A Small breakthrough at Durban: Is it too little, too late? Fr. Seán McDonagh,SSC


COP 17, the Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, was scheduled to end on Friday December 9th 2011.  At that point there was no agreement on a second commitment period for the Kyoto Protocol (KP) nor a willingness to accept legally binding cuts to greenhouse gas emissions by either the United States, India or China. On Thursday, December 8th 2011 and through much of Friday, December 9th 2011, it appeared as if the conference was going to end in a disaster similar to what happened in Copenhagen in 2009.

Some momentum, initiated by the Connie Hedegaard, the EU’s climate chief, entered into the discussions on Friday afternoon.  She held private talks with small and large countries  in order to secure a deal.   As a result, the negotiators decided to extend the conference throughout Saturday.  Finally, on Sunday morning a compromise agreement was reached.  Included in the accord was the extension of the Kyoto Protocol for another five years.  The Kyoto Protocol was due to end in 2012.  This new agreement will extend that date to 2017. The Kyoto Protocol is the only legally binding treaty requiring rich countries (in the jargon of the COP Annex 1 countries) to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions by 5 per cent on 1990s levels.  Though the United States signed the Kyoto Protocol in 1997, it was never ratified by the US Senate and once George W Bush became president he withdrew US support for the Kyoto Protocol. Throughout the Durban talks the developing countries were united in their demand that the Kyoto Protocol must be extended for a second period.  Many of the countries which had signed the KP, such as Russia, Canada and even Japan, where it was negotiated, indicated that they would not support a second period for the KP unless other developed and developing countries agreed to limit their greenhouse gas emissions. While securing a second period for the KP, it is important to remember that KP countries are only responsible for emitting 15 precent of global greenhouse gas emissions.[1] So, while it is being presented as a victory for poorer countries, in the larger scheme of things it is a very small victory.

In 1997, though the both the Indian and especially China economy had been growing spectacularly over the previous decade, they did not rate as major emitters of greenhouse gases.  All of that changed in the past decade, and in 2005, China, as a country, became the number one emitter of greenhouse gases on the planet.  However in  per capita terms the average Chinese person only emits one quarter as much as the average US citizen.  The Durban Platform for Enhanced Action, commits all countries to work towards a new legally binding agreement to cut greenhouse gases to be decided by 2015. This agreement would then come into force in 2020.

Much of the hard negotiation centred on the semantics of what legally binding commitments actually mean. The language game continued through most of Saturday.  The term “legal framework” was dropped in preference for “protocol or legal instrument.” This was further diluted to “legal outcome.” The EU  negotiators were thoroughly frustrated at this point and began to challenge counties such as India and China to assume their responsibilities for climate change.  This led to an angry response from the Indian minister for the environment, Jayanthi Natarajan who stated that “India will never be intimated by threats.” She in turn was supported by the Chinese delegation who thought that India and China were being strongarmed by the EU into a deal that might not suit them.  Connie Hedegaard kept her nerve and after some huddles among the negotiating parties the two women agreed to accept the phrase “agreed outcome with legal force” was accepted.  But even Christiana Figueres`, the UNFCCC Executive Secretary admits that what the phrase means has still to be decided. The fact that an agreement was finally reached was seen as a victory for the EU as a corporate body with all the component nations acting together.  The outcome was very different from what happened at Copenhagen when initiatives from the EU were cast aside.

The Green Climate Fund which has been under negotiations during the past few COPs was set up at Durban.  This fund will be used to channel US$100 billion each year to countries which are affected by climate change.


Karl Hood who is both foreign minister of Grenada and the chair of the alliance of small island states, which could be swamped by rising sea levels as a result of climate change was ambivalent about what had been achieved in Durban.  On the positive side it was the first time that a legal framework had been agreed outside of the KP process and it is destined to apply to all nations.  On the negative side, the Durban Platform for Enhanced Action is vague and will not come into effect until 2020.  The scientific consensus is that carbon dioxide emissions need to peak by 2015 if the goal of keeping the average global temperature rise to less than two degrees Celsius above the pre-industrial level is to be achieved. Beyond that climate change can become both catastrophic and irreversible in historical time.

Just to give a sense of the perilous situation which we face, on December 13th 2011, Russian scientists found unprecedented plumes of methane bubbling up to the surface in the Arctic Ocean.  Methane is 20 times more potent as a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide.  The sheer scale of what is happening astonished the Russian research team which have been monitoring these waters for the past 20 years. According to Steve Connor writing in The Independen, scientists believe that here are hundreds of millions of tonnes of methane gas locked away beneath the Arctic permafrost.   The permafrost extends from the mainland into the shallow waters of the East Siberia Arctic Shelf.  With the disappearance of Arctic sea-ice in the summer and the gradual increase in temperature across this area of the Arctic, scientists fear that the trapped methane in the permafrost could suddenly be released into the atmosphere. This “time bomb” release of methane from the Arctic region would lead to severe climate change much further beyond the 2 degree Celsius rise the UNFCCC is  trying to prevent. [2]

Civil Society Organisations (CSOs) share a similar perspective regarding the limitations of the Durban Platform.  Tony Rawe from the Charity Care USA said that the negotiators “had failed the planet and especially the world’s poorest who are already suffering from the devastating impacts of climate change.”[3]

According to Andy Atkins Executive Director of Friends of the Earth, “The UN climate change process is still alive but this empty shell of a plan leaves the planet hurtling towards catastrophic climate change. If Durban is to be a historic stepping stone towards success the world must urgently agree ambitious targets to slash emissions.”[4]

[1]  Pilita Clark and Andrew England, “Battle loom over detail of climate pack,” Financial Times, December 12, 2011, page 7.

[2]  Steve Connor, “Shock as retreat of Arctic sea ice releases deadly greenhouse gas, The Independent, December 13th 2011, page 2

[3]  ibid

[4] Natasha Kertesz,  “ Durban Platform provides a vague roadmap for climate change action,” December 12th 2011, http://therandomfact.com/durban-platform-provides-a-vague-roadmap-for-climate-change-action/2210806




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