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What the Heck Happened in Durban?

The Gunther Report

What the Heck Happened in Durban?

So what the heck happened in Durban? Is the world closer to dealing with the problem of global warming? Or not?

If, like me, you aren't a devotee of the UN climate negotiations, reading the headlines isn't much help.

From the glass-half-full crowd: Progress at end of Durban Cop17 climate talks (LA Times). Reason to smile about Durban climate conference (Eugene Robinson in the Washington Post). Climate deal salvaged after marathon talks (The Guardian).

From the pessimists: How the world failed to address climate change–again (Michael Levi at The The Durban climate deal failed to meet the needs of the developing world (The Guardian, again). COP out (South Africa's Cape Times).

COP out strikes me as about right. To gain some insight in what happened, and why, I called David Victor, a political scientist at the University of California, San Diego, the author of an excellent new book called Global Warming Gridlock and one of the smartest people I know when it comes to understanding global climate politics. David has followed the UN process closely since its beginnings in the early 1990s, and he has become convinced that it is the wrong way to deal with the climate threat.

Durban didn't change his mind.

"In terms of substance, they have not really achieved much," David says. "They've agreed to have negotiations about what they might agree to in the future."

To be sure, as the optimists argue, this is the first time that the governments of countries that are the biggest carbon emitters -- China, the United States, the EU and India -- have agreed to negotiate legally binding restrictions. That's a big change from the terms of the Kyoto protocol, which essentially excluded developing countries, among them China, the world's biggest carbon emitter.

But, as David writes in his book:

The world is full of promises that are not kept, and the study of international institutions is about understanding when those promises are credible and have an impact on behavior, and when they are smoke.

The so-called Durban platform is a promise to negotiate a new climate deal by 2015 to replace the Kyoto protocol and take effect in 2020. It's a commitment to "a process to develop a protocol, another legal instrument or an outcome with legal force under the Convention applicable to all Parties." (If this doesn't strike you as faintly ridiculous, you've been spending too much time at the UN.) David, by the way, told me he read all the documents to emerge from Durban, explaining: "I was up at 4 o'clock this morning, and had nothing better to do, I guess."

More interesting than parsing the texts is understanding why two decades of UN climate talks have produced so little progress. David argues that the diplomatic gridlock stems not merely from the unhappy reality that the climate problem is devilishly complicated and hard to solve–both true–but because the UN setting, the number of governments at the table and even the goal of the negotiations -- currently, to set targets on emissions that would limit global warming to two degrees C -- are all misguided.

book cover"A process that involves every country on the planet focused on legally binding agreements in some ways brings out the worst in everybody," David says. Poor countries like China and India, in particular, are understandably reluctant to pledge to limit their greenhouse gas emissions as they struggle mightily to bring hundreds of millions of their citizens out of poverty.

"Universal treaties are a very bad way to get started on serious emission controls," David writes. Better, he argues, for smaller groups of countries to form "clubs" and negotiate flexible, evolving agreements that work more like trade deals. India and the U.S., for example, might work together on ways to burn coal more cleanly, or Russia might be encouraged by Europe to sell more natural gas to China as a substitute for coal.

What's more, David argues, negotiations that focus on setting targets for emissions are unlikely to succeed, if only because the levels of emissions reflect forces -- economic growth, fuel costs, technology breakthroughs (or their absence) -- over which governments have limited control.

Instead of agreeing to numerical emissions targets, governments could pledge to adopt "greener" policies. They could, for example, set efficiency standards for buildings or cars, or impose a carbon tax."Especially when it comes to countries that are growing rapidly, it's much easier for them to make promises about policies and measures than about emissions outputs," David says.

Reading Global Warming Gridlock makes the difficulties ahead depressingly clear, for many reasons. Once emitted, CO2 persists in the atmosphere for decades. Replacing fossil fuels with clean energy will take decades and cost many billions of dollars. Countries will have to absorb costs now (for cleaner energy) to generate benefits that are abstract, uncertain and in the future. This, of course, is precisely the opposite of what governments like to do, which is deliver benefits now and pay later.

These are some of the reasons why David says: "Even a serious effort to control emissions is unlikely to stop global warming. The climate's going to change." The question is, how fast and by how much?

I see two takeaways here for business. First, those companies that worry about climate change need to bring their voices more forcefully to the policy arena; they can't assume that governments are on the right track. Second, companies ought to prepare for climate change -- when they site new facilities, for example -- because it's unavoidable.

Perhaps in a future blog post, I'll explore David's provocative ideas about bracing for climate change, including the need for adaptation and the prospect of geoengineering. In the meantime, know this: Durban and the UN process aren't getting us where we need to go. No way, no how.

Photo CC-licensed by tcktcktck.