After going into sudden-death overtime, the UN climate conference in Durban, South Africa wrapped up this weekend with an agreement that only a climate diplomat could love. Constituting in effect an agreement to agree to some future agreement, the outcome is open to interpretation. Is this the failure that was widely predicted, the breakthrough indicated by some involved, or just a fig leaf to perpetuate a seemingly endless series of climate conferences in the only manner possible, by avoiding a breakdown that might have ended the entire effort for good? From what I have read in the last day, it's probably a bit of all three. The reactions from environmental groups have certainly been a mixed bag.
Briefly, it appears that the participants agreed to begin negotiating toward a new global climate "protocol, another legal instrument or a legal outcome"--the key compromise wording that saved the day--to be adopted by 2015 and take effect by 2020. In the meantime, the Kyoto Protocol, which was due to expire at the end of next year, will be extended through 2017, even though three of the largest emitting countries, Canada, Japan and Russia, will apparently not take on binding commitments on emissions for that period, nor will the US, which never ratified Kyoto. Still, this should be sufficient to keep international emissions trading and the Clean Development Mechanism for capitalizing on projects to reduce emissions in developing countries, going in the interim. While the delegates had the good grace not to call this result another roadmap--two years after the deadline of the Bali roadmap--that's pretty much what the "Durban Platform for Enhanced Action" amounts to.
Even in a global fiscal and economic environment that made any outcome more ambitious than this a virtual non-starter, the Durban Platform doesn't inspire confidence in the UN climate process. The most notable aspect of the agreement is that for the first time emitters from both the developed and developing world have signed up to a process under which they would all be asked to take on more or less legally binding commitments to reduce emissions. As the Economist notes, this "promises to break a divisive and anachronistic distinction", and one that makes little sense when developing countries now account for more than half of global greenhouse gas emissions. US climate envoy Todd Stern was quoted as saying that the US had been seeking this kind of "symmetry...since the beginning of the Obama administration." In fact, that has been the consistent goal of US climate policy since the Clinton administration. The problem is that this all remains contingent on the details of a future negotiation and subject to ratification by future governments, many of which will change between now and the COP-21 in late 2015.
Ever since the debacle in Copenhagen two years ago, the UN climate process has looked like a weak reed. Whatever the optimum size of a committee might be, it is not one made up of 194 countries, particularly when the top 20 accounted for nearly 80% of global CO2 emissions in 2009. Even if you don't share my conclusion, reinforced by the aftermath of the recession and financial crisis, that international agreements are unlikely to result in enough emissions reductions to materially alter the trajectory of global warming, it ought to be abundantly clear that if climate change is as big a problem as the folks meeting in Durban believed, then we had better have a Plan B in mind. For some that means a much stronger focus on innovation, while for others, including myself, it also suggests we should get a lot more serious about both adaptation to climate change and the exploration of geoengineering options. Or perhaps the horse will learn to sing, after all.