Global climate change pact in Durban: expert comment

Emission control: delegates move through the corridors of the International Convention Center during the COP 17/CMP 7 United Nations Climate Change Conference 2011 in Durban. AAP/EPA/Nic Bothma.

Nero was accused of fiddling while Rome burned. Will a similar charge be leveled at today’s world leaders? Flickr/pvsbond.
After a fortnight of talks, The Durban Climate Change Conference has ended with an agreement that a treaty should be developed in the next three years that - starting from 2020 - would bind countries to lowering greenhouse emissions.

Responses will be added below.

Dr Russ Sinclair, Visiting Research Fellow, Ecology Evolution and Landscape Science, University of Adelaide

As far as I can tell, the agreement at Durban was not much more than an agreement to work towards an agreement, and the time scale mentioned was very worrying. I understand that to find any sort of agreement among such a wide range of countries, with such diverse special interests, is a mammoth diplomatic task, and to get any unanimous agreement must be seen as a good step forward, and an indication that the governments of the world are beginning to realise the seriousness of the problem. I hope that it will lead to accelerating real action. I believe that the situation is much more serious than the world economic turmoil which is getting far more press coverage. Time is really running out, and the indicators from the modelling experts continue to show that the chances of averting very serious climatic changes over the next few decades get get less by the month.

Brad Jessup, Teaching Fellow and PhD scholar, Centre for Climate Law and Policy, Australian National University, and Visiting Scholar at the Center for Law, Energy and Environment, UC Berkeley

The path agreed upon at Durban is much the same as the path the world has been heading at least since Bali. We have known that the successor to the Kyoto protocol will be an ‘all-in’ agreement, with all nations taking on some responsibility to reduce emissions. Insofar as the nations within the UNFCCC all remain committed to reducing emissions we should be considering the outcome a positive one.

However, not much progress can be seen in the words negotiated at Durban on the important matter of what agreement will be reached about future emissions reductions. Certainly there is no clarity about the obligations that will be imposed on nations with the most advanced economies and those nations with emerging economies in a future agreement. In particular, the world has not agreed on what is fair for developed nations to expect of developing nations and how much responsibility developed nations should take for their past carbon excesses.

But there is clear progress nonetheless. This is particularly evident if you look at the lead protagonists. Australia has forgone its role as the churlish spoiler, despite the fact that it remains steadfastly supportive of the US and entrenched in the Umbrella Group of developed nations who operate as dampeners and delayers of progress.

The passage of the carbon price legislation means that our nation is no longer a frustration to global progress. And we were long a frustration. Durban has showed us that nations like China and India would not be put in the spotlight until countries like Australia committed to reduce its emissions. Compared to past meetings China, by all reports, appears to be have been less steadfast. It was India, whose voice has only started to be significant in negotiations as other polluting nations like Australia came on board, that spoke loudest in the end.

And from the US, you would not even know that the meeting was taking place. Global negotiations on emissions reductions seems to have no traction with the media, with the current to-ings and fro-ings with the Republican nomination and European financial crisis entrenched in the news.

Stephan Lewandowsky, Australian Professorial Fellow, Cognitive Science Laboratories, University of Western Australia

The climate talks in Durban have drawn to a close at around 5AM local time after a marathon all-night session. It is too early to tell what exactly was achieved during these negotiations, although it is clear that the talks were not a complete failure.

Based on preliminary reports, my understanding is that the Kyoto agreement will continue in place, though minus Japan, Russia, New Zealand, and Canada, and that the parties are committed to negotiating a new treaty by 2015. This new treaty is to be put in place by 2020 and it will, for the first time, also include developing countries in legally binding commitments. (There is, however, some ambiguity in the wording of how “legally binding” all this is.) In addition, it appears that future decisions will no longer be based on the scientific advice of the IPCC but instead the process is only to be informed by the science. It remains to be seen whether being “informed” by the science is a meaningful concept.

The bottom-line, then, appears to be that some countries, the EU foremost among them but now fortunately also Australia, will continue to seek cuts to their emissions, whereas the largest emitters (China and the U.S.) will continue to pollute at a growing rate. On balance, it thus appears that no major global emission cuts are on the horizon until a decade from now.

What does this mean?

Let us set aside politics entirely. Let us assume that the leaders who congregated in Durban all had our best interests in mind, and let us just examine the cognitive issues underlying climate change. Politics aside, what kind of thinking drives climate negotiators, and how does this thinking relate to physical reality? Revealingly, at the beginning of the Durban climate talks, U.S. climate negotiator Jonathan Pershing stated that there are “essentially an infinite number of pathways” that allow stronger cuts starting in 2020 to “stay below 2 degrees.” In other words, delay doesn’t matter, we can deal with the problem later.

Pershing’s statement betrays a well known but tragic cognitive failure; namely, the failure to understand accumulation processes. This failure, widely shared among most people who are not intimately familiar with dynamical systems, ignores the fact that to stabilize total CO2 in the atmosphere—which is what is required to arrest further warming — we need to eventually reduce emissions to zero (or nearly so).

This is because CO2 accumulates in the atmosphere in the same way as the water level in a bathtub rises while the tap is on. Absent any leakage, the only way to stabilize the water level is to shut off the tap completely. And the longer we delay before starting to turn the tap, the more rapidly we have to close it — if we delay emission cuts to 2020, then the required cuts are around 9% a year (which means every single year from 2020 on). Those cuts may not be technologically achievable. If we started in 2011, we could achieve the same outcome with cuts of only 3.7%, probably well within technological reach. The apparent failure of climate negotiators to understand the underlying physics is costing all of us dearly.

Collectively, the climate negotiators have been acting like corporate fleet managers who run their cars without oil changes or maintenance, just to improve the bottom line for a year or two. Some twenty years ago, we could have dealt with climate change for the price of an oil change. Ten years ago, the price had gone up and it would have cost us a new engine. Right now, we are in for the cost of a new car. And if we do nothing for another 10 years, our planet may remodel itself with us no longer in the driver’s seat because 9% annual emissions cuts may be unachievable.

There is another cognitive trap into which climate negotiators appear to have fallen which arises from the same fundamental failure to understand the physics and mathematics of accumulation. This cognitive trap involves the inability to recognize historical responsibilities. Because Western countries have been filling the bathtub for far longer than developing countries, more of the water in the tub is ours, rather than China’s or India’s. Not surprisingly, therefore, those countries expect us to start closing the tap before they shut theirs. However, Western commentators and politicians are often seemingly incapable to understand our historical responsibilities, pointing instead to the fact that China is now emitting more than the U.S. Yes, China now emits more than the U.S., but its total accumulation is less than a third of the American responsibility. And because accumulation is what matters, Australia has a greater historical responsibility than 94% of all other countries in the world. So before we even consider politics, the cognitive challenges of climate change present a bleak picture.

Add politics and vested interests and you get the decision to let our children do the cleaning up and suffering at a far greater price than we were willing to pay.

An extended version of this post with supporting graphs and figures can be found at