After Marathon Talks, Countries Set Goal For New Climate Deal in Effect Around 2020

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By Eric J. Lyman  

DURBAN, South Africa—While negotiators at the U.N. climate summit agreed to a pact that will obligate the world's largest greenhouse gas emitters to take steps to reduce their emissions starting as soon as 2020, the deferral of many important decisions to 2012 or beyond makes it difficult to gauge the value of the accord.

The agreement was reached Dec. 11 after talks were extended 30 hours beyond the scheduled close of the meeting.

Negotiators also agreed to establish a second commitment period for the Kyoto Protocol, minus several important emitting countries. The second commitment period would last either five or eight years after it goes into effect, probably in 2013.

Initial details also were hammered out for the Green Climate Fund, which aims to provide developing countries with at least $100 billion a year for adaptation efforts starting in 2020.

Almost all of the terms of the Cancun Agreements, the package of measures agreed to at the 2010 U.N. climate summit in Mexico, also were implemented. These include a “technology transfer center” to be established in a yet-to-be determined location. It will deal with issues surrounding the sharing of new, environmentally friendly technologies with developing countries, including intellectual property protection, training, and sustainability.

Longest-Lasting Summit

The Durban talks, officially the 17th Conference of the Parties (COP-17) to the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change, lasted far longer than any of its predecessors, stretching into a second day after its scheduled Dec. 9 conclusion.

Almost every hour of the extra period was spent in negotiations before a deal was brokered by an unlikely partnership that included the European Union; most members of the Alliance of Small Island States and the group of Least Developed Countries; and two large developing countries, Brazil and conference host South Africa.

Maite Nkoana-Mashabane, president of the COP, hailed the agreement as a “historic achievement,” while UNFCCC Executive Secretary Christiana Figueres said delegates took “crucial steps forward.”

Several Issues Pushed to COP-18

A decision on how long the second Kyoto commitment period will last was delayed to 2012's COP-18 in Doha, Qatar.

Other issues for the 2012 COP meeting will include whether the legal format of the Durban agreement—officially called “an agreed outcome with legally binding consequences”—means that decisions made in South Africa and in future COPs will be considered legally binding in and of themselves.

The talks in Doha also will debate how various countries' voluntary goals agreed to one year ago in Cancun, Mexico, measure up to greenhouse gas emissions reduction targets. Most supporters of the Durban outcome agreed that the voluntary goals needed to be strengthened but it was not immediately clear how that would happen.

With so much left to be decided before or at the Doha summit—scheduled Nov. 26–Dec. 7, 2012—EU Climate Action Commissioner Connie Hedegaard admitted there could be a small gap between the expiration of Kyoto's first commitment period at the end of 2012 and the actual start date of a second period.

New Treaty Text Due in 2015

Agreement on the 2020 mitigation regime was the biggest obstacle in the talks, and it is the area with the most work left to do.

The roles of China, the United States, and India—the world's three largest emitters—are still not nailed down.

Crucially, the agreement in Durban set a 2015 target date for completion of a new text outlining the legally binding regime. But when the treaty would take effect is unclear.

Some delegates told BNA after the final gavel that some parties regretted that the vague wording in the final document could mean the new treaty would go into effect “after” 2020 and not “in” 2020.

The European Union's preferred wording for an effective date of “2020 at the latest” was removed in the final hours of the negotiations.

Figueres, the United Nations’ top climate change official, admitted the final wording was inexact. “What all this means has yet to be decided,” she said.

How to Ensure Compliance?

One important issue for a future agreement is ensuring compliance.

Rules under the Kyoto Protocol require countries that miss their targets in the first commitment period to make up for the shortfall with a 30 percent penalty in a subsequent period.

But with big emitters like Canada, Japan, and Russia sitting out a second commitment period, and the Kyoto targets for remaining countries in the period starting in 2013 voluntary, countries that miss their targets in the first commitment period will likely face few consequences.

How to ensure that “binding” post-2020 commitments carry real consequences for countries that do not meet targets will be debated between now and 2015.

“The idea was originally to agree to a framework for two or three commitment periods in a row, which would make it easier to carry sanctions forward,” said Annie Petsonk, international counsel for the Environmental Defense Fund. “If that doesn't happen, some other mechanisms will need to be put into place to assure that ‘binding’ means something.”

U.S.: ‘All the Elements We Were Looking For.'

U.S. Special Envoy for Climate Change Todd Stern said he was pleased with the final text.

“We got the kind of legal symmetry we have been focused on since the start of the Obama administration,” Stern said, referring to the U.S. demand that a new regime not take effect before 2020 because the voluntary goals countries put forth over the past two years expire in 2020.

“This [agreement] has all the elements we were looking for.”

The United States had faced criticism that it was pushing for a “time out” until at least 2020 before a binding treaty could take effect. China's negotiating stance, meanwhile draw various interpretations as delegates sought to parse its delegates' vague but potentially promising statements. (See related article in this issue.)

Formation of Green Climate Fund Can Begin

Developing countries more or less got what they wanted concerning the Green Climate Fund.

The fund was “operationalized” in Durban, meaning delegates can act in the next year to select a board, construct an administrative framework, and identify sources of funding.

Conference plenary meetings discussed a potential international financial transaction tax or a fee on international maritime and air transportation to raise money for the fund, but those issues were tabled.

“Of course we in Africa do not want an empty shell when it comes to the Green Climate Fund, but we also know that before we can put money and resources into the fund, the fund must exist,” said Tosi Mpanu Mpanu, chairman of the 54-nation Africa Group. “Now it exists.”

Delegates said the economic climate was too tough to make further progress on adaptation funding.

“This is not the point to be turning to ministers of finance to tell them they need to write a big check,” said Adrian Macey, a delegate from New Zealand.

No Post-2012 Carry-Over for Emissions Units?

Also left unresolved in Durban was whether assigned amount units (AAUs) earned before 2012 could be carried forward.

Country targets under the Kyoto Protocol are expressed as “assigned amounts” of emissions, and are divided into AAUs. Each unit represents the right to emit one metric ton of carbon dioxide-equivalent. AAUs may be earned for emissions reduction activities, allowing countries to emit more greenhouse gases in the future.

The issue of carrying over AAUs from the current Kyoto commitment period was tabled. Expert observers said that probably will mean no credits or only a small percentage of credits would be allowed to be carried forward.

That is even more likely because Poland, the strongest advocate of carrying AAUs forward, will no longer hold the European Union's rotating presidency as of Jan. 1. The presidency will shift to Denmark, which is a strong critic of carrying significant AAUs forward after 2012.

“We decided this was not a central issue and it will be decided in the future,” said a visibly dejected Marcin Korolec, Poland's environment minister and his country's top representative on the EU delegation.

Lukewarm Response From Environmental Groups

Environmental groups gave the agreement in Durban a lukewarm response.

Jennifer Haverkamp from the Environmental Defense Fund said the deal represented “the first small but essential steps toward creating a new global agreement to curb climate change.”

Alden Meyer from the Union of Concerned Scientists said, “While governments avoided disaster in Durban, they by no means responded adequately to the mounting threat of climate change.”

Greenpeace was more critical of the deal, laying much of the blame on the United States.

“The grim news is that the blockers led by the U.S. have succeeded in inserting a vital get-out clause that could easily prevent the next big climate deal being legally binding,” Greenpeace International Executive Director Kumi Naidoo said, referring to the 2015 deadline to finalize language for the post-2020 deal.

“If that loophole is exploited, it could be a disaster.”

U.N. officials said the final versions of the documents agreed to late in the night of Dec. 10 and early on Dec. 11 could take “several days” to be edited, translated, and placed online.


More information on the U.N. climate talks in Durban, South Africa, is available at .