Durban Analysis: Half Empty, Half Full?January 5, 2012
For the past five years PFT Board Secretary Andrea Tuttle has attended the negotiating sessions of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change as an observer for PFT, tracking the climate policies for forests. Here's Andrea's analysis of outcomes from the Conference of the Parties (COP 17) held this December in Durban, South Africa. Andrea also took photos in Durban, which we've posted to Flickr. Take a look here.
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Durban Analysis: Half Empty, Half Full?
January 5, 2012
Whew! Reading the summaries of what happened in the early morning hours of the closing session of United Nation’s climate talks (COP 17) in early December leaves one baffled. Will the planet really get any better from all this?
The exhausted negotiators applauded the delicate language that keeps parties talking through 2020. Meanwhile, those wanting aggressive emission cuts are disappointed. Emissions keep rising, yet countries appear to have simply refined their rhetoric for avoiding an internationally binding treaty.
It sounds like wasted effort and a depressing failure. No grand agreement, no rousing call to action. The relentless CO2 accumulation continues, faster than predicted. These COP summits show how hard it is to get 190+ countries on the same path, especially when there is such wide disparity in wealth and development, on top of the fundamental task of changing the embedded fossil fuel economy.
The clashing world views of those who created the problem (developed countries) versus those most responsible for generating future emissions (developing countries) means that solutions must somehow address both.
And therein lies the nuance of one success from Durban. The subtle change of the "Durban Platform" is that all countries are included in the new process, not just the outdated division of developed vs. developing countries frozen in the Kyoto Protocol (KP). This means that China, India and the United States are in it together and can no longer play the "you first" game in the same way. With China and India at the table the United States wins its point that all countries need to participate going forward. And if the U.S. can eventually commit to meaningful action then China and India win their points too.
At least symbolically the Kyoto Protocol did not die on African soil as first feared. (The KP is the sub-agreement within the UN Framework Convention that sets emission reduction targets for developed countries to meet by 2012). The expiring commitments have been extended to around 2018 while negotiators work on a new agreement for 2020. This means that at least the European Union will continue its commitments and trading system, with the Clean Development Mechanism (the arrangement allowing emission reductions in developing countries to be applied to KP targets) still in business. However, the number of Kyoto Protocol members is now fewer since Japan and Russia refused a second KP commitment, and Canada summarily quit the KP in order to avoid $14 billion in penalties after missing its pledged 2012 reduction target.
But a few building blocks of a future global agreement did come together. Delegates agreed on the establishment of a new "Green Climate Fund," proposed as $100 billion a year in public and private money that will assist developing nations in adapting to climate change and converting to clean energy. Terms for an executive board and decision-making process were adopted, but it is still murky as to exactly how the combination of money from fees, donors and markets will be generated.
From my perspective one of the important gains was the tone of the language towards carbon markets. Past COPs have seen a handful of countries boycott at the mere mention of pricing carbon—yet that is one of the key tools for incentivizing alternatives. While various options for markets are still in the text "in brackets" (meaning that multiple options are listed and no decision was made), the adopted language still makes a clear reference to market mechanisms and calls for preparation of a technical paper and workshop to be completed this spring (text found in Section II.C of the decision (FCCC/AWGLCA/2011/L.4).
Fortunately forests continue as one of the key negotiation tracks still making progress. Two weeks of side events specifically related to forests gave status reports from tropical REDD+** countries from Asia to Africa to the Amazon. These "readiness reports" are the first steps for 1) identifying the causes of deforestation within a country and 2) assessing the country’s capacity—in terms of its economics, governance, technical skills and institutions—to affect any change in the deforestation trend.
So far the results are a mixed bag. At a minimum, countries have identified their deforestation drivers whether they be industrial agriculture (for palm oil, soy or cattle), slash-and-burn agriculture, charcoal production for cooking and heating, legal and illegal logging, or simply deforestation because people are poor and hungry. Each country has also identified its own set of stumbling blocks affecting its capacity to change its deforestation trend.
In one panel we asked the question whether the task is just too complex to expect developing countries to meet the high bar needed to support a credible system for forest carbon crediting. The general response was that these pilot studies were doing their intended job of identifying issues, and at least for now we should keep at it. We’ve only been working on REDD+ since the Bali COP about five years ago, and we keep making progress both on methods and implementation. On the carbon side, methods have been developed for setting baselines, addressing leakage, monitoring change in carbon stocks and other associated tasks. On the social safeguards side, standards are being developed to ensure meaningful participation and benefit sharing by a full range of stakeholders, importantly including the indigenous communities that live and depend on forests. Some countries are well advanced in their plans and programs, and their Ministries of Forestry and local communities are anxious to have COP decisions regarding required standards so they can move forward. Meanwhile, other countries will need much longer since we can’t expect a forest program alone to solve all development and governance problems of a country that’s not ready yet.
Specific gains at Durban clarified the technical use of national and sub-national reference levels (e.g. deforestation baselines) and agreed to a study of market mechanisms to be presented this spring. General standards for social safeguards were reinforced, and investors/brokers explored alternative finance mechanisms for forests beyond carbon crediting, such as green bonds and insurance tools.
A surprising note for we loyal Forest Day attendees was announcement of the departure of Francis Seymour as Director General of CIFOR, the international forest research organization that invented and sponsored Forest Day. Francis has been one of the most articulate voices for a holistic approach to REDD+ and a strong advocate for people dependent on forests. By creating the annual Forest Day five years ago, CIFOR has provided a forum strongly influencing the negotiations and the whole direction of REDD. Given her many talents, we eagerly await announcement of Francis’ new assignment!
Closing thoughts: The long slog of these negotiations, where year after year only incremental steps are made, leaves one utterly frustrated. Is a legally binding global treaty still the right goal—or should we be focusing in some other direction? It was hoped the decade of 2010-2020 would be a time of action, not just talk. Pushing a possible replacement of the Kyoto Protocol to 2020 sounds like a lost decade that locks us into a 2-degree Celsius temperature rise, if not more.
The best encouragement comes from the independent actions by other levels of government, which simply ignore the international quagmire. Many countries, states and provinces, local governments, businesses and individuals are moving ahead on their own, setting renewable energy targets, replacing their vehicle fleets, requiring building efficiency, engaging in market competition that drives down the prices of solar panels, turbines and batteries, and so on. The “R20”—a new organization for state and provincial governments created by former California Governor Schwarzenegger and led by Linda Adams, former CalEPA Secretary—announced its formal launch with a Secretariat to be housed in Geneva. This gives a platform for states such as California and others, which have made real commitments to emission reductions, to showcase how progress can be made. Similarly, the Governors’ Climate and Forest Task Force (GCF) continues as a forum for states and provinces to display progress fighting their deforestation, either ahead of their national system or nested within it..
So that’s a wrap from Durban. In spite of frustration with the outcome, the opportunity to see the world grappling with such an enormous problem is an amazing experience. We really are a global village, and the negotiators really are fellow human beings representing the interests important to them. For those interested in more detailed assessments a few good sources are posted below. And for those true gluttons, COP 18 will be held in the desert of Doha, Qatar from November 26— December 7, 2012!
• Full text of UNFCCC COP 17 decisions
• Overview summary of COP 17 (HTML)
• Overview summary of COP 17 (PDF)
• Summary review of REDD+ progress and various blogs, see the CIFOR website, e.g.
** REDD+ is the international mechanism for reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation through conservation, sustainable management of forests and enhancement of forest carbon stocks in developing countries.