Durban 2011

The “Durban Platform” – Blind to the Problemen

©© Colourbox.comOne description of the UN climate conference in Durban was “breakthrough to a world climate treaty”; but another one soon followed: “license to do nothing for ten years”. Durban set up a platform for a new climate treaty, but it remains open what the treaty will look like. A Commentary by Udo E. Simonis.

That the successor treaty to the Kyoto Protocol will be concluded only in 2015 and put into effect only in 2020 misses the real target of climate policy (already agreed upon in Cancun in 2010): to limit global warming to not more than 2° C above pre-industrial levels. The final document from Durban contains three important parts.

Kyoto Protocol extended

The Kyoto Protocol, the only binding international treaty under the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, was extended: the first commitment period, which expires in 2012, will be followed by a second one. Whether this extension then obtains until 2017 (as has been suggested by the EU) or until 2020 (as is demanded by emerging countries), however, will be decided only at the climate conference in 2012 in Qatar. The extension encourages the participating industrial countries to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions by 25 to 40 percent compared with 1990; to this end, they are expected to submit proposals by May 2012.

Even before the conference, three major emitters, Japan, Canada and Russia, already announced that they no longer mean to submit to a second period of commitment. Only two hours after returning from Durban, Canada’s Environment Minister made good the threat. Nor does the stance of the Japanese government lag behind this irresponsibility towards the global problem of climate change in the least: it has boycotted the treaty associated with the country’s former capital, Kyoto, and so politically discredited itself. And Russia, which could benefit tremendously from the implementation of the Protocol, has put at risk its opportunity for ecological modernization.

The actually good news of the Kyoto Protocol’s extension has thus been turned into its opposite: in the second period, of the formerly more than 55 per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions covered by the treaty, there now remains only 15 per cent.

Green Climate Fund established

From left to right: UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, President of South Africa Jacob Zuma, President of the Conference Maite Nkoana-Mashabane and UNFCC Deputy Executive Secretary Richard Kinley; Photo: UNClimatchange; Creative CommonsThe Green Climate Fund, already decided upon in Cacun, will become operational in 2012. Germany, Switzerland, Singapore and South Korea have applied to be the seat of the Fund, which will be monitored by 10 representatives each from industrialized and developing countries and will be mainly devoted to adaptation to consequences of climate change. Beginning in 2020, the Fund will have an annual budget of $ 100 billion.

Where this money is to come from, however, remained moot in Durban. The conference discussed a tax on CO2 emissions (in sea and air traffic), but this was then deleted from the text of the agreement. Yet the agreement already specified a use for the funds: underground carbon capture and storage (CCS), frowned upon in Germany, was recognized as a climate protection measure.

Roadmap for a new climate agreement

In 2012, all states will begin negotiating a comprehensive agreement on climate protection, by 2015 negotiations are to be concluded, and after implementation at the national level, by 2020 the agreement is to come into force. Its purpose is to limit the increase of global warming to 1.5 C or maximally 2° C. By what means this should take place, however, remained open – in Durban such specifics were a minor concern.

Still, the upcoming Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) will be incorporated into the agreement and the climate conference in Qatar will decide on the global ceilings for greenhouse gases by 2050 and the date on which emissions are to drop worldwide.

The binding effect of the new contract was an object of dispute in Durban until the end. The final document speaks of a legal instrument or of an agreement with legal force, which is less than a legally binding agreement or protocol under UN law.


Durban Skyline; Photo: below; Creative CommonsHow should we assess the outcome of the Durban conference? The South African Presidency thought that Durban had “written history”. The German Environment Minister praised the results as a “great, groundbreaking success for global climate protection”. By contrast, the BUND thought the “rescue plan for the climate” is full of holes. The WWF said that Durban “wrapped up a brilliant package, but it is almost empty”. And in the opinion of Oxfam, because of developed countries’ weak commitment to climate protection, “the world is moving closer to global warming of 4° C and over”.

In view of the blindness of the Durban platform, we might be inclined to seek refuge with a philosopher. Arthur Schopenhauer once defined one law of satisfaction as follows: “To be satisfied and to remain so, you have two options: lower your expectations or increase your efforts!” Considering the potential disaster that lies in climate change and its inherent risks, we cannot wish to lower our expectations of climate policy – the opposite would rather be indicated. But how can we go about increasing our efforts?

One strategic signal sent at Durban was the forming of potentially strong climate cooperations. For the first time there was a surmounting of the North-South conflict: the EU allied itself with the poorest countries (LDCs), with Africa and the Small Island States (AOSIS), and no longer sought to find a compromise with the United States and other notorious hinderers of climate policy. Conversely, the developing countries recognized that China, the largest CO2 emitter in the world and with rapidly rising per capita emissions, must now seek its own solutions. The United States and China, together with India, account for more than half of all global greenhouse gas emissions. Whether these countries achieve an absolute reduction of emissions by 2020 is thus a crucial question. International climate policy could contribute to the answer. Beyond this, however, there must be a thoroughgoing ecological transformation of the economy, for historically, progress has always been the result of a hard-fought dismantling of power and privileges.

Another strategic signal was unfortunately not sent at Durban: in comparison with economic interests, ecological interests are poorly positioned institutionally; there is no parity. The International Monetary Fund, the World Trade Organization and the G20 – all these economically relevant institutions have no capable ecological counterpart. Early on, scientists put forward the idea of a World Environment Organization, but even after 17 climate conferences this has been understood as nothing more than the urgent search for common interests – including in Durban. Hopes now rest on “Rio + 20”, the upcoming UN Conference on Environment and Development in 2012.

Udo E. Simonis
is professor emeritus in the field of environmental politics research at the Wissenschaftszentrum Berlin für Sozialforschung (Social Science Research Centre Berlin) and since 1991 he has co-published the “Jahrbuch Ökologie” (Ecology Yearbook).

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

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