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.

Assessment
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 adoptanegotiator.org, as well as chairperson of the South East African Climate Consortium Student Forum (www.ru.ac.za/rugreen). Follow Alex on Twitter (@al_lenferna), Facebook/Alex Lenferna or (www.adoptanegotiator.org).

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