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Reflections on COP 17 in Durban

Written with analysis from Athena Ballesteros, Louise Brown, Florence Daviet, Crystal Davis, Aarjan Dixit, Kelly Levin, Heather McGray, Remi Moncel, Clifford Polycarp, Kirsten Stasio, Fred Stolle, and Lutz Weischer

Jennifer Morgan, Edward Cameron, and our team of climate experts look back on the key decisions from Durban and give a first take on their implications for global efforts to tackle climate change.

As weary negotiators return home from the marathon United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) talks in Durban, South Africa, opinion is divided on the deal that was struck.

Some believe the package – consisting of a new “Durban Platform” to negotiate the long-term future of the regime, a second commitment period for the Kyoto Protocol, and an array of decisions designed to implement the Cancun agreements – represents a significant step forward and cause for hope. Others are more cautious, viewing these outputs as insufficient in ambition, content, and timing to tackle the far-reaching threat of climate change. Are the outcomes from Durban sufficient to solve the climate crisis? No. Tackling climate change will be a multi-generational effort requiring sustained political engagement and a complete transition to a low-carbon economy. It is clear that our collective action remains inadequate and requires an urgent injection of ambition.

Perhaps a more suitable question to assess the Durban deal would be: Are the outcomes a step in the right direction? In principle yes, but in practice we will have to wait and see. The Durban Platform holds promise, signifying a departure on many important levels from past COP agreements. It reinforces some key building blocks for a sustained and comprehensive attempt to tackle the climate crisis. It further removes a series of contentious issues that have previously been used to block progress. Meanwhile, the Kyoto Protocol will continue into a second commitment period and thus retains the important political value of rules-based emissions reductions from a group of industrialized countries, while preserving important mechanisms such as emissions trading, the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM), and Joint Implementation. However, in the more detailed discussions concerning the Long-term Cooperative Action (LCA) track, many observers were disappointed with the lack of progress in some areas.

In the review that follows our experts provide an initial issue-by-issue assessment, detailing areas of progress and spotlighting setbacks and disappointments.

I. Assessing the Durban Platform

While opinion is divided on the Durban Platform for Enhanced Action, overall it holds a great deal of merit. The Platform seeks to establish the future direction of the climate regime by initiating a new round of negotiations to be concluded by 2015 and operationalized by 2020. We have a text that ultimately brings all Parties—from both the developed and developing world—onto one track, recognizes the emissions gap, and tries to resolve the difficult conflict between equity and environmental integrity.

When assessing the merits of the Durban Platform it is important to note the alternatives going into the final weekend. At the last moments of the negotiations the situation looked bleak. The first proposal under consideration by Parties seemed devoid of ambition, doing little to break the fundamental political problems in this process. A second option would have brought postponement of a decision or even collapse. In that context, the Durban Platform emerged as a significantly more ambitious alternative.

The Platform also has value in its own right:

  • The text calls for “the widest possible cooperation by all countries and their participation in an effective and appropriate international response”. This begins to break down the traditional divide between developed and developing countries and points to an inclusive collective action approach.
  • It also provides for reintegration under the same agreement of the developed countries that have remained outside Kyoto or withdrawn.
  • The text recognizes the need to strengthen the multilateral, rules-based regime and anticipates this through development of a “protocol, another legal instrument or an agreed outcome with legal force under the Convention applicable to all Parties” by 2015.
  • Importantly, the text notes and expresses concern at the significant emissions gap and reconfirms the long-term global goal of limiting warming to 2°C. It further provides an option for strengthening the goal to 1.5°C, which is both an important concession to the most vulnerable countries, and a vital link to forthcoming scientific assessments.
  • The tacit criticism of existing pledges, coupled with the commitment to an inclusive rules-based approach, seems to suggest that the voluntary “pledge and review” system in vogue since Copenhagen is now time-bound. This is a significant concession by many major emitters. A separate blog by WRI’s Jake Werksman looks at the legal implications of the Durban Platform text and examines what the different legal options mean for the UNFCCC. WRI also intends to prepare a more detailed political economy review of the Platform over the coming weeks.


II. The Second Commitment Period of the Kyoto Protocol

The agreement in Durban extended the Kyoto Protocol, providing a transition period for the European Union and other countries to maintain a common legal framework as they head toward a new future agreement.

Parties who sign up to the Second Commitment Period are committing to reduce emissions by at least 25%-40% below 1990 levels by 2020. It is still unclear which additional countries will join the EU in this effort. The second commitment period under the Kyoto Protocol is set to begin on January 1, 2013 and end either on December 31, 2017 or December 31, 2020.

Looking at it from a high level, with this decision the EU gained a major diplomatic victory and the developing countries ensured that the cherished instruments and rules-based principles of the Kyoto Protocol survived in the short-term. WRI will look further into the details of the Kyoto Protocol decision and publish a separate blog in the coming weeks.


III. Evaluating Progress on Implementation of the LCA Track

While the Durban Platform and the Kyoto Protocol have received most of the COP-related press coverage, it is important to recognize that negotiators tackled more than fifty related issues as part of the Durban Package.

Many of these sought to operationalize decisions taken in Cancun in December 2010 and covered vital interests including work on climate finance, transparency and reporting (MRV), the Periodic Review, adaptation, technology, ambition, and REDD.


Climate Finance

Durban grappled with a number of important issues related to mobilization and management of financial resources, including launch of the Green Climate Fund, provision of long term finance, the Standing Committee, and transparency of finance.

The Green Climate Fund

The launch of the Green Climate Fund (GCF) was one the most important outcomes from Durban. The COP approved the governing instrument, the document containing key design elements and the product of many months of painstaking negotiations. Civil society organizations including WRI played a major role in monitoring the process in order to safeguard transparency, participation, and accountability in both GCF design and operations.

Part of the GCF decision now clarifies the greater role and voice of national designated authorities in approval of funding proposals, so as to ensure consistency with national climate strategies and plans. This decision reflects the growing desire of developing countries to look at new institutional arrangements and mechanisms that, in their view, provide greater legitimacy.

With the instrument in place, attention can now turn to completing legal, administrative, and institutional arrangements, including finessing the relationship between the COP and the Fund, providing guidance to the priorities of the GCF Board once its composition is finalized, and selecting the permanent secretariat and host country of the Fund.

Long-term finance

While the GCF launch was a notable success, the failure to provide clear signals on how long-term finance to support developing countries will be raised and mobilized was an important and disappointing setback. WRI pushed for a roadmap with targets and timelines:

  • for mobilization of a wide variety of finance sources, with information on how developed countries intend to address the relative share of each of the sources;
  • on scaling up adequate and predictable climate finance after 2012, including how to address the gap between 2013-2020; and
  • on the technical reports to be used as the basis for determining long-term finance by COP 18.

The Africa group also worked hard to get financing based on assessment of developing country needs. Unfortunately developed countries were only willing to affirm the importance of continuing support after 2012. In the absence of a comprehensive pathway, countries simply agreed on a work program to contribute to efforts toward scaling up mobilization of climate finance.

With no outcome on sources, there is a concern that the GCF will be an empty shell.

Fast-start finance

On fast-start finance, developing countries called for greater transparency on reporting of developed countries’ commitment to fast-start funding and specifically pushed for the decision to include information on additionality and predictability of these funds. Unfortunately, the decision simply notes and welcomes fast-start finance provided for the period 2010-2012, and urges developed countries to continue to enhance transparency around fulfillment of their commitments. On the sidelines of the Durban negotiations, developed countries continued to come forward with new commitments for fast-start finance. However, questions still remain as to whether these funds meet certain criteria laid out in the Cancun Agreements.

Standing Committee

The Standing Committee is intended to provide advice and recommendations to the COP on the functioning of the Convention’s financial mechanism. While still evolving, its oversight role in ensuring coherence and effectiveness in climate change financing could be quite significant.

In Durban, Parties further clarified the functions of the Standing Committee and identified specific activities with respect to improving coherence and coordination in climate change financing; rationalization; mobilization of financial resources; and MRV of support provided to developing countries.

Among others, activities identified that could significantly help in understanding the landscape of climate change financial flows include:

  • providing a forum for communication and information exchange to promote linkages and coherence in climate financing;
  • providing recommendations to the COP on the coherence, effectiveness, and efficiency of the GEF and the GCF, the two operating entities of the financial mechanism of the Convention; and
  • preparing assessment and overview of climate finance flows that will generate information, for example on geographical and thematic balance in the allocation of funds within and outside the UNFCCC.

Transparency of Finance

The Durban outcome provided more detail on what information developed countries should include in their biennial reports on provision of climate finance – information that will subsequently be subject to a process of international assessment and review (IAR).

However, Parties did not yet adopt a common reporting format for finance, meaning that information provided under these reporting guidelines will likely be limited in completeness, comparability, transparency, and accuracy. Parties will have the opportunity to improve on these guidelines in the future through the work of the Subsidiary Body for Scientific and Technical Advice (SBSTA).

In addition to these formal MRV provisions on finance, more specificity was provided around the information developed countries should submit to the Secretariat for inclusion in the registry on support available for developing country NAMAs.

(Athena Ballesteros, Clifford Polycarp, Louise Brown, and Kirsten Stasio)


Transparency and Reporting (MRV)

The Durban conference was supposed to deliver detailed rules to account for, report, and review countries’ GHG emissions, actions, and finance. In Cancun, the main parameters of this system were set but important details remained to be filled. At COP 17, Parties made this MRV system operational but fell woefully short on several important items that would have ensured the environmental integrity of the regime.

On reporting and review, guidelines were adopted that will now be used by countries to develop their first biennial reports and biennial update reports in the next three years. The modalities to review these reports, through international assessment and review (IAR) and international consultations and analysis (ICA), were also set in Durban. But the final text lacked several important elements:

  • Neither the expert review teams nor the Subsidiary Body for Implementation (SBI) have the authority to make recommendations to the Party under review. However, the possibility to strengthen these modalities in the future is left open by a call to revise them after the first rounds of reviews. Parties will also consider building in compliance procedures into IAR, presumably based on the form of a future compliance mechanism under the Durban Platform.
  • The international discussions around a country’s report will be open to other Parties but no opportunity is given to observers to contribute to this process through submissions or by attending the meetings. This will limit the transparency of the process as well as its effectiveness.
  • The fact that the first reports of developing countries are not due until December 2014 is also a concern as this will likely be too late to feed into the periodic review due to take place between 2013 and 2015.
  • Additionally, the information requested of countries in their biennial reports is insufficient to enable a comprehensive assessment of global mitigation efforts.

On clarification of pledges, negotiators focused on how to gain greater clarity on the emissions reduction pledges, including underlying methodologies and assumptions. Despite recent workshops on clarification of pledges, there is a pressing need for more detail and clarity, as both are critical for tracking progress toward domestic goals and the long-term global goal of limiting warming to less than 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels.

  • The final text from Durban requires that Annex I Parties submit relevant information in a common template, convene an in-session workshop, and update a technical paper on targets. The decision is detailed in its specificity of categories of information which require clarification.
  • On non-Annex I clarification, however, the text fails to require Parties to report in a template similar to that of Annex I Parties and only "invites" non-Annex I Parties to submit further information on their actions.
  • Furthermore, there is a lack of specificity regarding the information that Parties are invited to provide. The text refers to "underlying assumptions and methodologies" but the additional detail necessary for enhancing understanding of the emissions reductions associated with the actions is lacking.

On accounting, the Durban negotiations focused on whether a common accounting system for emissions reductions and enhanced removals would be adopted, and for which Parties such rules would apply. Discussions centered on how to maintain environmental integrity while preserving flexibility for Parties.

There was also much discussion regarding how assessment of emissions reductions associated with non-Annex I Party actions could be operationalized, with a view toward harmonization. The final text will not be sufficient for ensuring environmental integrity, and opens the door to weaker accounting rules which in turn will reduce the ambition of current pledges.

On Annex I accounting, the text simply acknowledges the value of ex ante information and the need to elaborate approaches to track progress toward targets However, negotiators neither agreed to common accounting rules nor set up a process to develop such rules. This falls terribly short because it does not ensure comparability, the ability to aggregate emissions reductions globally for input into the 2013-2015 review, and quality in the carbon market. The text has no reference to non-Annex I assessment of emissions reductions.

(Remi Moncel and Kelly Levin)


The Periodic Review

When countries gathered in Cancun for COP 16 in December 2010 they decided to periodically assess overall progress toward achieving the 2°C temperature goal (the so-called “Periodic Review”) and consider strengthening the goal based on the best available scientific knowledge.

The Conference in Durban was tasked with fleshing out the Periodic Review by further defining its scope, and settling on vital design elements including institutional arrangements, timeline, and inputs.

The results in Durban were mixed. The question of scope divided delegations from the very beginning. Some countries argued that a narrow scope, limited to the issues agreed in Cancun, was vital to ensuring a manageable, efficient, and consequently meaningful review. Others argued that a broader scope, including assessments of finance, technology, adaptation, and capacity building was vital to understanding what resources are available to help countries progress toward achieving the goal. The COP proved unable to overcome these differences and so the issue of scope has been passed on to the next COP in December 2012.

The institutional arrangements also proved difficult to resolve. Some countries suggested a process managed by the Subsidiary Bodies, whereas others favored establishing an expert body with specific technical expertise. Again this issue proved to be intractable and so the final text contains an uneasy compromise with the Subsidiary Bodies providing “assistance” to the Review and consideration of the expert body also postponed until the next COP.

Fortunately negotiators did confirm the timeline agreed in Cancun. This decision was a welcome output from Durban, as allowing the schedule to slip would have undermined the very rationale of the Review. As a result the first Review should start in 2013 and be concluded by 2015.

With many of the design elements now in place Parties should use the next year to resolve their competing demands on scope and institutional arrangements. Success in this regard would enable the Review to serve as an important resource for the Durban Platform, a vital complement to the Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), and consequently as a pressure point for increasing ambition beyond 2015.

(Edward Cameron)



Durban saw renewed momentum with a number of adaptation-related decisions supporting implementation of the Cancun Adaptation Framework:

  • A new Adaptation Committee is poised to coordinate across the many UNFCCC adaptation work streams. The committee, established in Cancun, was operationalized in Durban through agreement on its membership, authorities, and modes of work. Developing countries won a majority of seats on the committee, which will play a coordinating role that entails a range of review and synthesis processes, provision of advice to various UNFCCC bodies, and information-sharing both within and outside of the UNFCCC. The committee will report to the COP through its subsidiary bodies, making it somewhat less authoritative than if it reported directly to the COP.
  • Parties agreed on a process to enable least developed countries (LDCs) to formulate and implement national adaptation plans (NAPs). This process is entirely voluntary, as is provision of funding to support NAPs development. However, it seems likely that the UNFCCC Secretariat and the LDC Experts Group will conduct workshops and other activities to provide technical support for the NAPs, and the decision calls for tracking of whether and how developed countries provide financial support. The decision also resolved a contentious matter by creating a process for exploring how non-LDCs can also be supported to develop NAPs.
  • Parties also decided to begin a new Work Program on Loss and Damage and to renew the existing Nairobi Work Program on various adaptation issues. This means two series of adaptation workshops and technical reports for the coming year. The loss and damage debate is often controversial within the UNFCCC because developed countries prefer to avoid discussions that may link to questions of liability, so a work program represents a step in a constructive new direction.

(Heather McGray and Aarjan Dixit)



In Durban, technology negotiators needed to sort out the details of the Technology Mechanism they had created in Cancun. The new mechanism will have two components, a Technology Executive Committee (TEC) and a Climate Technology Center and Network (CTCN). The TEC will be a group of international experts that can identify technology needs and priorities, coordinate international efforts, and make recommendations to make them more effective. The CTCN will provide practical support, responding to requests received from developing countries regarding mitigation and adaptation technologies.

The TEC already had its first meeting in October 2011, so the focus in Durban was on the CTCN. Delegates agreed on terms of reference, governance arrangements, and reporting lines as well as a process to select a host organization for the center. These issues have been quite contentious in the past, but sensible compromises were struck. For example, the TEC will not be involved in management of the CTCN, but will provide strategic recommendations. On the other hand, Parties created a new advisory board that will play an important role in governance of the CTCN, for example by endorsing the work program and the appointment of the Director. While this might not be the easiest institutional arrangement, it is one that all Parties were able to agree to and one that could work.

The most important task next year will be to focus on implementation, so that the technology mechanism and the support it delivers become real. The TEC needs to agree on a work program at its next meeting in February 2012 and should begin to consider issues that can inform the emerging technology mechanism, for example an assessment of global innovation ecosystems for key climate technologies.

On the CTCN, Parties need to stick to the ambitious timeline they set themselves to select a host organization within the next year. One of the few outstanding issues that delegates couldn’t agree on in Durban - the composition of the CTCN advisory board – could mean however that the mechanism is delayed and doesn’t become fully operational until later in 2013. In Durban, it became clear that there will be funding from the Global Environment Facility and other sources to create the mechanism. But in the long run, it remains an open issue how the operations of the mechanism and the activities it develops and recommends will be linked with the financial mechanism.

(Lutz Weischer)



On ambition, the LCA text falls short overall even if several provisions begin to address the need for greater collective effort.

Unfortunately, on shared vision the COP refrained from setting a global goal for substantially reducing emissions by 2050 or setting the date by which global emissions must peak. Moreover, the ambition of current pledges may be even less than initially assessed by the UNEP Emissions Gap Report, given that the range estimated was in part dictated by the rigor of accounting rules. Given that the Durban negotiations did not result in common accounting rules for Annex I Parties, nor any work plan to assess emissions reductions stemming from non-Annex I Parties’ actions, it is likely that the higher range of ambition, which depended upon “strict accounting rules,” is no longer achievable. That is, unless all Parties individually adopt the strictest accounting rules, which is unlikely in a more bottom-up system.

On a more positive note, the decision establishing the Ad Hoc Working Group on the Durban Platform launches a work plan to identify and explore options to close the ambition gap, including a workshop and submissions from Parties and observers. This is a promising first step toward identifying options beyond current pledges to increase mitigation effort and develop a pathway consistent with limiting warming to 2 degrees C.

The text further urges developed country Parties to increase ambition in the short-term. It also encourages those developing country Parties who have yet to submit NAMAs to do so, and notes that developing countries “could enhance their mitigation actions” depending on the provision of support from developed countries. The Registry, whose operating procedures were further elaborated in Durban, will provide a platform to facilitate the matching of actions with support. It remains to be seen to what extent these provisions will lead to an increase in ambition.

(Kelly Levin and Remi Moncel)


REDD+ and Forests

Many will likely be disappointed with the REDD+ decisions that occurred in Durban. While the continued commitment of the negotiators was evident, the COP failed to provide significant additional clarity and positive incentives on REDD+ policy approaches.

The Durban negotiations did not yield especially robust guidance or modalities on the safeguards or on reference levels and reference emission levels. The final text provides no clear accountability mechanisms to ensure the social and environmental integrity of these aspects, beyond promoting transparency. While SBSTA has a mandate to lead further discussions on these and related issues, more work will be required to resolve them.

The LCA text reaffirms the provisions in the Cancun Agreements, opening the door for further discussions on financing results-based actions and other actions linked to implementing the safeguards, addressing the drivers of deforestation, addressing land tenure and forest governance issues, and ensuring effective participation of relevant stakeholders.

Overall, the text remains vague and open-ended regarding specific actions that could be supported. On sources of finance, tensions remain between market and non-market approaches. On one hand, the text allows for development of a non-market joint mitigation and adaptation incentive approach to support improvements in governance, implementation of safeguards, and the multiple functions of forests. On the other hand, it opens the door to “appropriate market-based approaches”, providing that environmental integrity is preserved and the provisions in the Cancun Agreements related to needed systems and safeguards are fully respected.

Perhaps, after 5 years, there should be a clearer vision for what the policies and positive incentives for REDD+ should be. However, it is possible that the diversity of visions is growing from an increased understanding of the complexities facing countries seeking to achieve REDD+. The text seems to indicate a willingness among Parties to consider various approaches for delivering incentives to achieve REDD+. While this openness may present some challenges in the short term, it may also allow for a more sustainable vision for achieving REDD+ financing in the medium and long term.

(Florence Daviet, Crystal Davis, Fred Stolle)



Overall, the Durban outcome is mixed, but provides elements of a strong foundation to build upon as long as countries continue to push for short-term ambition and to move toward low-carbon development.

The Durban Platform is an empowering document, which recognizes the emissions gap, confirms the long-term goal, restores faith in multilateralism, and points to a future regime that has legal force and universal membership. The extension of Kyoto is a positive development as it preserves the key mechanisms such as emissions trading and the CDM. It further represents an important political gesture by a set of major industrialized countries.

On the other hand, there were many significant shortcomings, especially with some of the LCA text. Too many issues were left unresolved and some aspects even moved in the wrong direction. However, by presenting the LCA text as one part of a wider package, the Presidency forced delegations into a corner. Ultimately, Parties accepted a less than satisfactory LCA text as the price for moving forward with a second commitment period for Kyoto and the Durban Platform. The details of these texts will need to be clarified and strengthened in the months ahead.

Certainly, discussion over the relative strengths and weaknesses of the Durban Package will continue for some time. Ultimately, the test of this outcome will be determined in the future as we see if countries follow through on their commitment to work collectively on this global issue, and if they are able to raise their ambition to meet the scale of the challenge.


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