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What Really Happened in Durban-and Will It Be Enough to Combat Climate Change?

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COP-17-negotiations-plenary"It was the best of times, it was the worst of times"—Dickens's phrase might serve to sum up the reactions to what is now officially called the "Durban Platform for Enhanced Action" on climate change. This two-page document, reminiscent in its brevity of the Copenhagen Accord from 2007, purports to set the global community on a road to a global effort to reduce the greenhouse gas emissions causing global warming.

"I think everybody understands we're talking about a legal agreement of some sort or another, and I think that the fact that we have all of the developing countries and, in particular, the major developing countries agreeing to do that, is significant," noted U.S. climate envoy Todd Stern in a conference call with reporters on December 13.

Of course, a road is not the same as a destination: agreements don’t necessarily translate into definitive action. Hence the pessimism of some of the more than 12,000 participants, noting that what happened in Durban is really only the prolonging of international talks about climate change, rather than any real action to restrain global warming.

Many sources of tensions that preceded Durban—rich vs. poor, the self-interest of the energy rich, and the panic of nations under immediate threat of climate catastrophe—persisted even as the conference participants flew home. On the other hand, a global agreement that all countries—whether rich or poor, developed or developing—have an obligation to reduce emissions represents a major shift in such talks. Prior to Durban, the principle of "common but differentiated responsibilities" ruled climate talks. In short, this meant that those countries responsible for the bulk of historical greenhouse gas emissions—the E.U., U.S., Japan and others—would be equally responsible for the bulk of any emission reductions.

"India is asking for space for basic development for its people and poverty eradication. Is this an unreasonable demand?" Indian environment minister Jayanthi Natarajan argued during a ministerial "indaba"—or meeting to hash out differences—late on the night of December 10. The principle of "equity"—or the need to cut slack for newly developing countries in a global emissions budget—will continue to figure prominently in future climate negotiations as the world determines exactly what the Durban package actually means.

But equity means nothing when it comes to atmospheric effects of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases, piling up in the atmosphere. A molecule of CO2 emitted by coal burning in the U.K. in 1911 has the same impact as a molecule of CO2 emitted by coal burning in China in 2011. Climate change is, ultimately, about cumulative emissions of such greenhouse gases and, therefore, any effort to combat climate change will require emissions reductions from all countries—especially since developing countries now account for more than half of global CO2 emissions. As it stands, the pledges following Copenhagen to reduce greenhouse gas emissions leave a 6 billion metric ton gap between present reality and what is likely required to restrain the warming of global average temperatures to 2 degrees Celsius or less. Durban did nothing to deal with that gap.

For those countries that face an existential threat from climate change, such as the small island states like the Maldives, this has long been obvious. As a result, such nations have already begun to look for ways to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, even in the absence of a global treaty or legal obligations. So, for example, the Maldives will strive to be carbon neutral by the time any agreement resulting from the Durban package takes effect in 2020. Diesel generators for electricity will be replaced by photovoltaics and biomass- and waste-burning, among other efforts. "We have to do something to save ourselves and also to show to the world that there is an alternative way of doing things," explained Mohamed Aslam, the minister of housing and the environment of the Republic of the Maldives at an event on December 5, though he admitted that the tiny island nation of 315,000 people had yet to devise a solution to the fossil fuel needed to propel boats between the islands.

But for those countries that face an economic threat from combating climate change, such as fossil fuel titans like Saudi Arabia and Canada, working to reduce emissions remains all pain with little gain. Canada's emissions of greenhouse gas emissions, for example, have risen by more than 30 percent above 1990 levels during a period when they were supposed to decline by 6 percent, largely due to the development of oil from tar sands in Alberta. As a result, Canada walked away from the Kyoto Protocol on December 12, abandoning its commitment. "They are willing to change the chemical composition of the atmosphere in order to make money," says Bill McKibben, founder of 350.org, an organization working to promote urgent action to combat climate change.

There is also nothing in the Durban deal that will prevent it from meeting the same fate as the "Bali Action Plan" that imploded at the Copenhagen climate talks in 2007. But even if it does result in a global treaty, it remains to be seen whether that treaty will be able to restrain the economic self-interest of major polluters such as Canada. "Many countries don't want to be seen without action. There are broader geopolitical dynamics at play that push countries to want to play nice, but that only takes you so far," notes Jake Schmidt, international climate policy director at the Natural Resources Defense Council, a U.S.-based environmental group. "In the case of Canada, they were more than happy to jump ship."

Image: © David Biello

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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