The outcome of contentious negotiations taking place in Durban — punctuated by finger pointing among the world’s biggest greenhouse gas emitters and heckling by activists — reflected a fundamental shift in the geopolitics behind global environmental disputes.
At U.N. climate talks, delegates salvage last-minute compromise
Developing countries have long been a unified bloc, demanding that industrialized nations take most of the responsibility for cutting global greenhouse gas emissions. But faced with the fact that a handful of emerging economies — led by China and India — are helping drive carbon emissions to new heights, the world’s smallest nations joined forces with the European Union to demand decisive action from their former allies as well as the United States.
The Durban agreement provides countries with the latitude to forge something that would apply to all nations, called an “agreed outcome with legal force,” a last-minute compromise that creates a less stringent alternative to a traditional treaty. Several experts said such an agreement would be stronger than the voluntary accords reached last year in Cancun, Mexico.
Ned Helme, who heads the Washington-based Center for Clean Air Policy, said the provision means “it is enforceable and makes countries accountable. Of course, we know that international law is a lot less enforceable than domestic laws.”
Jake Schmidt, international climate policy director for the Natural Resources Defense Council, called the agreement “important progress,” adding, “this outcome brings large countries like China and India into the room to negotiate meaningful commitments to address the urgent need to cut global emissions.”
This year’s U.N. meeting took on greater significance because it comes as the world’s only existing climate treaty, the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, is reaching the end of its first commitment period.
E.U. officials maintained that they would be willing to extend emission cuts under the Kyoto accord only if all the world’s major emitters agreed to negotiate a new legally binding climate pact.
Connie Hedegaard, E.U. commissioner on climate action, who had characterized an earlier version of the package as too weak, said “an agreed outcome with legal force” is “ a good and strong result.”
Representatives of small nations, such as I.J. Karl Hood, Grenada’s minister of foreign affairs, environment, foreign trade and export development, had endorsed the E.U.’s insistence on strong terms for the agreement. “We cannot allow countries to continue on the track which has brought us to this place,” he said. “. . . While they develop, we die in the process. Madam Chair, why should we accept this? Why?”
Initially, India’s minister for environment and forests, Jayanthi Natarajan, had fought for language to give developing countries such as hers more flexibility.
“This is not about India. This is about the world,” she said. “Does climate change mean you give up equity? What is the problem with adding one more option? What is the problem?