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What to Aim For, and Expect, at the UNFCCC Climate Talks in Durban

The thousands of delegates preparing to descend on Durban for COP17 should read Robert F. Kennedy’s famous “Day of Affirmation” speech en route. They will discover a call to action as powerful today as it was almost half a century ago. They will also find sensible guidance on how to overcome the sense of drift that has gripped the climate negotiations for much of this past year. If they heed his call they may discover that African soils are not for burying the climate regime as some pessimists suggest, but rather for growing the seeds of its future success. When Senator Kennedy spoke at the University of Cape Town in June 1966, he identified four specific obstacles to transformative change. Today these same obstacles loom in Durban, threatening implementation of the Cancun Agreements, a second commitment period for the Kyoto Protocol, and agreement on a mandate for a comprehensive and legally binding agreement by 2015.

The first obstacle Kennedy identified was “futility;” the belief that success is beyond reach. It has become fashionable to dismiss the UNFCCC as a dysfunctional forum where agenda fights are the norm, and speaking points are traded at the expense of reasonable and constructive dialogue.

The second obstacle he highlighted was that of “expediency;” the view that we must trade idealism for pragmatism. In Durban this means setting aside urgency and ambition for an incremental and voluntary approach to climate policy in order to pacify some of the key players and the domestic political constraints they face.

The third obstacle was “timidity.” At COP17 there is a danger that some key players will arrive feeling hesitant, distracted by the political and economic events of the past weeks, and consequently will lack the resolve to work towards a grand bargain to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

The fourth and final obstacle is “comfort;” the temptation to follow the easy and familiar paths. By UNFCCC standards this means stumbling to the end of the second week of negotiations with just enough progress to claim that we have saved the process but not necessarily the climate.

While the obstacles are significant, there is good hope for overcoming them:

  • First, we should not discount the genuine progress that has been made during the past year across a range of issues areas including accounting and reporting, climate finance, carbon markets, adaptation, technology, and developing a process for the 2013-2015 Periodic Review. Parties are crafting decision text on many of these issues for Durban, greatly enhancing the prospects for implementation. The Periodic Review in particular represents a real opportunity to spotlight the inadequacy of current commitments and stimulate the type of ambition that can drive the deep cuts in global greenhouse emissions that are necessary to avoid dangerous climate change.

  • Second, a decision to preserve the Kyoto Protocol and embark on a second commitment period would retain a viable alternative to the voluntary “pledge and review” approach that has been in vogue since Copenhagen.

  • Third, while some observers expect the Europeans to be timid and distracted due to the ongoing crisis in the eurozone, others recognize that securing a comprehensive package in Durban would represent a genuine diplomatic victory for the EU and earn valuable capital with major international partners.

  • And finally pulling negotiators out of their comfort zone will require leadership and high-level engagement. However, there are enough heads of government with a deep understanding of the climate challenge and a genuine desire to avoid deadlock. They need to be on the phone during the second week pushing for their delegations to resolve disputes, encouraging their counterparts to compromise, and driving the hard trade-offs that will lead to progress.

Three Scenarios for Durban

So what will the final Durban outcome look like? It is fair to say that the jury is still out. To see the full picture, one needs to consider each of the three pillars of the negotiations.

  • The first pillar focuses on the Kyoto Protocol and the future of the second commitment period. Will current Kyoto Parties place their GHG reduction pledges from Cancun into the second commitment period of the Kyoto Protocol, thus increasing the level of “bindingness” of those pledges from their current voluntary state?

  • The second pillar focuses on the question of the legal form for all countries in the future. Will Parties decide on a mandate to conclude negotiations on a legally binding instrument for all Parties by a certain date, e.g., 2015?

  • The third pillar is the set of detailed rules that are under negotiation in the Cancun Agreements. What are the detailed rules for the Green Climate Fund, the Adaptation Mechanism, REDD+, and measurement, reporting, and verification (MRV), etc.?

While theoretically one could mix and match the various parts of each of these pillars, how they are linked is becoming clearer. It seems that there are at least three possible scenarios for the final Durban outcome.

Scenario 1: Kyoto + Cancun + Legal Agreement in the Future

Scenario One includes an amendment of the Kyoto Protocol to create a second commitment period as well as amendments regarding the linked set of issues (e.g., rules governing land-use, land-use change and forestry; carry-over of excess emissions allowances; Global Warming Potentials; etc). In addition, Parties could agree on a mandate to adopt a legally binding instrument with legally binding commitments for all Parties by a certain date, e.g., 2015. The mandate could take the form of an amendment to the Convention or a new instrument. The Cancun Agreements would also move forward and would be further “operationalized.” This means that Parties would decide upon detailed rules for the transparency provisions, the Green Climate Fund, and the other elements of the Cancun Agreements.

Scenario 2: Cancun Implementation

It is clear that the level of certainty and clarity around the second commitment period is very strongly linked to the level of certainty and clarity of the mandate described above. In Scenario Two, Parties stop short of amendments to the Kyoto Protocol and propose something softer, perhaps a decision or a political declaration. In this scenario the set of Cancun decisions still move forward but the mandate for a legally binding instrument by 2015 with legally binding commitments for all Parties would be soft or vague, with no date or specific use of the words “legal” or “binding.” As noted above, no clarity on the second commitment period means no clarity on the mandate.

Scenario 3: No Progress

Scenario Three is a bit more extreme in that the softer language on Kyoto described above would make further agreement on the Cancun decisions impossible and a mandate impossible as well. Some Parties have placed great importance on a second commitment period of the Kyoto Protocol. If it is not delivered, they could perhaps decide to block progress and decisions on other issues.

We hope that Durban can both get the new institutions and networks up and running through a detailed set of decisions on the Cancun Agreements, and create a roadmap with a deadline for the final legal form of an agreement. Countries need to get down to work to implement what they promised in Copenhagen in 2009 and increase the ambition of those promises very soon. The recent World Energy Outlook of the International Energy Agency crystallized the situation quite clearly: we are heading for irreversible climate change in five years if current trends continue. Durban is a moment for countries to grasp the opportunity to forge forward together and ensure that the goal of staying below a 2°C rise in global temperature stays within reach.

Kennedy said “each time a man stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope, and crossing each other from a million different centers of energy and daring, those ripples build a current which can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance.” COP17 may not produce the silver bullet that solves the climate crisis but perhaps it doesn’t have to. If negotiators can sum up the courage and creativity to implement Cancun, preserve Kyoto, and create a time-bound path for restoring urgency and ambition to the process, they will send forth the tiny ripples of hope that together would constitute a very successful outcome in Durban.

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