Durban's final hours: our assessment and outcome

 Sunita Narain

Durban, December 9: The halls outside are full of people who are now waiting for some action. But strangely enough, there is no sense of anticipation or excitement. Strange in a world, which is increasingly seeing the pain of climate change impacts, and which knows that time is running out. 

So what was the agenda for this conference, and what is the expected outcome?

To the climate uninitiated, Durban has been portrayed as a fight between the ‘good’ – namely, the European Union (EU) – and the ‘bad’ – in this case, India in specific and China in general. The EU wants to move the world, and urgently; it has set a target for the completion of a new agreement by 2015 at the latest. It expects that this agreement will be legally binding and will include all countries to take commitments to reduce emissions in the future. This is necessary because the existing agreement, Kyoto Protocol, only sets emission reduction targets for the industrialised countries. Now with the world changing – China’s annual emissions have overtaken the US and India’s are growing as well – the new agreement must have all these countries on board. This is all good and necessary. The world indeed needs urgent action and the emerging world’s emissions have increased: therefore, new kinds of agreements are necessary. 

So, all the countries that oppose this position, are clearly in the dock. At this moment, the guns are being fired at the US, which has for long opposed a legal arrangement, and on China and India, who are seen to be on the side of the ‘bad’. It is being said that all other countries have joined forces – in a press conference, the EU’s climate change commissioner Connie Hedegaard reportedly said that now all countries (other than the three in opposition) were supportive of this new arrangement. The die has been cast. The endgame is awaited. 

At this hour, the conference is busy wheeling and dealing behind closed rooms and in the nearby hotel lobbies. Countries are being wooed and pressure is being brought upon so that the deal can be sealed. Durban would be a success. 

But this, as I said, is how the climate-naïve, the climate uninitiated would see it. The fact is that climate change negotiators know that the US will not agree to a legally binding arrangement. Even yesterday, US special envoy on climate change, Todd Stern had made it clear that “the United States could support a process to negotiate a new climate accord and for this it supports a legally binding agreement – therefore, the agreement to talk could be binding. But it does not, under any circumstances, support that the result should be legally binding.” This is not new.  

The Kyoto Protocol had been dumped by the US on these grounds. So, there is little chance that the US will now bow to a deal which is legally binding. At a press briefing, when asked this question, Alden Meyer from the US NGO, Union of Concerned Scientists said that they would hope that the US would accept these terms because of civil society pressure. But this is when the same civil society is struggling to get its country to take even the minimum emission reduction targets and make them happen. 

The US had agreed in Cancun to cut its emissions by 17 per cent by 2020, but over its 2005 levels. Given that US emissions actually peaked by 2005 – increased 1 billion tonne over 1990 levels – this is a meaningless deal. It means the US will reduce by only 3 per cent below its 1990 levels, when it needs to cut by 40 per cent in this period, based on past, present and future dangers. So, there is little chance that civil society pressure will work this time to get the red-line shifted – move the country to a global legally binding agreement. 

If the world knows that the US will not bite, why then this insistence on setting this ambitious timeline, and taking it so far that it could even jeopardize the entire climate agreement reached so far? The EU’s strategy is that once it breaks China and India into joining this agreement, it will force the US to accept the deal as well. This is because the US has made it clear that the only other thing it wants is to bring down the famous firewall – the differentiation between the developed and developing countries, which separates the countries responsible for climate change from the rest. It wants all to take action commonly and the EU will do the hatchet-job. This is the grand design. 

But the fact is this means that instead of putting pressure on the US, all that Durban is ending up doing is to push India and China against the wall. This, when we know that the deal – past or future – has to be based on the fundamental principle of equity and fairness in burden sharing. But this time, this is the one question that is particularly inconvenient at Durban. Now, instead of working on an agreement that is effective and just, India and China must just bend over and sign. Worse, the EU does not want to talk about this or discuss this. It is into the ‘Bushism’ – “with us or against us”. 

These are the last hours of the conference. But one thing is clear: this CoP will go down in climate history as one where global distrust has peaked. It also means that building trust will be difficult in this increasingly divided and discordant atmosphere and without this, action on an issue as contested as climate change will be impossible. Furthermore, if this deal for a new agreement goes through, without the underlying condition of equity in past and future carbon budgets, then this city of Durban will become famous for starting a new era of climate apartheid. 

Tags: CoP17,