To note just some elements from a fairly long list of reasons why carbon markets don’t work: they essentially transfer emission rights from poorer countries (with low emissions per capita and needs to grow in order to lift their populations out of poverty) to richer countries (with high per capita emissions and desires of not diminishing their unsustainable lifestyle). By doing so, the originally projected emission growth in developing countries is locked in: the emissions will take place in the developing country or, through offsets, in the developed countries.

Worse is that there are so many problems with baselines, with projects that count as offsets but are not additional, with other environmental or human rights impacts, that carbon markets are regarded the biggest non-solution for the climate, and a collective lie to the public which is being told that in this way something is being done.

But the bad plans always seem to have priority and the carbon markets are high on the agenda of most governments. Before the conference, one could hear a lot more worries from the governments' and corporations' side about “positive signals for the carbon markets”, than about “improving the level of ambition”. One of the main reasons the Kyoto Protocol hasn’t been killed completely, is precisely that this was necessary for the stability of carbon markets, especially the European system.

So, despite the abundant critiques on existing carbon markets, they have been strengthened a lot through the Durban decisions. There has been a strong impulse for them in four areas.

    1) In the “proposed amendment” on the Kyoto Protocol carbon markets are opened up for all parties, even for those that will not be a member of the second commitment period. Furthermore, the door is opened for “any new kind of market mechanism to be established under the convention” to be valid under the Kyoto scheme.
    2) A separate discussion was made to include carbon capture and storage (CCS) in the Clean Development Mechanisms. This technique provides the illusion that we can keep emitting, as the gases will be stored later on, while in fact their storage is at high danger of escaping again to the atmosphere at some point of time. At the same time, the market units based on CCS will give more emission rights to those buying the offsets.
    3) In the text on long-term cooperative action, markets are now definitely approved as an answer to deforestation and degradation of forests (article 66). This is problematic in several ways:
  • Only those engaged in deforestation will now be compensated for not doing so!
  • As previous deforestation emissions are the baseline for offsetting units – which are essentially the transfer of emission rights –  the previous emission rates will be just transferred to those buying the offsets.
  • The finance will only arrive after the results are proven, so after several years! In the mean time, there are no funds to implement the policies that will lead to the reduced deforestation. As carbon market prices are very volatile, and with a severe tendency to crash, the final payment is not even secure.
    4) There is a specific chapter (1bv) that now “defines a new market-based mechanism” and establishes a work program to further implement them. This is a ball, that once it starts rolling, is very difficult to stop. The direction is a proliferation of all kinds of new market mechanisms.

Losing sight of when we will finally do something about mitigation, putting the Kyoto Protocol on stand-by, trashing equity and implementing the wishes of corporations: Durban didn’t make the world a happier place.