Durban 2011

Climate Summit in Durban – A Paradigm Change hasn’t yet Prevailed

Die Skyline von Durban; © Torsten Bothe - Fotolia.comSkyline of Durban, South Africa; © Thorsten Bothe – Fotolia.comThe debt crisis and the hardening fronts in the American election campaign have booted the subject of climate change off the political agenda. A bad omen for the upcoming climate summit in Durban, where representatives of the UN member states will come together from 28 November to 9 December to discuss the continuation of the Kyoto Protocol, which expires at the end of 2012. An Interview with Sven Harmeling, team leader of the international climate policy lobbying organization for ecological sustainability and justice, Germanwatch.

Mr Harmeling, no one talks any more about climate protection and the limits of growth. They were last on the agenda in Berlin at the beginning of July, when Chancellor Angela Merkel called for a follow-up agreement to the Kyoto Protocol, but Environment Minister Röttgen already seems to anticipate difficulties and has voiced doubts about a major breakthrough at Durban. What place does the climate summit now have on government agenda, and what are its goals?

It’s already obvious that at present the short-term crisis – that is, the financial and debt crisis – has drawn a large part of political attention to itself. We must guard against this leading us to run with open eyes deeper into the climate and energy crisis. Let’s not forget that in Germany, despite the financial crisis, a serious and irreversible change in energy policy has been initiated, for whose success politics, economics and society must actively cooperate if it isn’t to go down in history as a failed experiment. That would be fatal for international climate protection.

The Durban conference is about making concrete the resolutions of last year’s climate summit in Cancún – for example, the Green Climate Fund and other institutions in areas touching on the adjustment to climate change and on technology. But the bigger construction site is working on putting the climate regime on a broader basis, which better reflects today’s realities. A second period of commitment to Kyoto – here the EU plays a key role – is a central element, but would have a real effect on the climate only with concomitant improvements of the Protocol and a more extensive obligation of the United States and emerging economies. At the same time, the foundation must be laid for higher ambitions in climate protection, because time is getting shorter and shorter.

Climate policy paradigm change in Europe

Cop17 Logo; © UNOIn the meantime the election primary battles have begun in the USA and clean energy “has become a dirty word”, as we hear. The slogan is: No additional burdens on the economy in times of threatened recession. In view of polls in which over half of all Americans doubt the existence of global warming and even potential presidential candidates deny climate change, the EU Climate Commissioner Connie Heidegard thinks it looks rather bad for Durban. Rightly so?

The United States is in fact a big problem at present. Hopes for a change in climate policy under Obama haven’t been fulfilled; the general political polarization in the country is particularly extreme on the subject of climate. On the other hand, voices are becoming louder that see chances to stem economic and political decline only in ecological and economic renewal. In a certain sense, there is currently a climate policy culture war raging in America. Significant promises on the international stage, however, can be expected only when the emerging countries are prepared to take bigger steps. One question is therefore whether the progressive states form a coalition to strengthen their position and don’t wait for stragglers, but also don’t exclude them.

In view of the current financial constraints, what goals are realistic for the Europeans?

Sven Harmeling; © privatThe paradigm change to the effect that climate protection can be an engine for an ecological-economic renewal of Europe has been initiated, but it hasn’t yet prevailed everywhere. That’s the only explanation for the repeatedly asked question whether Europe can afford a more ambitious climate policy. The question is rather whether it can afford the discouragement to let itself be checked by the possible losers in such a modernization and continue in its strong dependence on energy imports. It’s a question of the diversion of investments to dynamic energy efficient standards and the development of renewable energies rather than of governments having to pay out money.

The Federal Ministry of Research has recently presented an interdisciplinary report on the chances and risks of repairing climate change by climate engineering. Could this be an alternative?

It seems utterly bumptious to want to interfere with the already highly complex climate system instead of relying on technically relatively simple solutions for the climate problem such as the reform of the energy infra-structure. The science says very clearly that the consequences of such interventions can be hardly foreseen. Moreover, such technologies harbor the potential for large-scale military and political misuse. Unfortunately, there are still players who can think only in terms of big solutions. As we’ve seen with nuclear energy, these are usually neither the best nor the safest.

Sven Harmeling, born 1977, studied geography, political science and environmental and resource economics at the Universities of Bonn, Hanover and Vienna. He worked at the Wuppertal Institute for Climate, Environment and Energy, and has been active in Germanwatch since 2005. He has taken part in numerous UN climate conferences. Since 2011 he is head of Germanwatch’s Team for International Climate Policy. In addition, he is coordinating the adjustment work group at the Climate Action Network International since 2008 and is spokesman of Climate Ltd., the umbrella organization of German NGOs in development policy (VENRO).

Roland Detsch
Conducted the interview. He is a freelance editor, journalist and writer based in Landshut and Munich.

Translation: Jonathan Uhlaner
Copyright: Goethe-Institut e. V., Internet-Redaktion
November 2011

Any questions about this article? Please write to us!

Related links

Future Perfect

The Goethe-Institut and the foundation Futurzwei collect stories for tomorrow – lived today, everywhere.


In "EnergieWendeKunst", artists give aesthetic expression to their ideas about climate change. The catalogue will be released in November 2015.

Global Ideas

GLOBAL IDEAS brings you original reporting about the smartest local projects to fight global climate change. All around the world.

Glacier Music

What do melting glaciers sound like? An art project and an open competition for multimedia artists from Central Asia on the problem of advancing glacial melting.