Mandela Rhodes Scholars
Mandela Rhodes Scholars

COP17: Nothing to celebrate

By Alex Lenferna

As COP17 finished on Sunday morning 5am, 36 hours into overtime, many celebrated the development of what is being referred to as the Durban Package. The South African lead negotiator, Alf Wills, among others, sees the Durban Package as a comprehensive deal that has taken into account the necessary compromise and has produced a credible outcome … I am not sure I am convinced.

The final COP plenary decisions were pushed through at an incredibly quick rate, so much so that it was not clear that all parties understood what was going on and many objections from the earlier sessions were not dealt with. At one stage the Russian ambassador declared that though he did not know what was going on, or what was being passed, he would nevertheless not block progress.

Just how many other parties were similarly confused as decisions were gavelled through remains to be seen. So what did they actually decide on, and how is it going to affect our future? I think many of the negotiating teams are going to be spending the next while figuring out just that, but here is what I have been able to decipher throughout the rushed process.

Kyoto Protocol
Firstly, one of the major objectives of the conference was to secure a second commitment to the Kyoto Protocol (KP). While parties were successful with this in so far as we now have a second commitment to the Kyoto Protocol (KP2C), the KP2C is weak and unambitious and does not include many of the major polluters.

As far as the legal form of the emission-reduction targets under KP2C is concerned, it was decided that quantifiable emission-reduction targets, which are only set to be decided on in May 2012, will be “an agreed outcome with legal force”. This statement while seemingly politically potent does not necessarily mean that the targets are legally binding, and has varied meaning depending on the context.

According to Wills, ambiguity in the text is necessary in order to ensure agreement among divergent parties, but to me the ambiguity means that parties are agreeing to disagree at a later stage, and thus are not really agreeing at all. This will certainly be a hot spot of controversy in the climate negotiations to come.

Furthermore, the US, Canada, Japan and Russia are all not party to KP2C and because of lack of ambition in emission-reduction targets the KP2C will cover less than 15% of global emissions. Unless ambition is increased drastically at some point then KP2C could potentially lock us onto a pathway of dangerous climate change to the tune of 3.5 degrees, as opposed to the 2 degrees currently aimed for and the 1.5 degrees many claim is necessary for a safe climate future.

This, however, is where COP17’s establishment of the Ad Hoc Working Group on the Durban Platform for Enhanced Action (AWG-DPEA) comes in to play. According to the Durban Package, the results of a review set to take place from 2013-15 will inform a work plan to raise ambition. Given the resistance of many nations to increase their reduction ambition targets, the AWG-DPEA will have its hands full trying to raise ambition to the necessary level, and it’s not clear that they will be successful in doing so.

What is clear is that the KP2C as currently proposed is weak, lacks much ambition, isn’t legally binding and gives much room for countries to wangle out of their already flexible emission-reduction targets.

With a weak KP2C in place this puts a lot of pressure on a post-Kyoto global climate-change regime. Throughout COP17 there has been a stand-off between most developing countries and the EU, who want the new regime to come into play as early as 2015, and developed countries plus China and India, who would like it to only come into force in 2020.

The new regime, it is hoped, will be a global climate regime that brings all parties into a legally binding ambitious framework that aims to bridge the ever-increasing gigatonne gap. If we lock in the low ambition of the KP2C until 2020, however, the possibility of halting climate change below 2 degrees becomes increasingly difficult, if not politically impossible. Decisions on that rather controversial topic, however, have been postponed until COP18, which is set to take place in rather controversial Qatar, and will be decided on under a Saudi chair.

Green Climate Fund
One of the other major outcomes that was expected from COP17, was the establishment of the Green Climate Fund (GCF). There has been progress on this front, however, nowhere close to the hopes going into COP17. The GCF has a structure in place but who will oversee the fund and how will they do so, and the fund’s legal status remains highly controversial. Furthermore, reliable sources of long-term finance for the GCF are yet to be secured. The much-called for financial transactions tax and maritime and aviation tax were hoped to be secured as potential sources, but what has been secured rather is a working group which will work on securing innovative sources of finance from both the public and private sector.

The GCF thus, apart from a few noble pledges from Germany and Norway, remains a largely empty shell, and it’s not clear how funds are going to be scaled up to provide the agreed upon $100 billion by 2020.

Carbon capture
One of the more worrying developments was the inclusion of carbon capture and storage underneath the clean development mechanism. This inclusion, because of the possibility of encouraging and subsidising further fossil-fuel developments that lack environmental integrity, will certainly be an issue of much contention among environmental groups for years to come.

Another disappointment was that the programme on National Adaptation Plans is another decision that has been postponed until COP18. Furthermore the heavily contentious issues of hot air or assigned amount units have also been delayed until COP18. There were many other decisions that were made and not made at COP17, but to go into them all would get too “wonky” (ie too deep in policy), the above however, were the major decisions that were made at COP17.

Given these decisions, how do we go about assessing the progress that was made? Alden Meyer from the Union from Concerned Scientists had the following to say:

“While governments avoided disaster in Durban, they by no means responded adequately to the mounting threat of climate change. The decisions adopted here fall well short of what is needed. It’s high time governments stopped catering to the needs of corporate polluters, and started acting to protect people.”

I am very much in agreement with Meyer. The decisions made under the Durban Package lack much-needed ambition, and the gap between political will and scientific dictate is massive. Legal and other ambiguities abound, which will provide fertile soil for disagreement as well as ducking and hiding from responsibilities, both political and ethical, in the future.

What we have in Durban is a roadmap, but if the Bali Road Map is something to learn from, we need strict rules and guidance, as well as adequate provisions and will power, in order to ensure we get to the end of the road. The Durban Package so far lacks most of that, and if we are to salvage the road map we are going to have to work incredibly hard to ensure that the correct turns are taken along the way.

We need to increase ambition and ensure that it is enforceable, and the sooner the better. For as Fatih Birol, chief economist of the International Energy Agency, points out: “Delaying action is a false economy: for every $1 of investment in cleaner technology that is avoided in the power sector before 2020, an additional $4.30 would need to be spent to compensate for the increased emissions.”

The Durban Package hasn’t delivered much on the need for immediate action, and thus, unless we can drastically alter the rules of the road map or the direction thereof, we may be heavily locked into Birol’s false economy, complete with the suffering, food insecurity, displacement and global instability that are set to come with climate change above 2 degrees.

The Durban Package for the moment has created a very loosely bound not-quite-global climate regime, which grants many nations the ability to not contribute to their fair share under a view of climate change guided by the principles of common but differentiated responsibilities (CBDR) and equity.

During the final hours, the Indian environment minister, Jayanthi Natarajan, even went so far as to say that equity had been forsaken and CBDR inverted. A compromise was reached after she said so, but for a large part, her statement is still relevant.

Our climate regime is far from a just one and the major polluters with the greatest historical responsibility as well as some of the major emerging polluters are under little pressure to change that.

Alex Lenferna was the lead tracker of the South African government during COP17 under, as well as chairperson of the South East African Climate Consortium Student Forum ( Follow Alex on Twitter (@al_lenferna), Facebook/Alex Lenferna or (

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    • Rich Brauer

      To echo what I’ve written before: Unfortunately, without the US on board, there will *never* be an effective climate change treaty. Without the #1 greenhouse gas emitter, any treaty is essentially worthless.

      And the US won’t be signing on any time soon. Any climate treaty would require 67 votes in the Senate. That’s just not going to happen — the Republican Party finds anything of the sort absolutely anathema, and the polluting corporations fund both parties, regardless. Short of a massive change in the way American electoral politics works (as in corporate money is disallowed), the US will *never* sign on to an international climate change treaty.

      As I’ve said before, that’s unfortunate. Silly. Stupid. Self-defeating. Etc.

      It is, nonetheless, the reality. Close to 50% of Americans don’t “believe” in global warming, due, in large part, to a concerted moneyed effort to make it so. Until that changes (and I don’t know how it will), nothing of importance is going to happen on the international level.

    • Andrew

      I am increasingly getting the feeling that it is time for active protest, otherwise normal people will never be heard above the concerns of corporations and political agendas. I am part of a local community environmental initiative who’s policy over the existence of the initiative has been to be as diplomatic as possible with the local municipality in regards to problems such as sewage, litter, water quality and other problems. The diplomacy has not worked. The municipality basically just ignores us and our concerns. We may be a microcosm of what is happening in the rest of the country, and I think it is time to be more vocal and dare I say more militant, otherwise absolutely nothing is going to change.

    • Enough Said

      Thanks for that up-date. No matter how flawed the agreement/roadmap is, at least there was agreement to sign the Durban Package by all 194 countries (now 193, Canada has since pulled out of Kyoto).

      It is the first time in the history of climate change that all nations of the world agreed to launch a new process to oblige every country to reduce emissions.

      Now the process of making it meaningful begins.

    • The Bobster

      The irony is that this article and many others like it that point out the Achilles heel of the COP process is that they are received like puffs of wind in the midst of a tornado by the “people” elected to represent the “people” in some countries, and other “people” who have elected themselves to represent their “people” in others.
      What is blatantly clear is that their political and corporate interests have high jacked the noble environmental intentions of the Rio Summit in 1992.
      We are dealing with “people” who can spend R52000.00 bottle of wine during the evening and look at images of “people” dying of hunger without any conscience the next day.
      Solutions? None. I don’t think these “people” are capable of resolving a global threat that does not need arms and ammunition but simple changes in behaviour towards the planet that nurtures them. They are driven by greed.

    • benzo

      A more cynical take on the matter.
      “Nothing to celebrate”…and predictably so. Behind the “climate change industry” sits a world of parties, mainly interested in how to make money out of this.
      Prominently present are politicians, primarily interested in being re-elected in the next elections. Next is a party of scientists who’s hands (objectivity) are tied by the need for funding for the next research project, study or scientific report to support a pro- or con- politician.
      The third prominent group consists of activists. Their funding sources are not always clear but the UN seems to have a budget for “activism”.
      In the background we have roughly two groups of industries: the ones that supply the “anti CO2″ equipment and the ones that make “CO2 producing” stuff.
      The oil to keep the “climate change” industry running are the conference organisers.
      The most important decision was to establish this Green Climate Fund (GCF). With this pot of gold ( US$ 100 billion) looming in 2020…who would not move into the “climate” business.
      A Dutch saying: “wie lacht niet, die de mens beziet” (“worth a smile when watching mankind”)

    • Enough Said

      @Andrew – Militancy is not an option. The industrialists, corporations and governments are militant. Peaceful protest by the 99% is the only anwer. The Occupy movement in America is still in its infant stage, and already the Republicans are nervous of them. The cops in America are brutalising peaceful protesters. It shows, big money feels threatened by peaceful protest and true democracy. The 99% along with the environment will eventually win.

      Another long walk to freedom.

    • MLH

      ‘It’s high time governments stopped catering to the needs of corporate polluters, and started acting to protect people.’

      I don’t see how governments can blithely commit countries to anything. When I came downstairs an hour-and-a-half after dinner yesterday evening, the grill was glowing brightly. Less punctilious than I, my son had left it on. I can throw my toys out of my cot as often as I like, I am unlikely to win there…as long as his mind is on other things he considers more important. Whatever cut-out mechanism is devised, he must activate it!

      Although businesses have goals, we cannot be sure how they will develop. What do we do? Limit that development or continually adjust the planning year by year?

      I see as far more constructive, countries organising in clean-ups that will move their countries forward. Why SA is still manufacturing plastic shopping bags is beyond logical. Why so little headway has been made regarding AMD is desperately sad. Why high motor polluters are allowed in the country at all is a sure sign that the state no longer has its finger on the pulse. Manufacture or import only water-fueled cars; and subsidise the changeover…that would probably cost less than the COP17 talks, to host.

    • Alex Lenferna

      @ Andrew. The original article in its full length (which can be found here: links the problems with COP 17 to an increased need for activism and engagement on the local level, and I agree much more needs to be done, perhaps not militancy, but certainly a lot more.
      @Benzo & Enough Said: The original title of the article is “Durban’s Platform for [Potential] [In]Action” and the title that was given to this article by the editor, which I didn’t agree to and don’t agree with, is not reflective of my belief about what happened at COP17, as there are some successes that came out of the process, albeit far from what we needed. We have the platform for a future multi-lateral system that includes all nations, and we have the 2nd commitment to the KP albeit a very weak and insufficient one, perhaps however that’s better than none at all. Furthermore we at least have the beginnings of the Green Climate Fund as well as a few other small victories along the way. Compared to what would have happened if the US got its way completely this is something to celebrate.

    • The Creator

      Well, frankly, Alex, I preferred the title they gave you — although obviously you need to justify yourself here.

      So we have a preservation of the “Kyoto Treaty” but leaving out everybody of importance who might make it work (and that Treaty never worked in the past). And we have the Green Climate Fund in nine years’ time, by which time all the damage will have been done (and best guess is that all the money will be spent in the rich countries) and then we have a Road Map, like the Road Map for Peace in the Middle East.

      We have a load of rubbish, in short, and an embarrassment to all decent people who went to Durban with any hope that anything good might come of it.

      Sorry if you were one of the positive hopers, but you shouldn’t fool yourself that you accomplished anything with your hard work.

    • Enough Said

      Much more activism needed, peaceful activism. Agreed.

    • http://none Lyndall Beddy

      I suggest you celebrate that the developing world gets these fictional “carbon credits”.

      Once Africa has these credits I suggest they don’t swop them with the developed world for expensive modern (soon to be outdated anyhow) technology, but use them to burn the cheap coal they need – starting with a Cape to Cairo coal railway line.

      By the time Africa runs out of coal, technology will have replaced electricity anyhow – so why go through that expensive phase of development?

      Most of Africa skipped the expensive landline telephone stage, and went straight to wireless.

      So use coal and skip electricity where possible.

    • Enough Said

      “So use coal and skip electricity where possible.” – That lift does not reach the top floor.

    • Alex Lenferna

      @theCreator: I agree that a lot of what happened at COP 17 is just delaying and really far from what we need. What science dictates and what political will is delivering are worlds apart. I write just as much in my article. I do, however, think that it is better than a complete collapse of multi-lateralism and the end to a global response to climate change. The Durban Platform, while quite empty and vague now, could possibly be fleshed out to be something more meaningful. I am not completely naive however and am therefore not too optimistic that it will.

      With regards to the following statement: “you shouldn’t fool yourself that you accomplished anything with your hard work.” Please don’t mistake me as covering up for myself. I didn’t actually have any say in policy as I was only an observer, so I am not trying to do so.

    • http://none Lyndall Beddy

      Enough Said

      There is gas and coal and parafin – which work all major appliances, except computers and lights. How do you think people lived for thousands of years.

      And electricity can be generated by generators run on petrol – and I forsee in the future run on water.


      I dont know why America will continue to dictate to the entire world on issue that affects all of us, perharps the whole noise about the so called climate change is fallacy.

      Africa needs to be assisted finantially from the green cimate fund, especially Nigeria. Icant immagine any disruption to our population, it could have effects, economically on the so called developed Nations.