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What Will Happen in Durban? Hints from Panama on COP17

Editor's Note: This post originally appeared on the NRDC's Switchboard blog as a three-part series from climate negotiations currently underway in Panama City, Panama.

Global warming negotiators from around the world are in Panama City, Panama for the final negotiation session before Ministers arrive in Durban, South Africa -- November 28-December 9. The session in Panama will set the stage for what can be accomplished in Durban. Whether or not Panama will lay the foundation for agreement in Durban is an open question. While countries continue to move forward at home with actions to reduce their global warming pollution, negotiators continue to haggle over a number of details. So will negotiators translate the standing ovations from Cancun into detailed guidelines and operations? Or will applause turn to boos?

While Panama won't finalize the guidelines and operational details, it will set an important stage for what can be accomplished in Durban. Failure to move forward in Panama will make agreement in Durban difficult. So what should we expect in Durban (and what should we watch for in Panama)?

At global warming negotiations there are often two key dynamics -- (1) key political issues that often dominate the overall narrative; and (2) negotiations on the key technical details which implement previous agreements (these agreements were often the main political narrative in the previous year). While these two dynamics dominate the overall narrative, it is critical that we not lose focus on what really matters –whether countries take strong action at home to meet their commitments.

So how are those dynamics playing out in the lead-in to Durban?

Two key intertwined political issues will dominate the overall narrative. The negotiations in Durban will likely be dominated by a debate around the "fate of the Kyoto Protocol" and "where we are headed?"

"Fate of the Kyoto Protocol." At the end of 2012, the first round of targets for developed countries will end -- developed country targets under the Kyoto Protocol run from 2008-2012. While major developed and developing countries explicitly committed to individual actions to reduce their global warming pollution, whether or not those targets will be enshrined in another "commitment period" of the Kyoto Protocol (e.g., from 2013-2017) is an open question. Developing countries (e.g., BASIC and African Union) have been explicit that their top priority in Durban is securing "a continuation of the Kyoto Protocol." The exact form of that "continuation" is under intense negotiation between the developing countries and the European Union (E.U.). Recently, the E.U. has said that it would be willing to "politically" commit to a "second commitment period" if there was explicit agreement to negotiate a new legally binding commitment for all countries by 2015. While not explicit, presumably those legal commitments would go into effect sometime around 2020.

It isn't clear whether other developed countries like Australia and New Zealand would agree to such a framework to continue their commitments under the Kyoto Protocol. And it isn't clear whether developing countries, the U.S., and other developed countries will accept an explicit agreement to negotiate a new binding international framework. Key to this is a vision of "where we are headed?"

"Where we are headed?" Part of the package that is appearing would entail a commitment from all countries to outline where the global warming negotiations are headed -- e.g., to a new legal agreement which covers all countries. While countries wouldn't have to agree explicitly in Durban the form of a new legal agreement, they would have to be prepared to negotiate with the explicit intention of moving to a new legal framework for all countries. So can countries agree in Durban to launch a clear plan to negotiate a new international legally binding agreement over an agreed timeframe (e.g., by 2015)? In Copenhagen and Cancun there was intense discussion about launching a formal commitment to negotiate a new legally binding system. The thinking going into Copenhagen was that we would agree to "one agreement, two steps" -- with the second step being a new legally binding framework. Can Durban agree to such a roadmap for a new legally binding agreement? Australia and Norway have recently proposed a pathway to get to such an agreement by 2015. This proposal and others are a key part of the political dynamics going into Durban.

How will these issues end up in Durban? It is appearing like we won't know what will be acceptable on the "fate of the Kyoto Protocol" and "where are we headed" until the very last moment in Durban. There are many, many variations that are emerging in the "corridor discussions." High-level policymakers will have to decide the fate of these two key issues. Agreement in Durban to implement the Cancun Agreements hinges on resolution of these major political issues.

Part 2: The State of Play for the Cancun Agreements The Cancun Agreements were adopted with a large standing ovation. The agreements include key aspects which are a foundation from which we can build a greater international response to global warming. The Cancun Agreements included: (1) commitments by key countries to take action to reduce emissions; (2) systems to improve transparency and accountability; (3) creation of a "Green Climate Fund" to help mobilize significant investments in developing countries to address climate change, and (4) progress on helping reduce deforestation emissions, speed up the deployment of clean energy, and assisting the most vulnerable in becoming more resilient to the impacts of global warming.

The final decision on each of these elements wasn't spelled out in the Cancun agreements, but the agreements established some important parameters for each element. Breathing life into these agreements was to be one of the key aspects of the negotiation leading into Durban (or so we hoped). If countries can resolve the major political issue confronting Durban then these implementation details are ripe for agreement.

Reaching agreement in Durban on these elements could then change the dynamic on-the-ground as these new frameworks could be implemented immediately. Can countries get agreement on the key operational details to implement the Cancun Agreements? (For more details on each of these listen to my recent webinar for Yale University and see the presentation from this event).

Mitigation commitments. Developed and developing countries accounting for over 80 percent of the world's global warming pollution made specific commitments to reduce their emissions in Copenhagen and Cancun. Unfortunately, at this stage countries aren't proposing deeper commitments that will put the world on a more solid path to address global warming. But we are starting to have some greater clarity in key countries about the actions they'll implement to reduce emissions. For example, the U.S. has new car standards, new appliance efficiency standards, and is developing carbon pollution standards for new and existing power plants. China has begun to release detailed rules and regulations for the implementation of their energy and carbon intensity targets, including new policies to significantly ramp-up solar energy. The Australian government has unveiled the details of their national climate law, which are expected to be voted on this year. Will these (and other) countries continue to follow through?

Transparency and accountability for developed and developing countries. In Cancun countries decided to specific details on how to increase the transparency and accountability of their emission reduction actions and financial support. While the formal negotiations haven't outlined the exact operational guidelines for these provisions, more countries understand the importance of resolving these issues and recommendations for detailed guidelines have been outlined. In fact, NRDC provided specific recommendations on this in the lead-in to Cancun. Without progress on fleshing out the details on these provisions a number of countries are likely to block progress on other elements of a "Durban Agreement."

Creation of a "Green Climate Fund" to help mobilize investments in developing countries. In Cancun, countries agreed to develop a new multilateral fund to help invest in developing country emissions reduction and adaptation actions. The Transitional Committee -- that was established to craft the rules for this new fund -- has met three times with different work streams to hash out the rules for specific elements. The discussions on the new fund have made important progress and could be moved much closer to operation in Durban. Whether it can move to this next level will depend on whether the transparency and accountability guidelines have adequately progressed.

There is also an important debate emerging around whether Durban can launch a more formal negotiation on how to generate sizeable and sustainable funding for the medium- and long-term. International transportation, as the World Bank notes, is shaping up to be a very promising route to scale-up resources, while at the same time addressing emissions from one of the fastest growing sources. Will the U.S. and developing countries block the beginning of a negotiation on generating finance from international transport (e.g., aviation and shipping)?

Removing policy, technical, and finance barriers to low-carbon energy deployment in the developing world. In Cancun, countries agreed to establish a "technology center and network" to help speed up the deployment of low-carbon energy in the developing world. This is an important tool in removing key barriers to low-carbon energy deployment. It would provide technical, financial, and other expertise to help developing countries. If implemented right it would lead to larger demand for low-carbon energy. No longer would policymakers, companies, or financial institutions be able to say: "we don't know how to do that, the policies aren't right, or we can't access financing." Negotiations on the "centers and networks" could progress to the point in Durban that it could be quickly turned from concept to reality.

We can clap (and agree), but can we implement? Countries proved in Cancun that they can rally around a package of agreements which can help to address global warming. But can they prove that they can turn agreements into action? Durban is a key moment for countries to show that they want to do more than negotiate -- they want to act.


Part 3: Actions on the Ground Around the World

Developed and developing countries accounting for over 80 percent of the world's global warming pollution have made international commitments to reduce their emissions. So we are done right? Think again. After all, what really matters is whether countries follow through with those commitments by implementing new laws, policies, and incentives to significantly reduce their emissions. While most of the commitments from Copenhagen and Cancun are to be met in 2020, we are already seeing some signs of action by key countries (and some emerging questions). No one is waiting for "the final global agreement" before they act. Here are some examples.

United States committed to reduce its emissions to 17 percent below 2005 levels in 2020 and has continued to stand behind that commitment. To help reduce emissions the Obama Administration has begun implementing new policies and is required by law to implement additional policies which will shape the trajectory of U.S. emissions. For example:

Will these actions and others get the U.S. to 17 percent below 2005 levels in 2020? The general conclusion from recent analysis finds that: emissions will be below 2005 levels for the next 15 years and could be reduced even further if the Administration implemented EPA and other rules in a strong fashion. But important decisions on power plants and tar sands in the next couple of months will shape the answer to this question.

China committed to reduce its greenhouse gas intensity by 40-45 percent below 2005 levels in 2020. The Government has continued to move forward with actions to meet this objective and build a more low carbon economy. For example:

A recent analysis concluded that China is on track to meet or exceed its target in 2020 if these measures are fully implemented. All signs show that China will continue to implement measures to shift its economy towards lower carbon sources of economic growth but continued regulations, incentives, and political commitment are critical to helping deliver on these commitments. Will these and other measures help to address China's growing coal use and emissions?

European Union has committed to reduce its emissions by 20-30 percent below 1990 levels in 2020. At this stage they have domestic laws and policies to reduce their emissions to 20 percent below 1990 levels in 2020. For example:

In the E.U. there is an intense debate about whether, and under what conditions, the E.U. should strengthen its target to 30 percent below 1990 levels. Signs are emerging that this debate could be finalized early next year as a number of countries and business officials are urging the E.U. to strengthen its target. Will the E.U. make the move?

Brazil has a commitment to reduce emissions growth by 36-39 percent below business-as-usual levels by 2020 -- to below 2000 levels. In December 2010 that target was translated into national law. In addition, Brazil committed to cut deforestation by 80 percent by 2020. Brazil has made significant progress in reducing its deforestation over the past few years. Over the past 5 years the deforestation rate has been cut by 67% putting it on a strong track to meet its deforestation reduction commitment. Unfortunately there has been a recent uptick in deforestation rates from the previous years. And an effort to undermine the Forest Law has raised strong concerns about the ability of Brazil to continue reducing its deforestation rates. Will Brazil avoid undermining the Forest Law and continue the downward trend of its deforestation rates? With the country hosting the next Earth Summit in June 2012, it is even more critical that Brazil put its best foot forward and avoid undermining its efforts to combat deforestation.

By Durban, other countries like Australia and South Korea could be much farther along in enshrining significant domestic laws to curb their global warming pollution. Both are poised to pass new laws by Durban which would further enshrine their actions. Will other countries -- such as Japan and South Africa have new actions by then?

Other signs of hope have emerged, but much more needs to be done. Since 2004, new investments in renewable energy throughout the world increased by 539%. As a result, non-fossil electricity accounted for more than 50 percent of the new capacity added in 2010. Similar positive trends have emerged in global deforestation where the rate has declined by 39 percent since 2000.

But we know that these individual actions and global trends aren't sufficient to addressing global warming. Much more will have to be done over the coming months and years. Countries will have to continue to implement changes to their laws, policies, and incentives in order to reduce their global warming pollution. And we'll need to create new financial and political incentives for countries to take the next steps and deepen their actions.

The meeting in Durban is about creating global institutions to help address the challenge (see Part 1 and Part 2). But what happens in Durban isn't sufficient as the real test will be what actions are taken on the ground. After all, the atmosphere doesn't respect pledges and promises -- only actions will do.

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Editor's Note: This post originally appeared on the NRDC's Switchboard blog as a three-part series from climate negotiations currently underway in Panama City, Panama.

COP17 photo CC-licensed by the UNFCCC.

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