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Expectations Low, But Urgency Very High at Durban Climate Talks

This post originally appeared in the National Journal Energy & Environment Expert Blog. The question was, "What should negotiators seek to accomplish during this year's international climate talks?"

As the climate negotiations open in Durban, we find a peculiar paradox. While expectations for the talks remain quite low, the urgency is very high.

This dynamic is even more pronounced in the United States, where climate change continues to be largely ignored in political circles; except, that is, when the science is under attack. Meanwhile study after study show that greenhouse gas emissions continue to rise as the climate crisis worsens. Therefore, it is important to consider why we need to take advantage of opportunities like Durban.

First off, a rash of recent reports provide strong and consistent support that emissions are rising:

  • The World Meteorological Organization announced last week that the amount of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere reached a record high in 2010, with carbon dioxide, in particular, exceeding 389 parts per million.
  • In early November, the U.S. Department of Energy reported that global carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuel combustion and cement manufacture jumped by 6 percent between 2009 and 2010, a record increase.
  • A new UN Environment Programme report found a growing gap between global GHG emissions and what the science says is needed to stay within 2 degrees Celsius of warming. The gap is now projected to be between 6 to 11 gigatonnes carbon dioxide equivalent (up from the range of 5 to 9 gigatonnes that was projected last year).
  • The International Energy Agency's World Energy Outlook 2011 found that energy-related emissions of carbon dioxide jumped by 5.3 percent in 2010, rising to a record 30.4 gigatonnes. Furthermore, IEA warned that the existing energy-related infrastructure leaves hardly any room for additional power plants, factories and other infrastructure, if we are to have a fighting chance to limit warming to 2 degrees Celsius, unless stringent new action is forthcoming by 2017.

On top of these findings, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) just released the most comprehensive scientific analysis undertaken about the connection between extreme weather and climate change – finding strong links between the two. We are already getting a taste of what a more extreme world will look like, with vivid examples such as the drought and raging wildfires in the southwestern United States and the epic flooding that submerged much of Thailand.

While these developments have not led to the kind of public outrage that we’ve seen recently around other issues, like the financial crisis, this does not lessen the need for a robust response.

The Three Pillars

To be sure, there are key areas that need to be addressed to advance the negotiations in Durban. Progress is mostly wrapped around three pillars:

  1. Rulemaking around the Cancun Agreements. Last year, countries came together around a set of issues, including emissions pledges, accounting rules, transparency provisions, scientific review, adaptation, technology, and forests. The next step is to make these issues operational both in terms of how the mechanisms will work and how the institutions are set up.
  2. Second commitment period of the Kyoto Protocol. This first commitment period of the Kyoto Protocol ends in 2012. This is, therefore, a key moment for the world’s only international legally- binding climate agreement. The question remains whether the Parties under Kyoto will agree to enter their 2020 emission pledges into a second commitment period, or if another solution is possible.
  3. A mandate, or roadmap, to create a legally-binding climate agreement in the near future (e.g., by 2015). For many countries, a legally binding agreement is preferable as it carries greater levels of accountability and transparency around climate action. While the full details of such an agreement are not expected to be worked out in Durban, it is important for negotiators to set a clear course for moving forward.

Signs of Life

While few are expecting a major breakthrough in Durban, there have been signs of movement.

Most notable is the recent proposal by the European Union to go forward with a 2nd commitment period of the Kyoto Protocol, if all Parties are willing to develop and enter into a “future global and comprehensive legally-binding framework.” This proposal is being given serious consideration and opens the door for others to engage.

In addition, several countries, including China, Germany, the United Kingdom, and Australia, have pushed ahead with domestic action to set targets and control their emissions. Each of these can play a leadership role in the talks.

Then, of course, there’s the United States, which remains an important player, if somewhat less prominent than in previous years. While U.S. political dynamics are not favorable for federal action on climate change right now, the United States isn’t the only country that faces tricky politics and financial constraints. Even in this atmosphere, the United States can play a constructive role and have a positive influence on countries that are looking to engage.


While the spotlight may be less intense than in recent years, the Durban meeting represents an important opportunity to work through the details and develop concrete plans for the road ahead.

Such progress can help resolve the climate paradox – bringing the UN negotiations closer in line with the action that is needed, while also helping restore confidence in the system.

Given the challenges at hand, we cannot afford to let this opportunity slip by.

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