Durban Agreement: Victory or Failure?

CI Durban delegation members Johnson Cerda, Jean-Philippe Palasi and Preeya Rampersaud in the final hours of COP 17. (Photo courtesy of Conservation International)

This weekend concluded the 17th Conference of the Parties (COP 17) of the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) in Durban, South Africa. Read other COP 17 posts.

After two solid weeks of long days and even longer nights, the Durban climate talks reached their conclusion around 6 a.m. Sunday morning, after 60 straight hours of negotiations with few breaks. For a while, it was unclear whether talks would conclude at all; many ministers and other negotiators had made arrangements to leave Durban on Saturday, and on Saturday afternoon all was still at an impasse.

A coalition of the EU, small island states and least developed countries were pushing for a future legally-binding agreement for all countries. Discussion of a second commitment period for the Kyoto Protocol, which would mean immediate new commitments from a subset of developed countries to reduce emissions, was also on the table. Finding the right balance between these two and all of the other elements under discussion seemed impossible.

It is amazing that changing a few words in one line, after going through hundreds of pages of text, could result in an agreement, but that is what happened. After many hours, the countries agreed to “develop a new protocol, another legal instrument or agreed outcome with legal force,” and the talks soon concluded.

Many are saying that the results of these talks are not acceptable and a sign of continued delay for global climate change action. That the “gigatonne gap” — the difference between current commitments and where we need to be to limit warming to a level that will have less disastrous results to humanity and the planet — is dooming vulnerable nations and communities to irreversible consequences: famine, drought, the disappearance of entire island nations. And it is true that the reduction commitments made by all countries do not represent enough action to reduce warming; the necessary funding has not materialized.

But something important happened in Durban: The U.N. system was set up to give a voice to everyone. It is a consensus-based process where even the tiniest nations have a voice and — especially when they work together in coalition with like-minded countries — have power. Admittedly, this creates a very messy affair; reaching consensus by 194 countries is certainly not the most efficient process. But with the adoption of those few words, all nations on Earth have agreed to develop and enter into an agreement where all will be bound to limit emissions — including the U.S., China and India, the three largest emitting countries who were not included under the Kyoto Protocol. This “Durban Platform for Enhanced Action” will be developed by 2015 and implemented by 2020.

In addition a number of more technical decisions were made that will support immediate action on the ground and provide guidelines to make sure that action is effective. With regard to REDD+, important decisions on reference levels and financing (which can now include markets) were agreed. The Green Climate Fund has been operationalized, though it doesn’t yet have the necessary existing funds or sources identified to back it up. And adaptation decisions provide for the inclusion of ecosystem-based approaches to adaptation and fresh water as priorities in the Nairobi Work Programme.

Looking back over the two weeks of talks and discussions of economic realities, political constraints and other challenges, one address given to ministers by the Global Biodiversity Information Facility really resonates:

“The economy is an artificial human construct — we constructed it, we can deconstruct it, and we can reconstruct it in a way which does not threaten the very basis for our existence, the planet. The planet however, was not constructed by us — whilst we can damage its components, we cannot re-construct it; we do not even understand it in its full complexity. Yet this planet, its geology, its ecology, hydrology and atmosphere are what have enabled and continue to enable, human and all other life.” (Read more.)

Over the coming weeks, we’ll be carefully analyzing the outcomes of the Durban talks to understand the many subtleties in language and what the outcomes mean for vulnerable communities and the ecosystems on which people rely. For now, after over two weeks in Durban, the last members of CI’s team have headed back to our homes scattered across the globe, where we will all continue to speak for the species, ecosystems, communities and countries that must be supported if we are to truly overcome the biggest environmental challenge of our time.

Jennifer McCullough is the director of strategic engagement in CI’s Center for Conservation and Government.

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