Global Trends by Martin Khor

Monday 12 December 2011

New climate talks launched at Durban

A new round of climate negotiations aimed at an agreement by 2015 was launched on Sunday at a stormy last session at the Durban climate conference.


The UN Climate Change Conference in Durban ended on Sunday morning with the launch of negotiations for a new global climate deal to be completed in 2015.

The new deal aims to ensure “the highest possible mitigation efforts by all Parties”, meaning that the countries should undertake deep Greenhouse Gas emissions cuts, or lower the growth rates of their emissions.

It will take the form of either a protocol, another legal instrument or an outcome with legal force.

In a night of high drama, the European Union tried to pressurize India and China to agree to commit to a legally binding treaty such as a protocol, and to agree to cancel the term “legal outcome” from the list of possible results, as they said this was too weak an option.

The EU and the United States have said they want major developing countries to undertake emissions-cutting obligations similar to them. This is a departure from the Climate Change Convention which distinguishes between the binding commitments that rich countries have to undertake and the voluntary climate actions that developing countries should do.

At the closing plenary on 11 December, Indian environment minister Jayanthi Natarajan gave a passionate defence why India was against committing to a legally binding protocol, and the need to base the new talks on equity.

Why, she asked, should India give a blank cheque by agreeing upfront to joining a protocol when the content of that protocol was not yet known?

“We are not talking about changing lifestyles but about effects on the livelihoods of millions of poor farmers,” she said.  “Why should I sign away the rights of 1.2 billion people?  Is that equity?”

Jayanthi said that the resolution on the new round of talks did not even contain the words equity or common but differentiated responsibility, a term in the Convention meaning that rich countries should contribute more than poor ones in the fight against climate change.

If such a protocol is developed, in which poor countries had to cut their emissions as much as rich countries, “we will be giving up the equity principle. It is goodbye to common and differentiated responsibility. It would be the greatest tragedy.”

Several countries, including China, the Philippines, Pakistan and Egypt, supported India’s position.  Eventually, it was agreed that the term “legal outcome” be changed to “outcome with legal force”, and the Conference approved the launching of the new talks.

At the same time, it also took steps to wind down the current framework of climate talks, comprising the Kyoto Protocol and the Bali Road Map.

The Kyoto Protocol was saved from extinction by a decision by mainly European countries to enter a second period of emissions reduction commitments to start in 2013.

However, Kyoto has been significantly and perhaps fatally weakened.  Japan, Russia and Canada have pulled out of a second period, while Australia and New Zealand notified that they may or may not join in.

With only the European countries left, the Kyoto protocol may live on till 2017 or 2020, but by then it may already be overshadowed by the new deal.

The sketchy terms of reference of this new deal were remarkable for being so one-sided in favour of developed countries, as the equity principle was conspicuously absent, and the implied principle was that all countries had to take part, and having a high ambition for total emission cuts.

The Durban conference also finalized details for a new Green Climate Fund, which will start operating with a Board and interim secretariat by early 2012.

At times the Durban talks looked as if they were going off track, with disagreements on many issues.  Even at the last session there were grumbles about how the South Africans, which managed the meeting, were trying to push through resolutions and texts without allowing for changes.

In the end Durban may be remembered for phasing out climate change frameworks based on equity and launching talks for a new treaty whose contours are yet to be defined.