What the COP17 Negotiators Must Accomplish in Durban

What the COP17 Negotiators Must Accomplish in Durban

[Editor's note: This article originally ran as a three-part series on the NRDC's Switchboard blog.]

Nelson Mandela famously said: "I am fundamentally an optimist.... Part of being optimistic is keeping one's head pointed toward the sun, one's feet moving forward. There were many dark moments when my faith in humanity was sorely tested, but I would not and could not give myself up to despair. That way lays defeat and death."

With around 200 nations meeting in Durban South, Africa through December 9 to agree on further efforts to address global warming, those words seemed extremely fitting. There is emerging good news of action on-the-ground. At the same time there are troubling signs which confirm that we must act now. In Durban, countries must turn standing ovations into guidelines and institutions to help all countries take serious action to reduce global warming pollution and improve their resilience to the impacts of global warming.

The good news: Emerging signs of hope are occurring on the ground.

We've seen two critically important dynamics this year that give some hope. First, a number of countries have made important progress in implementing laws and policies to reduce their global warming pollution. While not at the pace and the scale that we need, important follow through has occurred that is changing the dynamics on the ground. For example, Australia finally passed their climate law to require mandatory carbon pollution reductions for major polluters, the US has adopted aggressive vehicle standards and put on hold the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline, and China has started to outline the detailed rules and regulations for meeting its binding energy and climate commitments in its 12th 5-year plan. [For more on each of these and additional countries, as well as further steps pending in key countries, see my quick summary.]

Second, clean energy continues to grow at an extraordinary pace. Last year new clean energy investments skyrocketed by 30 percent to $243 billion. No longer can people say: "renewable energy is a nice thing but it isn't a mainstream energy source". In fact, renewable energy exists in a large chunk of the world. Commercial wind power is in operation in 83 countries and solar PV capacity was added in 100 countries last year. As a result non-fossil fuel energy accounted for about 50 percent of the world's new electricity capacity added last year. That is a huge shift from a fossil dominated world to one with growing amounts of new energy coming from renewable sources.

We must act now: Troubling signs are emerging

The International Energy Agency (IEA) released their new projections of where energy and pollution is likely to head if we don't take additional actions. And a new report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) on climate change and extreme weather shows what we are baking into the system if we don't act. Four troubling signs emerged from these reports which should be a wake-up call to government's meeting in Durban:

These new reports should ring alarm bells for countries meeting in Durban, South Africa.

Turning Standing Ovations into Second and Third Acts

When an actor receives a standing ovation for a performance they don't go home and say: "I never have to act again". The best actors take their bow and go on stage the next night trying to perform even better. So will negotiators translate the standing ovations from Cancun into detailed guidelines and operations (the 2nd Act)? And will they turn those ovations into continued actions at home to meet their commitments and even deeper action to put the world on a safer path to avoid the damages of global warming (the 3rd Act)? Or will applause turn to boos?

This past year we've seen promising movement to define the guidelines and institutions to support efforts to improve transparency, develop a new fund to support developing country efforts to take action to reduce emissions and adapt to the impacts, and build stronger mechanisms to help deploy low-carbon technologies. Of course there are technical differences at this stage before Durban, but the differences are much smaller than could be expected. Countries can find the path to get agreement on these pieces in Durban. But the "fate of the Kyoto Protocol" and decisions about "where we are headed" are shaping up to derail the whole effort if we don't get resolution on these in Durban. Failure to resolve these issues would make getting agreement on the institutions and guidelines to implement the Cancun Agreements extremely difficult.

Durban Must be Able to Multitask

In Durban, countries must be able to "walk and chew gum", while starting to sprint towards solutions that deliver low-carbon energy and reduced deforestation. Countries need to be able to ensure that they can follow through with previous commitments and agreements by implementing actions at home, while making the institutions and guidelines from the Cancun Agreements operational in Durban. And they must be able to start moving much more quickly to low-carbon energy and reduced deforestation.

Durban must be a clear path on the road to addressing global warming. We can't afford a detour.

Global warming negotiations are at an important fork in the road. With emerging signs of promising actions occurring on the ground and troubling signs in the atmosphere, countries must decide in Durban if they can turn standing ovations into guidelines and institutions to help all countries take serious action to reduce global warming pollution and improve their resilience to the impacts of global warming.

The key political issue that will dominate the overall narrative in Durban is around the "fate of the Kyoto Protocol" and "where we are headed". These are two issues which were looming large in the lead-in to Copenhagen and Cancun but are set to come to a head in Durban. Getting greater clarity on these two issues will likely unlock progress on implementing the Cancun Agreements. While other issues are critical to build a strong international response to global warming (see Part 3) these two intertwined topics are likely to dominate much of the attention of Ministers.

"The Fate of the Kyoto Protocol"

At the end of 2012, the first round of internationally legally binding 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.*** A number of developed countries have passed domestic laws requiring mandatory emissions reductions beyond 2012, typically through 2020. For example, the European Union (E.U.) target to reduce emissions 20 percent below 1990 levels in 2020 is enshrined in the E.U.'s "Climate and Energy Package" which continues its mandatory emissions trading system for its largest polluters beyond 2012, mandates emissions reductions for each country in the E.U., and adopts other measures to reduce pollution across all 27 members of the E.U. Similarly the new Australia law sets out a path for targets beyond 2012. So for some countries, the "fate of the Kyoto Protocol" isn't fundamentally about whether they'll act at home beyond 2012, rather it is about how those targets are "codified" internationally.

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 E.U.. The E.U. has stated 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 (a so-called "mandate" or "roadmap"). Many expect countries like Norway and Switzerland to follow the E.U. Some countries have said pretty clearly that they won't go forward with further targets under the Kyoto Protocol (e.g., Japan, Russia, and Canada). Others like New Zealand and Australia haven't said one way or another.

It isn't clear whether developing countries will accept the EU's position or some modified version in the final hours. The E.U. has been extremely clear that it won't accept a continuation of the Kyoto Protocol without a clear mandate to negotiate a new international agreement which has firm actions from all the major emitters (see the conclusions from the E.U. Environment Ministers and from all 27 of the E.U. Heads of Government).

So key to resolving the "fate of the Kyoto Protocol" is for countries to outline a vision of "where we are headed (a "mandate" or "roadmap")?"

Where Are We 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 with meaningful commitments. While countries wouldn't have to agree explicitly in Durban the exact form of the final 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.

The E.U. has been very clear that for them this is a deal-breaker. Some countries believe that the E.U. will accept a continuation of the Kyoto Protocol without getting a clear mandate. The U.S. has said that they are prepared to accept a mandate to negotiate a new legal agreement but only if such a direction is explicit that all major emitters will have legally binding commitments. The Chinese and Indians have resisted such an explicit direction at this stage. Will countries move from these stated positions in order to get other pieces of the puzzle -- such as a continuation of the Kyoto Protocol and implementation of the Cancun Agreements (see Part 3)?

Hoping that the E.U. will "blink" and accept a continuation of the Kyoto Protocol without a mandate is a dangerous assumption. The issue of "where we are headed" was a key issue in the lead-in to Copenhagen. 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. That second step has eluded the world since Copenhagen as there is no clarity on where we are headed.

This issue is shaping up to come to a head in Durban. It can't be punted or dodged this time. We need a resolution.

Countries Must Move from Stated Positions to Real Agreement

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.

It is time for countries to stop digging in their heels and start moving towards a new international agreement with firm commitments from all major emitters. Is any country prepared to stand alone and block agreement?

It is time to decide.

One year ago, countries rallied around the Cancun Agreements with multiple standing ovations and strong words of support. While these agreements are not sufficient by themselves to fully address global warming, there are several key elements which establish a foundation for international action on global warming. Since Cancun, countries have been working to turn those agreements into operational guidelines and institutions to help ensure that countries are meeting their emissions reduction commitments, helping to mobilize resources to assist developing countries in reducing emissions and building stronger resilience to the impacts of global warming, and ensuring that these actions are the floor and not the ceiling of their efforts.

In Durban, countries must turn standing ovations into guidelines and institutions that help the world combat 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; and (5) mechanisms to ensure that these agreements are the "floor" of global action.

Breathing life into these agreements was to be one of the key aspects of the negotiation leading into Durban. If countries can resolve the major political issue (see Part 2) confronting Durban then these implementation details are ripe for agreement. (For more details on each of these listen to my recent webinar for Yale University and see the presentation from this event).

Commitments to Reduce Emissions: Making Progress to Address the Problem

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 the commitments of countries are putting us on the precipice of very damaging global warming. Deeper actions are required if we are to avoid the extreme weather and other damages that scientists predict will occur.

However, we are starting to have some greater clarity in key countries about the actions they'll implement to reduce emissions. For example, the US 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 passed their national climate law with a price on carbon and firm limits on the carbon pollution from the largest polluters. Brazil is facing a crucial test on its efforts to address deforestation as some agricultural interests have pushed for a weakening of the their landmark "Forest Law" prior to the country hosting world leaders for the Earth Summit in June 2012. India is moving forward with efforts to significantly scale-up solar power as a part of their effort to reduce their carbon intensity.

Ideally countries would come to Durban and outline in detail the steps they are taking to reduce their emissions. They would speak to the new set of laws they have implemented since Copenhagen and Cancun, the additional steps they plan to take, and how much progress they have made to meet their commitments. Unfortunately, this critical aspect is only undertaken in the side presentations and corridor discussions. The transparency and accountability provisions thus have become a critical tool in tracking this progress. This must change as we can't have a Ministerial level negotiation on global warming where countries don't have to outline their actions to reduce pollution. The spotlight must shine on those that are living up to their commitments and those that are falling behind.

Transparency and Accountability: 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. More countries understand the importance of resolving these issues and detailed guidelines have been proposed by a number of countries. Following from Cancun NRDC provided specific recommendations on how this agreement could be implemented on-the-ground for developed and developing countries.

In Durban, it is critical that developed countries flesh out the:

  1. details that will be in their biennial reports including information on their emissions, actions, the financial support they provide to developing countries, and how the ensure data credibility;
  2. provisions to build upon existing reporting so that the current rules are the minimum standard that is required; and
  3. rules for strengthened international review of developed country reporting and the new international assessment of developed country actions (the "International Assessment and Review").

For developing countries, it is essential that countries spell out in Durban the:

  1. time series for greenhouse gas emissions data that they'll report (e.g., at least 2010 in the first report, with additional historic data);
  2. details that will be in their biennial reports including detailed information on their greenhouse gas emissions, a detailed description of mitigation actions planned and implemented, the status of implementation of the country's emissions reduction actions, and information on the country's process for domestic collection and validation of reported data;
  3. Guidelines to inform how the country performs domestic data collection and validation; and
  4. rules for the new international analysis and consultation of developing country emissions and actions (the "International Consultation and Analysis").

It is also important that developed countries provide greater details on the funding that they'll provide aid developing countries in the development of the biennial reports.

While countries aren't in complete agreement on these details at this stage, some emerging agreement arose from the last session in Panama. It will be crucial that countries resolve these issues quickly in Durban as it shouldn't be necessary to have Ministers resolve these issues. 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': Helping 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 -- the group of 40 representatives that was tasked to craft the rules for this new fund -- has proposed a "governing document" that would establish a board to oversee the new fund, guide the operation of the fund, and ensure strong financial and environmental safeguards. The U.S. and Saudi Arabia blocked consensus on this governing document at the last meeting of the Transitional Committee in Cape Town. It will critical to resolve the outstanding issues early so that the Fund doesn't become a jumbled mess that gets watered down to the point where it can't be agreed. Important details will still need to be worked out next year by the Board as it draws up the strong details for the operation of the Fund.

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. The US and some developing countries have blocked the beginning of a negotiation on generating finance from international transport (e.g., aviation and shipping). It is well past time for them to remove their resistance and help develop a global approach to reducing emissions in these sectors that also generates finance.

Spurring Low-Carbon Energy Deployment: 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".

In Durban countries must launch the call for eligible entities to submit detailed proposals for how they will operate such a new technology center and network. A number of countries have announced an interest in hosting one of the regional networks so there is obvious support for this new platform. Countries must launch the "centers and networks" so that this concept can be quickly turned from concept into reality. As the new International Energy Agency analysis shows, we don't have time to wait to start to deploy low-carbon energy. Right now countries are building the infrastructure that will lock in emissions for the next several decades.

Reviewing Progress: Ensuring that current actions are the "floor"

In the Cancun Agreements, countries agreed to begin a formal "review" of the actions in 2013 with the review to be completed by 2015. This little noticed provision should play a critical role in ensuring that the current actions are the "floor" not the ceiling over the next decade. Some countries are positing that additional actions will only be taken after 2020. While it is important that action begins now, we must also ensure that countries are deepening their actions before 2020. If we wait until then to change direction it could be very dangerous, as the International Energy Agency analysis points out. [Our friends at WRI have a good post with more details.]

Turning Standing Ovations (and Agreement) into Implementation

There are positive signs emerging that countries are taking real action to spur low-carbon societies. At the same time there are troubling signs that if we don't act quickly and with even more gusto then we all might be headed for dangerous territory.

In Durban, countries must prove that they can multitask by addressing the "Fate of the Kyoto Protocol" and "where we are headed", while demonstrating that they can implement the agreements they reached in Cancun, Mexico. Countries proved in Cancun that they can rally around a package of agreements which can begin to help address global warming. Now it is critical that they show that they can act. After all, deeds are more powerful than words.

This article originally appeared on the NRDC's Switchboard blog, and is reprinted with permission.Visit NRDCs Switchboard Blog

Photo CC-licensed by Pieterjan Grobler.