What will the Durban summit deliver

From November 28 till December 9 COP 17, the annual Conference of Parties to the UNFCCC is taking place in Durban, South Africa. This is the meeting where further decisions could be made on actions to control climate change in the period after 2012 (when the reduction targets of the Kyoto Protocol expire).

As covered in Chapter 12 of my book, negotiations have been ongoing since 2007 and have not yet resulted in a global agreement. Is Durban going to change this?

In at the Copenhagen COP 15 meeting in 2009 many countries, both developed and developing, made voluntary pledges to reduce or limit the growth of their greenhouse gas emissions by 2020 and to provide financial support to developing countries to allow them to make a major contribution – the so called ‘Copenhagen Accord’. In 2010 at the COP 16 in Cancun these pledges were formally acknowledged in a unanimous decision by all Parties. Parties also agreed that global temperatures should not increase more than 2°C above the pre-industrial level. The major differences about a binding treaty were however not resolved.

Current trends

Two recent reports give a dire picture of where we are going. The UNEP Bridging the Gap assessment evaluated what the current pledges from countries will deliver in terms of global emission levels, in comparison to what is needed to stay on track to a 2°C target. Chapter 3 of my book discusses this issue of deep emission reductions in the short term, needed for limiting long-term temperature increase. The findings are very worrying: in the most optimistic case assuming all countries deliver the high ends of their pledges, global reductions will only be about half of what they should be, putting the world on track to about 3°C of warming. And in case countries only achieve the low end of their pledges – and that is where we seem to be heading – we are on track to warming of about 5°C, not 2°C, with very serious consequences.

The 2011 World Energy Outlook of the International Energy Agency says it differently: “2010 emissions were at an all time high” and “the door to 2°C is closing” if there are no strong additional actions taken before 2017, because current policies put us on track to 6°C warming and even with some additional action to at least 3.5°C. The WEO also points out that every dollar not invested in clean technology before 2020 will cost 4 times as much if it needs to be done after 2020. That is the price of building high-carbon energy infrastructure first that would have to be scrapped later.

Durban action

So the stakes are high for Durban. The Kyoto Protocol says that reductions for the period after 2012 would have to be agreed by 2007, in order to have sufficient time to implement policies and influence investments. That did not happen. And now it is 2011, with 2020 around the corner. You might expect that countries are now talking about how they all can strengthen their actions under the Kyoto Protocol: rich countries going to deeper reduction targets and developing countries accepting binding commitments to take actions to limit the growth of their emissions. But no, developing countries refuse to make binding commitments now and insist that only rich countries should do that, the US refuses to join the Kyoto Protocol (that they rejected from the start), Japan, Russia and Canada refuse to participate in the next phase of the Kyoto Protocol unless all big emitters (including the major emerging economies in the developing world) join. Only the European Union and a few small countries seem willing to enter into a new Kyoto Protocol phase, but only if all others accept that in 2015 a new binding treaty for all will be agreed. The US and Canada have already publicly announced they will not do that.

What will this mean for the necessary strengthening of country emission reductions? Indeed, that will not happen. Countries are keeping each other prisoner and global emissions will continue to rise. There may be some token decision at the end of the Durban meeting to continue the negotiations towards a new treaty, but that is very unlikely to deliver any short term strengthening of actions.

It is not all gloom and doom though. It is not impossible that agreement will be reached on governance and structure of the new Green Climate Fund, which will be a useful step. Some of the Cancun decisions, such as on monitoring progress by countries, might be operationalised. Some progress might also be made in organising a network of technology centres to assist developing countries in adopting clean technologies. And there are very encouraging discussions in the corridors in Durban about country efforts to realise a transition to a green and low carbon economy. More about that in the next report.