Five things to know about the Durban climate agreement

at 01:48 PM ET, 12/12/2011

So what happened at the U.N. climate talks in Durban, South Africa, on Sunday? As my colleague Juliet Eilperin reports, negotiators managed to thrash out an agreement at the very last minute — an agreement to begin a new round of talks on a new agreement in the years ahead. That might not sound impressive — in fact, it sounds a little ridiculous — but international climate negotiations are typically slow, grinding affairs. So how does this new accord measure up? Here are five things to know about how far the world has advanced in tackling climate change:


South African Foreign Minister Maite Nkoana-Mashabaneg speaks at a news conference at the climate talks in Durban, South Africa. (Stephane De Sakutin - AFP)
1. The world is still nowhere close to meeting its climate goals. As I explained earlier, the world is trying to avoid warming the planet by more than 2°C (above pre-industrial levels). By that yardstick, the current agreements are a total failure. According to Ecofys’ Climate Tracker, the world is now heade for a very risky 3.5°C of warming, when you add up all of the current pledges. The good news is that Ecofys’ figures don’t include whatever measures China and India will eventually take. The bad news? Staying under 2°C will require drastic, immediate action — with global emissions peaking in the next five years or so. The Durban Platform, by contrast, merely prods countries to come up with a new agreement that will go into effect no later than 2020. Not quite the same thing.

2. It seems unlikely that the current U.N. process will meet that 2°C target. The biggest flaw with the existing global climate treaty, the Kyoto Protocol, is that it explicitly exempts fast-growing developing countries like China and India, which are responsible for a huge share of emissions. In Durban, European negotiators wanted to come up with a new, legally binding treaty that would cover the entire world and take effect by 2020 at the latest. But the “legally binding” language didn’t go over well with China and especially India. Instead, negotiators softened the language. This future agreement — to be negotiated by 2015 — will theoretically cover all 194 countries, but it’s not quite clear how much “legal force” the successor agreement will actually have, or what sorts of emissions goals it will set.

3. That said, the Durban talks accomplished a few minor things. Put aside the emissions targets for a second. The Durban agreement did flesh out details on a few secondary items, such as a new $100 billion Green Climate Fund to help poorer countries reduce their emissions. As noted here, stabilizing CO2 pollution in poorer countries will prove essential for staving off climate change. On the other hand, it’s still not clear where the money for the fund will come from. The pledge drive starts next week. Hands up if you think the Republican House is ready to appropriate millions of dollars to fund solar projects in the developing world.

4. The United Nations isn’t the only path to tackling climate change. As the ever-optimistic folks at the Center for American Progress point out, averting global warming is such a massively ambitious task that it will likely take more than just one single treaty to solve. There are other options here. For instance, countries could use the existing Montreal Protocol — the one that phased out CFCs to save the ozone layer — to crack down on HFCs, a CFC replacement that turned out to be a powerful greenhouse gas. And various countries could also work outside the United Nations to reduce black-carbon pollution — soot, essentially — which is speeding up Arctic ice melt. (Even hardened climate denier James Inhofe thinks it’s worth spending money in Africa to crack down on black carbon.)

5. Even so, the U.N. talks are probably here to stay. The U.N. climate talks are often slow, unwieldy, and, in the eyes of many experts, fairly ineffective. Political scientist Johannes Urpelainen makes that case at biting length here. And yet, as Michael Levi argues here, it’s probably wrong to single out the United Nations for these shortcomings — or abandon that forum altogether. It’s not like the substantive disagreements between, say, Europe and India would get any easier if they were negotiating in a different venue.

 
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