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UCS at the Climate Talks in Durban

Progress on several fronts, but ambition still too low

Going into the Durban climate summit the world faced a stark choice. We could extend the life of the Kyoto Protocol, and launch negotiations on a more comprehensive treaty regime that would include countries without commitments under Kyoto, such as the United States, China, and India. Or we could see the multilateral, rules-based approach embodied in Kyoto wither away, to be replaced by a voluntary “pledge-and-review” approach where nations decide on their own how much they are prepared to do, and if the collective effort falls short of what is needed, well, too bad. 

In the final hours of the Durban summit, a dramatic compromise was reached on a Durban Platform for Enhanced Action, that will see the European Union and some others maintain emissions commitments under Kyoto beyond 2012, while negotiations start on a broader treaty to take effect in 2020. 

The talks also produced agreement on ways to move forward on initiatives started at last year’s Cancun summit. Negotiators agreed on the governance structure of the Green Climate Fund (GFC), and several European countries pledged over $50 million in seed money to get the GCF up and running.

They also reached agreements for a technology-expert panel to begin work, and agreed on criteria and a process for selecting the host institution for a Climate Technology Center which will spearhead a global  information-sharing network. Together these initiatives will increase access to modern, clean energy technology in developing counties and help them adapt to the reality of climate change.

Negotiators also established benchmarks for accurately gauging emissions reductions through REDD+ (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation, plus pro-forest activities). These benchmarks, known as reference levels, were a significant accomplishment, insuring that technical experts have a scientifically credible way to determine reductions in carbon pollution from forest conservation efforts. However, the REDD+ talks failed to find a way to ascertain if countries met specific safeguards to protect indigenous people and the environment.

They did, however, agree on the major sources of funding for REDD+, including markets, foreign aid and the new Green Climate Fund. Negotiations next year will address these financing options for REDD+ in more detail. 

Measurement, Reporting, and Verification

There was positive movement in other issue areas, including increasing the transparency of actions by both developed and developing countries to constrain their emissions. This measurement, reporting, and verification (MRV) issue was a priority for the United States, which wanted greater openness from large developing countries—particularly China—on their progress on carrying out their emissions-limitations pledges.

This issue proved somewhat awkward, however for chief U.S. negotiator Todd Stern; when he was asked by the press whether the United States had conducted analysis of how it would meet the emissions reduction pledge of 17 percent below 2005 levels by 2020 that President Obama had made at Copenhagen, Stern had to admit the answer is no and to ask the world to “stay tuned, I guess.”

"Ambition Gap" Remains

Despite these positive decisions the Durban talks made little progress on two major fronts. There remains a large “ambition gap” between the emissions reduction pledges countries have made to date and the collective level of effort needed to have a chance of  keeping global temperature increases below 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, the goal set by President Obama and other world leaders two years ago in Copenhagen.  Scientists tell us staying below this limit is necessary to avert the worst consequences of climate change.

And there is still no agreement on how to ramp up funding for developing country activities to deploy clean technologies, reduce deforestation, and adapt to the mounting impacts of climate change; such funding totals about $10 billion a year now, and developed countries pledged in Copenhagen to mobilize $100 billion annually for these activities by 2020.

“The package of decisions made in Durban creates an opportunity for the world to raise the collective ambition of emission-reduction targets in the months and years ahead,” said UCS director of strategy and policy Alden Meyer. “But it doesn’t guarantee success, and there is no greater level of agreement on how much should be done, and by which countries, than there was when negotiators arrived in Durban.”

UCS at Durban


Alden Meyer speaking at a Climate Action Network news conference with Harjeet Singh of Action Aid India.

UCS sent a delegation of seven to Durban, headed by Alden Meyer, who has attended all but one of the 17 annual U.N. climate conferences and is a recognized expert on the negotiations.

The UCS delegation also included Angela Anderson, director of the climate and energy program, Doug Boucher, director of climate research and analysis; senior climate economist Rachel Cleetus, policy analyst Patricia (Pipa) Elias, press secretary Sarah Goldberg, and Earl Saxon, a consultant on tropical forests.

Meyer engaged in intense discussions over the two weeks of the summit with negotiators and ministers from the United States, China, the European Union, Japan, Brazil, South Africa, and other key countries.   He also kept members of the media updated on the developments in the negotiations, and helped set strategy for the international environmental advocacy community at the meeting. 

At a meeting of international environmental group representatives with Chinese Minister Xie Zhenhua on Sunday, December 4, Meyer noted press reports that China would consider taking on internationally binding emissions limitation commitments after 2020 if certain conditions were met in the overall climate talks.  Meyer asked Minister Xie if these reports were true, and what China’s conditions were. 

Minister Xie confirmed the reports, and spelled out five areas where progress would need to be made for China to take on such commitments.  Minister Xie’s answer to Meyer instantly hit the international wires, as reporters were observing the dialogue with non-governmental organizations (NGOs), and his remarks created a stir in the International Conference Center. Lead negotiators for both the United States and the European Union expressed skepticism that Minister Xie’s response to Meyer represented any shift in China’s position. Of course, by the end of the meeting, with China accepting the Durban Platform, it was clear that it had been.

Meyer was a featured speaker at the opening and closing Climate Action Network (CAN) press briefings, as well as at the one held on the Saturday midway through the conference. CAN, an international coalition of more than 700 organizations, held briefings updating reporters every day. At all three briefings Meyer was asked to give journalists the big picture on the overall state of play in the negotiations, and to evaluate the positions of major players in the talks. 

For example, he helped journalists understand the implications of U.S. statements in Durban that they didn’t expect countries to raise the ambition of their mitigation actions before 2020, and what that would mean for efforts to keep global temperatures from increasing more than 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels—the goal set by President Obama and other leaders two years ago in Copenhagen. 

He also explained why the European Union could not accept efforts by the United States, China, India, and others to water down language on the legal nature of any 2020 deal, without doing irreparable harm to its relations with the small island states, Africa, and other vulnerable countries.


Meyer congratulating South Africa's lead negotiator, Alf Wills, on the outcome of the Durban talks at dawn on Sunday, December 11, 2011.

Meyer also met with reporters one-on-one throughout the conference to help them grasp the nuances of the ongoing talks. In the final hours of the conference, he was emailing with a number of reporters to give them the minute-by-minute update on the direction of the proceedings from inside the plenary.

For many reporters, especially those who report from back home in the United States, Meyer is their eyes and ears in these negotiations. Not only does he provide timely intel on the talks, he also translates much of the complex language into simple English.

Over the course of the Durban talks, Meyer was cited in more than 400 climate conference stories, including those by the Associated Press, Bloomberg, New York Times, Reuters, and Washington Post. He also appeared on NPR, BBC radio, and the Al Jazeera television network.

Tropical Forest Protection

Tropical forest protection was one issue that found some resolution at the conference. At Durban countries were able to agree on two technical elements of REDD+: setting benchmark levels for assessing how much emissions were reduced due to REDD+ programs, and approaches for informing the international community on how social and environmental protections were met.

On the first, setting emissions benchmarks, countries were able to set scientifically sound guidelines that countries will need to follow for REDD+. Over the course of the year UCS experts educated negotiators on this issue and helped them sort through options. For example, the fundamental elements of the Durban deal on benchmarks reflect the work of Doug Boucher, UCS director of climate research and analysis, and a small group of experts. Continued progress is expected next year as negotiators determine how a technical panel will approve these benchmarks.

There was minimal progress on social and environmental protections, and countries still need to determine the best approaches for showing that the requirements set by Cancun are met. These protections are critical for success in REDD+ and negotiators will need to work hard on this issue. The Subsidiary Body for Scientific and Technological Advice (SBSTA) decision also included some elements of safeguards systems, though they were quite disappointing and will need a lot more work. There's also a call for submissions on the drivers of deforestation, which UCS is uniquely positioned to contribute to based on the recent UCS report, The Root of the Problem

Doug Boucher, UCS's director of climate research and analysis, gave a presentation on tropical deforestation co-sponsored by UCS and the National Wildlife Federation at the Cancun climate negotiations in 2010.

The political negotiations on REDD+ focused on how to pay for these forest conservation actions. After years of disagreement, countries finally reached consensus that REDD+ can be financed using various tools, such as direct government funding, carbon markets, and other investment options. However, agreement that these sources can be used for REDD+ doesn’t mean that the money will immediately be available, and countries need to pledge future funds to ensure REDD+ becomes a reality on the ground.

Side Events

UCS helped organize two side events in Durban.  The first, on REDD+, presented new research on the effectiveness of Indonesia’s efforts to stop forest loss due to expansion of palm oil plantations. This presentation identified the challenges and opportunities of government actions against a specific driver of deforestation, which is a critical step as the negotiators gear up to evaluate how action on the drivers of deforestation can promote REDD+. Other event speakers were colleagues from the World Resources Institute, Greenpeace International, the World Wildlife Fund, and the Environmental Investigation Agency.

The second event, titled U.S. Climate Policy – report from the front line, featured Angela Anderson, together with Jake Schmidt and David Hawkins of NRDC, and Justin Guay of Sierra Club; it discussed the state of play in the United States on domestic actions to reduce emissions. Angela covered the significant progress made on higher fuel economy standards for new cars and trucks out to2025, as well as California’s path-breaking policies on emissions limits and renewable electricity standards.

Progress on Technology Cooperation

In Cancun last year, countries agreed to establish a Technology Mechanism, comprising a Technology Executive Committee and a Climate Technology Center and Network, in order to enhance action on technology development and transfer to developing countries to support their action on mitigation and adaptation. In Durban, critical steps were taken to help make the Technology Mechanism fully operational in 2012.

Countries agreed on the full terms of reference for the Climate Technology Center and Network, along with criteria and a clear procedure to select the host institution for the Climate Technology Center in 2012.

The role of the Technology Executive Committee, an expert body tasked with analysis, policy recommendations and information sharing, was elaborated to include “producing periodic technology outlooks; collating, collecting and synthesizing a range of information on technology research and development and other technology-related activities; examining the policy implications and opportunities for advancing technology development and transfer; producing a series of technical papers on specific policies and technical issues; and conducting a regular overview of existing technology development, transfer initiatives, activities and programmes with a view to identifying key achievements and gaps, good practices and lessons learned.”

UCS Senior Climate Economist Rachel Cleetus has been engaged with these issues over the last several years, providing leadership within the Technology Working Group of the Climate Action Network. 

“The decisions on the Technology Mechanism in Durban will help accelerate deployment of clean energy technologies to developing countries, as well as enhance their climate resilience,” said Cleetus.  “Of course, it’s now important to get the details right in setting up the Climate Technology Center; UCS will review and comment on proposals from potential host institutions as they come in next year. We will also be monitoring meetings of the Technology Executive Committee as it lays out its workplan for the next year” 

Next Steps

The decisions made in Durban create two tracks going forward. One track requires following through on setting up the Green Climate Fund, the Climate Technology Center, and other institutions agreed on in Cancun, as well as addressing how to ramp up near-to-mid-term ambition on both emissions reduction and climate finance.  The other track, under the new Ad Hoc Group on the Durban Platform for Enhanced Action (with the unwieldy acronym AWG-DPEA) will start negotiating the post-2020 climate treaty regime.

Both of these tracks will confront difficult issues. The creation of the Green Climate Fund, for example, does not ensure that it will become an effective institution with the substantial resources needed to meet its lofty objectives, especially given the fiscal and political challenges in the United States, the European Union, Japan, and other donor countries.

And the challenges facing the AW-DPEA are legion: whether the new regime should complement or replace the Kyoto Protocol; what level of legal stringency the new regime should have; what collective level of ambition to aim for in the post-2020 period in terms of global emissions reductions; and how to allocate responsibility amongst major countries for meeting that level of ambition. This last issue is particularly thorny, as it involves determining how to give life to the principles of “common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities” embodied in the Framework Convention. 

Any climate regime that is both equitable and ambitious enough to meet the 2 degrees Celsius challenge will require industrialized countries to significantly increase both their domestic actions on emissions and their provision of climate finance to developing countries. It will also require that major developing countries like China, India, and Brazil do even more to constrain their carbon emissions. 

“World leaders must significantly raise their game if we’re going to meet the challenge of climate change,” Meyer concluded. “Time is running out, and the atmosphere doesn’t negotiate with politicians. Producing a new treaty by 2015 that is both ambitious and fair will take a mix of tough bargaining and a more collaborative spirit than we saw in the Durban conference center these past two weeks.”

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