Analysis of Durban Climate talks

December 13th, 2011 by Mark Lynas

The Maldives likes to be first. In 2009 it was the first country to announce its intention to become carbon neutral.

In Durban it was the first developing state to declare its willingness to make a legally binding climate commitment under a new global treaty.

But it does not want to be first to disappear under the waves and, despite the efforts made at Durban, the goal of holding the world’s temperature rise below 1.5°C – essential for low-lying island states to keep themselves above water – is looking ever more difficult to achieve.

The Republic of Maldives has an average ground level of 1.5 metres above sea level and is vulnerable to sea level rise caused by global warming (click image to expand - ©RLLord)

The problem, as always, is the obstinacy of the powerful big emitters, none of which – with the exception of the relatively progressive European Union – is prepared to move forward with sufficient ambition in tackling its emissions.

In Durban, the US and India challenged each other for the role of bad guy; each gave the other diplomatic cover in trying to kick meaningful progress into the post-2020 long grass, which would mean disaster for vulnerable countries.

The obvious truth is that the US is out of the game for the foreseeable future. With no prospect of the Senate signing up to a new climate treaty, there is little point in American negotiators even being in the room to ostensibly discuss it.

And with the prospect looming of the next US president being an out-and-out climate change denier, the US is in the peculiar position of being powerful, but increasingly irrelevant, in the UN climate change process.

With the US in the background, all eyes in Durban were on China.

China may be the world’s biggest emitter, but it is also the biggest ‘mitigator’. Although concrete figures are hard to come by, it is likely that the Chinese spend more on clean energy technologies each year than the rest of the world put together.

In a UN process where verbiage is not in short supply, a country that acts domestically to address the problem the rest of the world talks about is in a powerful position.

In a geopolitical sense, too, China is now the linchpin state. In the chess game of the climate change negotiations, a move by the Chinese is scrutinised like no other.

China’s statements early in the second week in Durban – which were seen as showing new flexibility to joining an eventual worldwide legally binding climate instrument – captured headlines and delegates’ imaginations.

China’s moves are crucial because it is essentially the leader of the developing world, and by no means the most retrogressive member.

But another interesting development in Durban was just how fractured the G77 coalition (established in 1964 to promote the collective economic interests of developing countries) has now become. Indeed little in the negotiations united them.

The small island countries convene in a group called Aosis – the Association of Small Island States – which is pushing for a far more ambitious approach to climate change mitigation than the larger developing countries. It is now obvious that the survival prospects of the islands in particular depend more than almost anything else on the stances taken by the big emerging emitters. And on issue after issue the two groups found themselves in conflict in Durban.

The fact that Durban was crunch time for the Kyoto protocol also illustrated the challenges of updating the UN climate change regime in light of new economic realities.

Kyoto was designed for a world in which rich countries would always be rich, and poor countries would always be poor.

Only rich countries, recognising their greater capacity to act and historical responsibility for past emissions, needed to take on binding targets under Kyoto.

But as Europe staggers under a looming second recession, even as growth continues in China, India, Brazil and others, the fact that Kyoto never had a graduation system – where countries might take on legal targets after their emissions and/or gross domestic product reached a certain level – has made it increasingly anachronistic.

This will be thrown into particularly sharp relief at next year’s gathering of the climate circus, COP18, scheduled to take place in the rich Gulf state of Qatar.

Per capita CO2 emissions from this OPEC member are perhaps the highest in the world, and per capita GDP is similarly high (above $60,000). Yet it is still designated a developing country party to the talks and consequently has no emissions targets under Kyoto.

Some of the last to recognise this, ironically, have been the NGOs and campaigners who congregate around the annual climate change meetings. Kyoto’s singular key remaining value is as a bargaining tool to push the big developing country emitters into joining a legally binding new treaty.

The Maldives has declared that it would sign such a treaty, and other developing countries have begun to consider a similar stance. For many it is in their economic interests to kick the fossil fuels habit and move as quickly as possible to clean energy.

But, as Durban showed, we are running out of time. The world cannot wait until 2020 for a treaty. For the island states to survive, global emissions must peak well before 2020 – and the prospect of a nine-year filibuster in the climate talks left them feeling isolated and betrayed.

Whether China will come to their aid will be the single most important factor in how the climate change regime progresses into 2012 and beyond.


Mark Lynas is the author of ‘The God Species: How the Planet Can Survive the Age of Humans

Mark Lynas kindly gave permission for Sustainable Guernsey to republish his article which appeared in a Climate Change supplement, COP 17 Analysis Durban 2011 Review published in The Financial Times on 13 December 2011.



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