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Durban did too little: here are alternatives to the UN process

Shouldn’t we try harder to stop runaway climate change? AAP

In the month and a half since the Durban climate change conference it has been said that the “international climate process” has been “strengthened” and that Durban resulted in “the means and the ends for a new era in climate negotiations”.

With the perspective of a few weeks and a new year, is this the case? What was actually achieved? Is it enough to limit global temperature rise to 2°C above pre-industrial levels - the global warming limit adopted by parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) - with global emissions peaking by 2015? Will the planet really benefit from this agreement?

The first commitment period for parties to the UNFCCC’s Kyoto Protocol ends this year. For that period (2008-2012) and any subsequent one, only developed – or Annex I – states have emissions reduction commitments. These states agreed to reduce their overall emissions by 5.2% below 1990 levels between 2008-2012. Each state has a specific target.

At Durban, state parties to the Kyoto Protocol – with the significant exception of Canada, Japan and Russia – decided on a second commitment period, to begin on 1 January 2013 and end either in 2017 or 2020 (the end date to be determined sometime this year). These parties will also submit their targets this year.

Kyoto covers about 15% of the world’s emissions.

Durban also launched a “Platform for Enhanced Action”, a non-binding agreement “to develop a protocol, another legal instrument or an agreed outcome with legal force” under the UNFCCC. This would be applicable to all parties – both developed and developing.

Any such protocol, legal instrument or “agreed outcome with legal force” is to be concluded by 2015 – with “pledges” from developed and developing state parties to reduce emissions – and should come into effect and be implemented from 2020. These parties would also, of course, need to ratify such agreement.

This “Durban Platform” is simply an agreement to reach agreement. Indeed, post-Durban, India’s environment minister has said that the “agreement” does not mean that “India has to take binding commitments to reduce its emissions in absolute terms in 2020”.

If – if – parties reach agreement and targets commence in 2020, what happens between now and then?. This is a decade critical for achieving the 2° limit (the Durban Platform even refers to strengthening this to 1.5 degrees). Some states will, and some states may, take voluntary action, but verification and other issues attend such action.

In 2007 the non-binding Bali “road map” was agreed with a view to a post-2012 agreement. The Durban Platform is agreement – procedural in nature - to work towards a 2015 agreement with a 2020 start date for developed and developing states. It’s the illusion of progress. And as time elapses, and with every delay, the ambitions for agreement unsurprisingly increase.

It may be time – and, on one view, it has long been time – to consider alternatives to the UNFCCC.

One alternative approach would be to break the climate change problem up into different pieces. In a decentralised regime, groups of like-minded countries could address particular issues, and countries and regional groupings take action on their own.

As one commentator said recently, “since an agreement among the major emitters is unlikely anytime soon, we should seek progress where we can, through whatever means and in any forums that are available”.

Two US academics have proposed a climate change “regime complex” – a loosely coupled set of specific regimes. They say that efforts to “build an effective, legitimate, and adaptable comprehensive regime are unlikely to succeed”, and argue that a climate change regime complex has advantages in terms of adaptability and flexibility.

Others have suggested a “building blocks” approach.

Perhaps, at some point post-Durban, we will see a shift away from a top-down, “Kyoto-style” architecture for international climate action, to a more bottom-up approach. As Posner and Weisbach (from the University of Chicago) argue, “Copenhagen showed [and Durban shows] the futility of addressing poverty, past injustices and climate change in a single negotiation … no principle of justice requires that these problems be addressed simultaneously or multilaterally”.

Each year the International Energy Agency publishes its World Energy Outlook. At its United States launch - just as the Durban talks were beginning - the IEA’s chief economist, Fatih Birol, said that the door to limiting global temperature rise to 2° “is closing forever”. It should be noted that, even with a rise of less than 2°, impacts can be significant; beyond 2°, possibilities for societal and ecosystem adaptation rapidly decline.

Birol asked, “what happens if governments do not change their policies as of 2011?”. He answered his own question by saying that he sees “the chances to go to two degrees or 450ppm fading away … it is a horror movie”.

Like Mr Birol – and like the director of the United Nations Environment Programme, Achim Steiner – I see nothing in the Durban outcome that will prevent warming above 2°. What Durban produced, as Fred Pearce has said, was “an agreement to agree on emissions cuts to begin in 2020, preceded by a voluntary period where nations do what they will .. that is the bottom line for the planet”. We must do better.

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