OP-ED: Climate Change – A Faltering Step Forward in Durban (?)

Ambassador Dr Palitha Kohona, Permanent Representative of Sri Lanka to the United Nations

NEW YORK, Jan 19 2012 (IPS) - After much huffing, puffing, loss of sleep and negotiations that set a record for Conference of the Parties (COP) meetings, (the longest COP ever!), the 17th UN Convention on Climate Change COP in Durban last December produced a modest outcome. A bemused Sri Lankan delegate observed that it was like digging a mighty mountain and finding a tiny mouse.

COP 17 thankfully did not set out to achieve ambitious emissions reductions goals (like COP 15 in Copenhagen) or to address the problem of climate change in one fell swoop. With constraints imposed by current global realities (the continuing financial crises, particularly in Europe, looming elections in the US, widespread unemployment and cut backs of social entitlements in many developed countries, etc), the modest Durban outcomes left many delegates unhappy, especially those from the developing South, and many island states fearing for their very survival.

The US, unsurprisingly expressed satisfaction with this modest result. The UK hailed the success of European diplomacy. The tone of the meeting was still of “doing a deal”, not of sympathetically addressing a problem which will impact on the existence of a number of countries and the future of millions of poor. The end to the negotiations and agreement on the outcomes came early on Sunday morning, on 11 December, after many developing country delegations had left for home on Friday night or on Saturday.

Importantly, the key outcome of COP 17 was the agreement on the Durban Platform which includes establishing an Ad Hoc Working Group for Enhanced Action (AWG – DP). The AWG-DP is mandated to develop a “protocol, another legal instrument or an agreed outcome with legal force under the Convention applicable to all the parties”.

Somewhat unclear, this is intended to be the post Kyoto framework to be completed by 2015 and to take effect in 2020, hopefully containing more ambitious emissions reductions commitments for all parties. India and other developing countries accepted this formula in the end because of the possibility that it would be a platform from which to address their concerns. The AWG-DP is expected to begin work in the first half of 2012. At the negotiations (and in the lead up), the US resisted agreeing to a legally binding instrument (a possible negative domestic reaction in a difficult economic environment may be the underlying reason) while the EU pushed for one to replace Kyoto.

The developing countries which had argued for a legally binding agreement in the lead up to Durban, balked at the content of what the EU proposed. This negative reaction was to be expected as the Platform omitted the principles of equity and the Common But Differentiated Responsibilities (CBDR), language long incorporated in international climate change instruments and used as shorthand for exempting developing countries from making emissions reduction commitments. This was a major setback from a developing country perspective as these principles, clearly reflected in the Rio Declaration, had been part of the established expectations framework from climate change negotiations for many years. The AWG-DP will now need to take this bull by the horns.

While the Kyoto Protocol has been extended, the length of the post Kyoto commitments periods are unclear and are still to be determined, raising the question whether the Kyoto Protocol is now history. In addition, the Durban Platform operationalized the Green Climate Fund (GCF), agreed at Cancun, by laying out the process for its implementation. The GCF will have a legal personality and its secretariat will be an autonomous unit within the UNFCCC Secretariat. The Board of the GCF will approve requests for funding through a no-objection procedure, to ensure compatibility of the GCF’s actions with domestic climate policies (departing from language in the original governing instrument that would have allowed the private sector also to borrow from the fund without approval from national authorities – a concern for developing countries at the conference). Drawing on the successful GEF, the 24 board members of the GCF would be evenly divided between developing and developed countries.

Contributions to the fund have begun to be pledged, although in modest amounts. Fears exist whether the $100 billion anticipated annually by 2020 will ever materialise. Sri Lanka has already made a request for $.5 billion for adaptation programmes for the period 2011 to 2016.

The insistence by developed countries, especially the US, on emissions reductions commitments by developing countries will remain a sticking point for the negotiations. While some developing countries with rapidly surging economic capabilities (eg. China, Brazil, India, Republic of Korea, etc) may be able to progressively reduce national emissions levels and also continue to grow, a large number of them will simply not be capable of reducing emissions and progress along a growth path without substantial external financial assistance and technology transfers.

The funding for this purpose is simply not available and the current economic problems in developed economies do not bode well for future financial assistance. While the GCF is an encouraging start, the non-delivery of pledges made to assist with the realisation of the MDGs and the Monterrey Accords raises a worrying red flag. The slide away from the CBDR may rankle with developing countries which have insisted on their right to a fair share of the global carbon space which has been over-occupied by the developed countries for a century or more. The current consumption levels of developed countries may be difficult or impossible to reduce.

While the world grapples with such weighty issues, many members of AOSIS will worry about their very existence, as they mull a possible rise of 3.5c in the mean global temperature this century. Raising fears all round of an unmanageable precedent, Canada which had been an enthusiastic champion of of the environment in the past, denounced the Kyoto Protocol on 10 December.

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