In Depth: Was Durban a climate breakthrough or disaster?

Leading up to 31 October 2011, communities across Victoria and other states of Australia will be passing a human sized earth globe from suburb to suburb and town to town until it reaches Canberra. This is the Earth Relay. The hope is that the relay will generate media and community attention along its passage to parliament and the Earth Dome will act as a symbol of hope and optimism for a cleaner, safer world.Climate Action Moreland hosted a leg of the Earth Relay on Saturday 8 October 2011 from 11.30 am to 12.30 pm outside the Brunswick Mechanics Institute, corner of Glenlyon Road and Sydney Road, Brunswick. Members of Climate Action Moreland sent a message about how we think the carbon price can be improved, particularly increasing the 5% target.Once the legislation is passed through Federal parliament in Canberra, the Earth Dome will be packed up and shipped to Durban for the Durban Conference of the Parties climate negotiations - COP17 - to be held in South Africa from 28 November - 9 December 2011, and with it will go our pride that finally Australia is acting on climate change and our hope that this will help deliver progress on climate change on the international stage.

Those prone to optimism hail the outcome in Durban as a long-overdue breakthrough for the torturous UN climate talks.

Those who trade in cynicism condemn the deal, claiming it is not worth the paper it was printed on in terms of stemming the onset of cataclysmic climate change.

Paradoxically, both camps are correct.

Good news first: The “ Durban platform”, clinched nearly 30 hours after the two-week negotiations were scheduled to draw to a close, contains several elements that can accurately be described as game-changers for the UN climate process – and hold huge potential for renewables.

Seemingly to their own surprise, China, the US and India all agreed to take on emissions-reduction targets “with legal force” by 2020 at the latest.

The language now binding the world’s three biggest emitters into some sort of legal obligation is too porous for many observers. But only the most dewy-eyed optimists arrived in Durban expecting such a positive outcome.

“The political signal delivered by Durban is more powerful than the actual substance of the agreement,” says Ruth Davis, chief policy advisor for Greenpeace UK.

In previous rounds of negotiations China and India ferociously resisted any legal obligations, arguing that economic growth must take precedent over environmental concerns. Opportunistically, the US insisted that it could not countenance any such obligations if countries like China were exempted.

This time round all three countries were painted into a corner by the EU’s negotiating position, which proved a masterstroke.

EU Climate Commissioner Connie Hedegaard made clear coming into Durban that Europe would not accept a second commitment period to the Kyoto Protocol (KP) – a key demand of developing nations – unless all major emitters submitted to a “roadmap” leading to a legally binding global treaty by 2020 at the latest.

Hedegaard’s logic was brutally simple: All the wind farms and electric vehicles in the world are worthless if China and other rapidly industrialising nations continue building coal-fired power plants at their current rate.

The gambit proved a perfectly calibrated cocktail of carrot and stick, and the generous nine-year grace period made it all the more difficult to reject. China and India were caught wrong-footed by the groundswell of support for the EU plan among other developing countries – particularly those in Africa.

In years past the negotiations often divided neatly into the traditional developed-developing camps – with least-developed countries happy to have the full weight of China behind them.

But this year was markedly different, reflecting China’s economic progress and creeping dominance on the world stage – not to mention its ascension to the title of world’s largest carbon emitter.

A number of African delegates told Recharge they no longer accept that China – whose per-capita carbon emissions are higher than Spain’s, but with 30 times the population – is arguing from the same place as they are within the UN climate talks.

Meanwhile India – whose per-capita emissions are only a fraction of China’s, but whose 1.2 billion upwardly mobile citizens make it impossible to ignore in the climate context – also found itself in the crosshairs of many smaller developing nations.

COP17 was a refreshingly cordial affair, made all the more pleasant by the lack of spotlight-hogging world leaders and celebrities. The most visible eruption of emotion came from Indian environment minister Jayanthi Natarajan after Hedegaard singled out India’s “relatively tough” negotiating stance on Friday morning as one of the key remaining obstacles.

“How do I give a blank check and give a legally binding agreement to sign away the rights of 1.2 billion people?” Natarajan said testily in response to Hedegaard’s comments.

India’s stance made it appear “more of a querulous holdout than a champion of developing country concerns”, admits The Hindu newspaper, based in Chennai.

With China and India’s hand forced, the US had no choice but to sign onto the EU’s roadmap – and the EU in turn agreed to a second KP period.

Now for the bad news: The deal holds little promise for the climate in the medium term, and it may yet amount to a hill of beans in the long term. The world will add another billion people to its ranks by 2020, all of them hungry for the magic of electricity.

Arne Eik, head of crediting mechanisms and emerging carbon markets at Point Carbon, calls the Durban platform a “delicately balanced compromise” that came in at “the very upper end of what we expected”.

But Eik acknowledges that there is every possibility this new plan will prove as feckless as the “Bali roadmap”, which was laid out in 2007 and supposed to lead to a binding deal by the 2009 talks in Copenhagen.

“We expect the negotiations on future targets to be very difficult, and it will be challenging to agree on ambitious targets for the post-2020 period within the next few years,” he says.

While it generated the fewest headlines, perhaps the most important part of the Durban platform is the “review” of the climate science countries agreed to take in a few years – all but certain to demand more ambitious targets, says Steve Sawyer, chairman of the Global Wind Energy Council.

“We live to fight another day,” Sawyer says. “But the margin of error from here on out is very slim, and if we don’t speed up the process and raise our level of ambition, we’ll leave our children an extremely unpleasant legacy.”

Karl-Erik Stromsta, Durban

You can read all Recharge's coverage of COP17 summit as it unfolded here .

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