Tom Burke’s political commentary: Durban talks were not a failure for climate policy

ENDS Report 444, p. 45, January 2012.

The latest round of UN climate talks made important progress in a number of areas, including Green Fund governance and the Clean Development Mechanism.

Durban did not fail. That is by far and away the most important outcome from the latest round of climate negotiations.

Failure would have effectively removed any prospect of achieving a legally binding global agreement to avoid dangerous climate change. It would have set the world on a path to becoming at least 4°C warmer.

It is worth remembering that a 4°C global average temperature rise would mean much greater rises in places such as the Arctic or the Mediterranean basin. It is also worth bearing in mind that, on the Hadley Centre’s worst-case analysis, we could find ourselves in such a world in as little as 50 years. That is well inside the lifetime of many major investment decisions being made today.

Across the world, 2011 was an unprecedented year for extreme weather events: floods, droughts and storms harmed millions and cost billions. It will take more analysis before we know with confidence how much of this was due to climate change, but this is exactly the kind of disruption that is forecast to occur with increasing frequency and violence as the planet warms.

Climate change will completely transform humanity’s prospects whether climate policy succeeds or fails. If it succeeds, the transformation will take place over the next 30 years. If it fails, the transformation that is already under way will gradually accelerate and become dramatic in the 30 years after that.

The choice is whether events or people drive that transformation. If people make the choice, then the way energy is used will be transformed over the next 30 years. This will bring with it a wide range of co-benefits in terms of both economic efficiency and human wellbeing. Food and water security will be maintained. However, the pattern of economic winners and losers will be significantly disrupted.

But if events drive the transformation then the global average temperature will rise inexorably and, for all practical purposes, irreversibly. Food and water security will be undermined and ever larger numbers of people will be displaced, exposed to conflict and disease, and subject to deeper climate-induced poverty. This will also disrupt the pattern of economic winners and losers, but in a manner that will greatly increase the number of losers.

So it matters a lot that Durban did not fail. It actually did rather better than anyone expected. Most attention has, understandably, focused on the agreement to negotiate a new legally binding treaty by 2015 and the decision to have a second commitment to the Kyoto Protocol. This was the central bargain without which the talks would have failed. That it succeeded was in no small part due to the EU untypically punching its weight.

But there were nine other areas on which real progress was made. These included the adoption of governance arrangements for the Green Fund and guidelines for monitoring and reporting emissions, as well as the inclusion of carbon capture and storage. There were also important agreements on how to deal with forests and on making the Kyoto Protocol’s Clean Development Mechanism work better.

These are technical issues replete with mind-numbing detail. No one could argue that reaching agreement on them, of itself, takes us very far towards a carbon-neutral global economy. But it does remove some potential roadblocks on the way to negotiating the overarching, legally binding global agreement to which we are now committed.

There are two further notable consequences of Durban. First, the formation of a green coalition of countries committed to a high ambition outcome. This comprises the EU, together with a wide range of countries from Africa, Asia, Latin America and the small island states. Assisted by some effective work by NGOs, these countries worked together to create the pressure for an ambitious agreement in the final hours at Durban.

The critical glue holding this disparate alliance together was that much derided factor: European climate leadership. This leadership rested on Europe’s continued support for the Kyoto Protocol despite other developed countries reneging on their promises. It also depended on the EU being seen to implement its own 20:20:20 climate and energy package, and to deliver its commitments on climate finance to developing countries.

Second, Durban in effect ended ‘pledge and review’ as an alternative to trying to forge a legally binding global agreement.

Since the Copenhagen summit two years ago, the climate policy debate has often got lost in the thickets of a false choice between a ‘top-down’ treaty-based approach or a ‘bottom-up’ alternative in which nations make their own pledges to cut emissions and their progress is reviewed by the international community.

This, and all the other ‘Plan B’ strategies, consistently miss the point that the difficult political choices required to avoid dangerous climate change remain the same whichever route you take.

The critical difference is that the top-down UN Framework Convention on Climate Change process makes it clear which countries are unwilling to make those choices. The alternatives all allow the laggards to hide behind each other and a fog of good intentions.

Achieving a legally binding global treaty on climate change is probably the most difficult diplomatic task humanity has ever attempted. We may not succeed, but to give up trying is to admit defeat in the struggle to preserve the climate.

Durban has simply kept open a vital door; we still have to go through it. Whether or not we make it through will depend not so much on what happens in an endless succession of negotiating rounds between now and 2015 but on how we shape the wider climate conversation in the key capitals.

So far, that debate has been dominated by climate makers – the small number of large businesses who produce and burn fossil fuels. It is time we heard a lot more from climate takers – the very much larger number of smaller businesses whose revenues and value are already being undermined by rising temperatures.

About tomburke

Tom Burke is the Chairman of E3G, Third Generation Environmentalism, and an Environmental Policy Adviser (part time) to Rio Tinto plc. He is a Visiting Professor at both Imperial and University Colleges, London. He is a member of the External Review Committee of Shell and the Sustainable Sourcing Advisory Board of Unilever and a Trustee of the Black-E Community Arts Project, Liverpool.
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