Environmental Politics

Climate Negotiations in Durban: Is the Glass Half Empty or Half Full, and Does It Really Matter?

Dec 11 '11

We are delighted to welcome the following guest post from Johannes Urpelainen, an assistant professor of political science at Columbia University, on the recent climate negotiations in Durban. Johannes is a very prolific scholar who writes on issues of international institutions and the environment. He also writes a blog on climate politics.

In recent years, United Nations negotiations on climate change have begun to resemble wars of attrition. During the official negotiation period, the major players – China, India, the United States, and the European Union – seem unable to agree on anything. The talks are further complicated by emotional calls for action by small island nations whose very survival is threatened by climate change and bold announcements of exit by opponents of the Kyoto Protocol.

During overtime, a modest but confusing compromise is achieved. Negotiators and their supporters celebrate their ability to save the multilateral process, detractors complain that the compromise does nothing to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and opponents of climate cooperation celebrate yet another victory.

In Durban, the modest but confusing “Durban Platform” had three key elements. The first is a second commitment period for the Kyoto Protocol. However, it remains unclear how long this commitment period will be. It also seems that the European Union is the only party to the Kyoto Protocol willing to accept new commitments. The second is an institutional framework for the Green Climate Fund, which would allow wealthy countries to fund adaptation to climate change in poor countries. However, nothing was said about the sources of this funding. The third is a “roadmap” for future negotiations on a global “agreed outcome with legal force.” It is to be negotiated by 2015 and to enter into force no later than in 2020. However, it remains unclear what an “agreed outcome with legal force” is.

Is the glass half empty or half full? It depends. If one expected Durban to provide a clear pathway to a legally binding and global treaty, the glass is almost empty. After 17 years, countries of the world agreed to continue the negotiations. If one expected Durban to cause the collapse of the Kyoto Protocol and the United Nations climate negotiations, the glass is half empty for those who believe the Kyoto Protocol is flawed and half full for those who believe the Kyoto Protocol is a useful first step.

The reason why recent climate negotiations have produced such compromises is that major emitters cannot agree on any substantive measures. The European Union wants other countries – and the United States in particular – to begin reducing their emissions today. The United States wants China and India to adopt legally binding commitments. China and India do not want to adopt legally binding commitments, at least until the United States has substantially reduced its emissions. These positions are fundamentally at odds, and it is quite implausible that they could be reconciled at United Nations negotiations.

The Durban compromise allows all parties to go back to their domestic constituencies and say they won. The European Commissioner for Climate Action, Connie Hedegaard, is claiming that all major emitters have legally committed to a future treaty. This is a wildly optimistic interpretation, but it will appease Europeans who often believe international law can do wonders. In the United States, the Obama administration is going to emphasize that the deal requires China and India to act before the United States adopts any commitments. In turn, the Chinese and Indian governments can emphasize the fact that they did not commit to anything until the industrialized countries act. These three interpretation of the Durban outcome are fundamentally at odds, but this not a problem in domestic politics. After all, the domestic audiences will not see any tangible output for years to come.

My own view of the outcome, and the United Nations negotiations in general, is decidedly mixed. On the one hand, I am quite sympathetic to those who argue the Kyoto Protocol is a flawed treaty. It has done little if anything to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and it has created a legal precedent – North acts first – that allows the United States to hide behind China and India while China and India can hide behind the United States. Amazing, is it not? On the other hand, it is also not clear that a total collapse of the United Nations negotiations would be useful. If the Green Climate Fund can mobilize at least some resources – I am really, really skeptical about the official goal of industrialized countries offering USD100 billion a year – then something good has come out of the United Nations negotiations.

In any case, it is increasingly clear that the United Nations negotiations are no longer central to the climate game. The annual ritual may serve a useful expressive purpose, especially for the struggling European Union and some of the more vocal developing countries, and it may even produce some modest climate benefits in the long run. But the future of the atmosphere is determined through national and subnational policy, perhaps complemented by regional or other minilateral forms of climate cooperation. The need for new ideas and fresh approaches is more urgent than ever, and I doubt these ideas and approaches will see the light of the day during an overtime United Nations climate summit.