After Durban - is an agreement to agree better than no agreement at all?

The conference is over, but has anything changed? AAP

DURBAN CLIMATE CHANGE CONFERENCE: Occasionally international treaties conflict with each other. The last days of the Durban climate talks was one of those times. The United Nations’ Convention on Climate Change clashed with its Convention against Torture and other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment, as negotiators struggled for 72 sleepless hours to snatch agreement from the jaws of mental collapse and political exhaustion and defeat.

The Durban talks finally concluded on Sunday, almost two days late. Their formal and informal outcomes are notable. But the results are also uneven, in part uncertain, and ultimately inadequate.

In formally establishing a Green Climate Fund, the conference took a major and necessary step in building the financial architecture for climate protection. The Fund will mobilise US$100 billion of public and private funds per annum by 2020, to support developing countries’ mitigation and adaptation efforts

Similarly, China’s stated commitment to adopt binding emissions targets by 2020 can be seen as a significant breakthrough as well as diplomatically astute positioning by the planet’s major emitter.

However, how one views the centrepiece outcome of the conference - the Durban Agreement or Durban Platform – depends on where you stand on the politics and on the science.

The Agreement was shaped around a proposal promoted at the conference by the European Union and a range of developing countries and small island states. It is merely an agreement to negotiate a new agreement.

Such a cynical summary understates just how potentially important a step this represents, given the collapsing momentum of negotiations following Copenhagen in 2009 and the zombie-like status of the Kyoto Protocol. This protocol – neither dead nor alive - has haunted negotiations over the past five years.

The Durban Agreement creates a new body - the Ad Hoc Working Group on the Durban Platform for Enhanced Action. It will negotiate a comprehensive global compact for emissions reduction “with legal force”, for agreement in 2015.

If successful, this will take us beyond the current raft of voluntary national mitigation promises and targets outlined at Copenhagen and agreed at Cancun. It will replace them with a coherent and legally enforceable set of emissions-reduction commitments by all major emitting nations. More importantly, it will provide a transition away from the deep and irresolvable divisions posed by the Kyoto Protocol for developed and developing countries and, in particular, the United States.

The new Ad Hoc Group replaces two similar Ad Hoc groups formed to take climate negotiations along the Bali Path and sweeps the opponents and proponents of the Kyoto Protocol into the one inclusive process. In this sense, the possible outcome will be stronger than and supplant those under the Kyoto Protocol. It will explicitly embrace the United State, China and India – the planet’s three largest emitters – for the first time and therefore increase the sweep of international climate regulatory ambition to cover most of the planet’s emissions.

But those who have followed global climate negotiations for a while are feeling an uncomfortable sense of deja vue. The Durban Agreement and its roadmap and timeframe are reminiscent of the 2007 Bali Roadmap that was to deliver a legally binding treaty at Copenhagen in 2009.

The underlying differences and tensions between developed and developing countries, and also now between major developing counties such as China and India, remain - albeit now in the one tent. Meanwhile the United States will continue to be held hostage by its domestic balance of conservative forces in Congress and, potentially, a Republican outcome in the 2012 Presidential election.

How important the long-sought legally binding agreement is (as opposed to possibly stronger voluntary ones) is also questionable. Professor Dan Bodansky of Arizona State University argues that there is ultimately little difference between the two.

In the absence of a tough sanctions regime, the legal status of a new compact may be of little value. It is this which has been called into question by Canada’s rejection of the Kyoto Protocol.

Having massively blown out its emissions by 30% above its Kyoto-prescribed target of –6% below 1990 levels by 2012, Canada should be in trouble. In the absence of any sanction for this breach (one which would cost the Canadian government in excess of US$6 billion), the effectiveness of any future legal agreement is called into doubt.

At the end of the day, therefore, the discussion comes back to what individual nations are willing and capable of doing when faced with the challenge posed by climate science.

It is here that a final, powerful lingering note of despair should accompany any assessment of these talks. Negotiators, lulled by their processes or numbed by their sense of the limited potential for rapid movement in international climate negotiations, have come away with a sense of misplaced relief at the scale of their small advance at Durban.

Yet the Durban Agreement - like previous climate agreements - continues as if the underlying science were negotiable. Any agreement in 2015 will most likely not come into force before 2020. In the meantime, current inadequate national reduction targets remain in force. Climate scientist estimate these will lead to catastrophic global warming of 4 degrees or more by 2100 and beyond.

Bear in mind that global emissions have been increasing rather than decreasing in recent years. Global carbon emissions last year rose at their fastest rate in more than four decades, up nearly 6% - about double the annual rate of increase over the past decade.

The “ambition gap” is growing between current mitigation efforts and what climate science demands for a safe climate. Efforts to bridge this gap will be even more costly and difficult – economically, socially and ecologically - given the additional loss of time that the Durban Agreement implies.

Under these circumstances, the Gillard Government – which at Durban basked in international approval of Australia’s new carbon price – needs to recognize that urgent task of substantial emissions reduction must be underway well before the Durban process delivers its outcomes, too late, at the end of this decade.