16 December 2011: Was Durban a significant step forward?

The Durban climate summit has been hailed by the EU Climate Action Commissioner, Connie Hedegaard, and the UK Climate Secretary, Chris Huhne, as a significant step forward. It was certainly better than the 2009 Copenhagen summit, which broke up in acrimony, and slightly better than the 2010 Cancun summit, which had lots of promises but no progress on an international framework. However, the Durban agreement was essentially an agreement to keep talking. All countries promised to negotiate commitments, but no actual commitments were made.

One of the positive aspects at Durban was that the EU regained a central position, having been sidelined in Copenhagen. The EU was calling for a ‘roadmap’ for future negotiations (roadmap being the current jargon term of choice for anything the EU does on climate and energy). This was agreed – eventually. China, India and the US all signed up to negotiating an agreement with binding targets by 2015, with the targets coming into force in 2020. Getting China and India to agree that they could at some stage have targets was progress. Back in 1997, the US senate voted 96-0 against any international agreement that didn’t impose binding targets on China and India. Therefore, a US President would theoretically have a chance of getting a future treaty based on the Durban agreement ratified by Congress.

However, the rich and powerful fossil fuel lobby in the US would then inevitably find other reasons to oppose a new climate treaty. And China and India still have the option of refusing binding commitments in 2015. All they’ve agreed so far is that they will talk about them.

Having a top-down international agreement would be valuable. Governments and negotiators should certainly keep talking, but a top-down framework is not essential. Bottom-up progress can be made without one. So politicians and policy makers should not allow the UNFCCC process to take their attention away from national or regional policies.

The EU should give priority to adopting the draft energy efficiency directive and rescuing the Emissions Trading System from irrelevance (see 21 October 2011: What the EU should do at and after the Durban climate summit). The Danish government, which holds the EU presidency in the first half on 2012, has said that it will try to do both of these things.

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