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Durban Climate Talks and Bridging the Trust Gap (Dec. 19, 2011) 

This article was originally published at China-US Focus

After a marathon session into early Sunday, the climate talks in Durban concluded this weekend with consensus on extending the only existing legally-binding treaty as well as an agreement to negotiate a new treaty to combat climate change that would include all major emitters.  Persevering thirty-six hours beyond the scheduled closing plenary, almost 200 country delegations demonstrated once more their resolve in addressing climate change multilaterally, with part of this success attributed to progress in closing the trust gap between key countries. Still, more work remains to be done over the coming years to convert this platform into action on the ground.

The 17th meeting of the Conference of the Parties to the UN Framework on Climate Change – COP17 – was shaped, much like COP15 in Copenhagen and COP16 in Cancun, by the emerging dynamics between the world’s two largest economies and emitters – the United States and China.  But they were by no means the only influential players.  With the end of the only legally-binding commitments on reducing greenhouse gas emissions – under the Kyoto Protocol – drawing to a close in 2012, the European Union came into the negotiations as the only party willing to extend those commitments.  In exchange, they sought agreement from all countries on a “roadmap” that would bring on board developed and developing countries (including the U.S., which is not a Kyoto-signatory) to reaching a legally binding agreement by 2015 coming into force post-2020. 

The agreed roadmap, the Durban Platform on Enhanced Action, is a compromise of various positions of the EU, BASIC countries (Brazil, South Africa, India, and China), the U.S. and others. Early on, China expressed flexibility in taking on legally-binding commitments post-2020.  The head of China’s delegation, Minister Xie Zhenhua of the National Development and Reform Commission, laid down five conditions for this and a successful Durban outcome to take place: (1) the agreement sticks to the principle of common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities, equity and environmental integrity; (2) the Kyoto Protocol is extended to a second commitment period; (3) developed countries honor their commitments in Copenhagen to provide climate financing of $30 billion for 2010-12, increasing to $100 billion per year by 2020; (4) countries will start promptly a review of the adequacy of existing mitigation pledges, to be completed 2015; and (5) the mechanisms agreed in previous meetings – e.g., technology transfer, financing, forestry – are implemented and operationalized.

The United States also expressed flexibility in signing on to a legally binding agreement, if: (1) the agreement was “symmetrical,” meaning that all countries would be bound in a similar fashion; (2) there was a process for developing countries to graduate to commitments similar to developed countries; and (3) commitments by major developing countries were unconditional, that is not dependent on financial or technical support.

A good result from a negotiation, Minister Xie has said, is when no party is completely happy with the result, but they can all live with it.  The compromise that was ultimately reached Sunday morning—after ministers met in many “indabas,” a Zulu word meaning a gathering, usually among leaders—represented just such a deal.  It effectively extends the Kyoto Protocol and launches a process for all parties to agree to “a protocol, legal instrument or agreed outcome with legal force” by 2015.  The Durban Platform also begins to operationalize the Green Climate Fund and the Technology Center and Network, although the funding sources are yet to be decided (one possibility that is under serious consideration is a tax on maritime shipping). 

The final language—an agreed outcome with legal force—was the product of a heated debate in the early hours Sunday morning—with India’s negotiator in particular resisting the push by the EU to insert stronger language for a legally binding agreement by 2015, citing equity considerations of developing nations whose emissions are the lowest.  After reaching a stalemate, the ministers met in a huddle in the front of the plenary hall, finally agreeing to change the phrase “legal outcome” to the somewhat stronger “agreement outcome with legal force.” 

That compromise threaded the needled and brought into sight an end to the COP.  But it has left many wanting more.  Multilateral climate negotiations should call for greater ambition from countries to reduce their emissions to scientifically acceptable levels, and financial and technical support for developing countries to address climate change: many of these still require further negotiation.  Equally important, however, is how these talks build up mutual trust among countries that they are doing all they can and a commitment to help others in their efforts.

Mutual trust between the U.S. and China has improved as a result of bi-lateral clean energy and climate initiatives, many begun in 2009 prior to the Copenhagen climate talks. This starts with recognition of the political realities in both countries.  The U.S. has a challenging political environment for comprehensive federal actions to address climate change, but the U.S. is taking actions in many other ways, including stronger federal vehicle efficiency standards, an abundance of state-level actions, and regional carbon trading schemes. China is making robust efforts on efficiency and renewables, but will have difficulties agreeing to a treaty which places the burden of emissions reductions equally on developed and developing countries.

The ultimate effect of the Durban Platform will not be known for several years. We must see what countries do at home with the words so carefully negotiated and debated. If countries begin to make good on promises of climate finance, technology transfer, and improving reporting and transparency of their emissions and actions, then trust will grow among them. Only then will the world will have a chance of coming together to effectively address climate change.

Alvin Lin is the China Climate and Energy Policy Director at the Natural Resources Defense Council. Michael Davidson is the US-China Climate Policy Coordinator at the Natural Resources Defense Council.

 


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