(The Lack of) High Hopes for Durban

by Samuli Sinisalo

On Monday the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change convenes for two weeks in Durban, South Africa. This is the 17th annual Conference of Parties, where parties come together to fulfill the framework convention. As the negotiations grow ever more technical and complex, it is good to keep in mind that the ultimate goal of the convetion is to stabilize the green house gases in the atmosphere to a level that prevents dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system. But personally I am not having my hopes very high for any major breakthroughs to that direction this time. In fact, I would consider even a few very modest steps forward as major success in Durban.

The last comprehensive breakthrough within the UNFCCC context is the Bali Action Plan from 2007. In Bali a two track approach was designed, which would ensure a second commitment period for the Kyoto Protocol and another longer term solution for implementing the framework convention. These two tracks, or ad-hoc working groups, were given a two year mandate and were supposed to conclude their work in Copenhagen 2009. The Copenhagen conference failed to deliver, and the mandate of the working groups was extended to Cancun 2010.

Last year, few weeks before the Cancun negotiations began, the chair of one of the long term cooperative action track released a note by the chair which included the possible outcome for the negotiations. The Bali Action Plan from 2007 included five building blocks, which were shared vision, adaptation, mitigation, tech transfer and finance. The note by the chair in 2010 included four of these, but there was no outcome for mitigation. This to me describes the current state of the negotiations.

Mitigation is a key component of the negotiations. It is the most direct response for limiting the greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere. At the same time it is potentially the most contested area in these negotiations. There are several probable reasons why the chair of the long term cooperative action group left mitigation out from his draft agreement prior to Cancun. Some possible explanations could be the legal form of the future commitments, the continuation of Kyoto Protocol, the role of major emitters and of course the ambition of mitigation targets. But in the end, all these boil down to the lack of political will to commit for binding domestic mitigation targets, in the developed countries. Consequently Cancun also failed to deliver and the mandate of the ad-hoc working groups was extended to Durban.

I do not think there will be a comprehensive outcome from Durban either. The most contested issues, the future of the Kyoto Protocol and the ambition of mitigation targets have not moved forward sufficiently prior to the meeting, and the political pressure has not increased sufficiently.

Personally I have put the bar for success in Durban really low. There are a few results I would like to see.

First and foremost, the UNFCCC has to maintain its credibility as the forum in which future climate decisions are held and decisions are made. If stalled continuously and indefinitely, the global political attention will shift and UNFCCC faces the threat of being sidelined and becoming irrelevant. In the future, climate decisions might take place outside the UN framework. Therefore Durban has to deliver.

The most obvious and necessary area to deliver is the finance. In Copenhagen, an agreement on finance was reached. Developed countries promised to mobilize 30bn in fast-track finance by 2012. In Copenhagen, the Conference of the Parties also decided to establish a Green Climate Fund, which would, by 2020, provide 100bn annually. A Transitional Committee was set up in Cancun to design the fund, and that committee is submitting its (contested) report to the Conference of the Parties in Durban. The fund has to become equitable and operational as the result of the Durban conference.

These two are my personal minimun expectations for COP-17 in Durban, and I hope not to be too badly disappointed. This is not to say there could be no positive results from other Bali Action Plan elements, such as tech transfer or adaptation. But I dare not hope for that. And I dare not even dream of second commitment period to the Kyoto Protocol. But I hope I could dream to be positively surprised in Durban..

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