European Union (EU) Commissioner Connie Hedegaard, left, and Polish Environment Minster and rotating President of the EU Marcin Korolec gesture at each other during the closing press conference of the Durban climate change negotiations, 11 December 2011. AFP / Getty Images

There are deals and then there are deals. That’s my takeaway from the U.N. climate negotiations in the South African city of Durban, which finally concluded early Sunday local time — more than a day after the talks had been scheduled to end. Exhausted negotiators — seriously, look at these poor guys — managed to reach an agreement of sorts and stave off the total collapse of the U.N. climate process. Here’s how the Guardian reported it:

The world is on track for a comprehensive global treaty on climate change for the first time after agreement was reached at talks in Durban in the early hours of Sunday morning.

Negotiators agreed to start work on a new climate deal that would have legal force and, crucially, require both developed and developing countries to cut their carbon emissions. The terms now need to be agreed by 2015 and come into effect from 2020.

“I salute the countries who made this agreement. They have all laid aside some cherished objectives of their own to meet a common purpose – a long-term solution to climate change,” said Christiana Figueres, the United Nations climate chief.

That certainly sounds great. But it’s not exactly what happened.

It’s true that negotiators from more than 190 countries did manage to reach agreement at Durban, one that — if looked at optimistically — moves the ball forward on international climate action. But for all the hours of negotiation, for all the anger and frustration, little was definitively accomplished at Durban — certainly not enough to make a dent in the rate of global warming.

Michael Levi at the Council on Foreign Relations — in a post well worth reading in full — lays it out. He notes that meaningful progress was made on the technical issues that tend to get forgotten — the fleshing out of a climate fund for developing nations, movement on avoiding deforestation. But much of the attention of activists and environmentalists has focused on the future of the Kyoto Protocol and the creation of a road map toward a bigger and broader global climate deal:

It is distressing to see how much attention has become devoted to form rather than function. The fact that people are so are fixated on the future of Kyoto and the potential for a new legally binding treaty – neither of which, depending on its specific content, need have any impact on emissions – is extraordinary. It is particularly worrying that so many parties were willing in Durban to risk their real substantive progress because they could not agree on what are, in practice, largely symbolic matters. Congratulations are in order to those diplomats who found a face-saving way for everyone to back down so that they could consolidate important incremental advances that they had made elsewhere. But the Durban outcome does not auger a “remarkable new phase” in the climate talks. Its most celebrated elements largely mask dysfunction as usual.

It’s important to understand the actual details of what was negotiated at Durban — and what wasn’t. Take the Green Climate Fund, which is meant to channel $100 billion a year in public and private funds to developing countries to help them battle climate change. If there’s one thing that international negotiations should focus on, it’s establishing a mechanism — and a reliable source of money — to ensure that the poorest countries have the means to deal with climate change. Yet while diplomats at Durban outlined the mechanisms of the fund, little headway was made in figuring out exactly where that money will come from — and with the euro zone in a state of crisis and the U.S. primarily interested in budget cutting, it’s easy to wonder if those promised billions will ever really materialize.

Then there’s that road map for a future climate deal. The big logjam at Durban — as it’s been at nearly every U.N. climate summit — was the split between developed nations and the big developing countries. The Kyoto Protocol — which was set to expire next year — mandates emission cuts from developed countries, but not from developing countries. That makes less and less sense every year, with developing nations — which under the U.N. climate system include rich nations like Saudi Arabia and South Korea, along with China and India — now responsible for 58% of global emissions, a share that grows every year. […]

U.N. Global-Warming Talks: Good for Diplomats, Indifferent for the Climate


  1. richard Pauli said...

    Thanks are the best outlet for climate news.

    Shocked and impressed with TIME magazine.. I now trust them slightly more than the climate negotiators.  


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