Spotlight Durban: New talks launched at Durban

Martin Khor

United Nations Climate Change Conference in Durban ended on Sunday morning with the launch of negotiations for a new global climate deal to be completed in 2015.

The new deal aims to ensure “the highest possible mitigation efforts by all Parties”, meaning that the countries should undertake deep Greenhouse Gas emissions cuts, or lower the growth rates of their emissions.

It will take the form of either “a protocol, another legal instrument or an agreed outcome with legal force”.

In a night of high drama, the European Union tried to pressurize India and China to agree to commit to a legally binding treaty such as a protocol, and to agree to cancel the term “legal outcome” from the list of three possible results, as they said this was too weak an option.

The EU and the United States have said they want major developing countries to undertake emissions-cutting obligations similar to them.

This is a departure from the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), which distinguishes between the binding mitigation commitments that developed countries have to undertake and the voluntary climate mitigation actions that developing countries should do.

At the closing plenary on 11 December, Indian environment minister Jayanthi Natarajan gave a passionate defence on why India was against committing to a legally binding protocol, and the need to base the new talks on equity.

Why, she asked, should India give a blank cheque by agreeing upfront to joining a protocol when the content of that protocol was not yet known?

“We are not talking about changing lifestyles but about effects on the livelihoods of millions of poor farmers,” she said. “Why should I sign away the rights of 1.2 billion people (to development)? Is that equity?”

Jayanthi said that the resolution on the new round of talks did not even contain the words equity or “common but differentiated responsibilities”, a term in the Convention meaning that rich countries should contribute more than poor ones in the fight against climate change.

(This principle is based on their historical responsibility for causing the accumulated greenhouse gases in the atmosphere and consequent climate change.)

If such a protocol is developed, in which poor countries had to cut their emissions as much as rich countries, “we will be giving up the equity principle. It is goodbye to common and differentiated responsibility. It would be the greatest tragedy.”

Several countries, including China, the Philippines, Pakistan and Egypt, supported India’s position. Eventually, it was agreed that the term “legal outcome” be changed to “agreed outcome with legal force”, and the Conference approved the launching of the new talks.

At the same time, the Durban conference also took steps to wind down the current framework of climate talks, comprising the Kyoto Protocol and the Bali Road Map (a mandate adopted in 2007 at the annual climate talks in Bali, Indonesia).

The Kyoto Protocol was saved from extinction by a decision by mainly European countries (the EU and Norway) to enter a second period of emissions reduction commitments to start in 2013. The first commitment period of cuts ends in December 2012.

However, the Kyoto Protocol implementation has been significantly and perhaps fatally weakened. Japan, Russia and Canada have pulled out of a second commitment period, while Australia and New Zealand notified that they may or may not join in.

With only the European countries left, the Kyoto Protocol may live on till 2017 or 2020, but by then it may already be overshadowed by the new deal.

The sketchy terms of reference of this new deal were remarkable for being so one-sided in favour of developed countries, as the equity principle was conspicuously absent, and the implied principle was that all countries had to take part, and take on a high ambition for total emission cuts.

The Durban conference also finalized details for a new Green Climate Fund, which will start operating with a Board and interim secretariat by early 2012.

At times, the Durban talks looked as if they were going off-track, with disagreements on many issues. Even at the last session on Saturday after the two-week talks were extended by another day, there were grumbles about how the South Africans, who chaired and managed the meeting, were trying to push through resolutions and texts without allowing for changes.

In the end, Durban may be remembered for phasing out climate change frameworks based on equity and launching talks for a new treaty whose contours are yet to be defined.

This post was originally published by the South-North Development Monitor.