The Durban Climate Negotiations

From November 28 to December 9, international energy and environment delegates will be gathering in Durban, South Africa for the annual round of the U.N. climate change policy negotiations. For the most part, this year’s agenda tackles issues of moderate or low controversy, and are aimed at filling out provisions that were sketched out in last year’s meeting in Cancun. These issues include:

  • The design of the Green Climate Fund, a new multilateral lending and financing facility. Originally conceived at the 2009 Copenhagen meeting, the GCF seeks to consolidate and leverage new sources of funding to help countries reduce greenhouse gas emissions and adapt to expected climate changes. It was originally hoped that the GCF would, by 2020, be able to spur (through a combination of grants and lending) up to $100 billion per year of funding for such activities. However, whether this amount materializes is an open question. Given the long-term and hypothetical nature of this amount, there has been a parallel effort to secure “fast-start” financing to be used in the period 2010-2012, but even this fund has only been able to secure about $12 billion of a promised $30 billion from wealthier countries. Nevertheless, it is likely that a GCF will be operational at some stage and the relatively familiar constraints of multilateral funding instruments make it reasonably likely that a governance structure can be agreed at Durban.
  • The design of a new Technology Mechanism. This mechanism is a recent entry into the suite of international approaches to climate change policy. It is based on the twin premise that: (a) innovation and new technological development in developing countries and emerging economies will be essential to solving the climate problem; and (b) previous international attempts to simply transfer technology have not been particularly effective. As such, the Technology Mechanism seeks to create an effective technology development framework by fostering networks of experts in different geographical contexts and also by establishing one or more international centers to foster knowledge clustering, learning and new applications. Negotiators at Durban will be discussing the structure of these elements, who will have access to them, where they will be based, and how they will be governed.
  • Finalizing the Cancun Adaptation Framework. It is widely acknowledged that climate change will induce a wide range of impacts specific to local geography, climates, institutions and resources. Part of the international discussion has revolved around how best to aid individual communities and countries that are hoping to enhance their capacity to respond to these hazards. Discussions on adaptation have been ongoing for many years, but delegates in Cancun focused these discussions on a few small pieces that may be resolved in Durban. For example, each country is tasked with creating an adaptation plan, and specific guidelines on methods and possible assistance are open for discussion; similarly, a new Adaptation Committee has been agreed upon but needs to be operationalized. Such activities are potentially of some use inherently but could ideally also help with identifying financing priorities for the Green Climate Fund.

In addition to these relatively technical agenda items, there are two issues that will no doubt draw much of the international attention even though they are probably not as consequential. The first of these issues is the Kyoto Protocol. The facts are as follows: (a) the controversial commitments to emissions reduction targets in Kyoto are set to expire in 2012; (b) many countries would like to see a second commitment period to start in 2013; (c) many of the most important emitters, including the United States, have said they will not take any commitment under Kyoto; and (d) Kyoto is only one of three major agreements on climate change, so the death of Kyoto would not be the death of all international climate change policy by any estimation. So while we are likely to hear a great deal about impending doom from the “failure” to establish a second commitment period, the most important players are going to remain focused on the alternate approach to Kyoto, namely the agreements that emerged from previous the meetings in Copenhagen and Cancun.

A final and somewhat separate issue that has recently emerged is the release of some additional emails hacked from the correspondence of climate scientists. While not directly incident on the talks at Durban, this “Climategate 2.0” will certainly imbue wider discussions around the question of climate change policy. The first release of emails from this security breach happened in late 2009, immediately before the Copenhagen meeting. Questions were raised and then vigorously discussed about whether several quotes from the emails indicated a conspiracy among climate scientists to hide results that did not concur with an agreed narrative on global warming. In the ensuing two years, inquiries vindicated the scientists but the inquiries also led to recommendations for more transparency. In addition, a rigorous cross-examination of the data was undertaken by an independent (and initially unconvinced) research group at the University of California that produced a temperature record in agreement with previous estimates. In short, the first Climategate produced no smoking gun and seemed to help establish independent confirmation of previous scientific findings. This raises some doubts about the import of this new salvo; however, we will have to wait to see what will be its ultimate effect on public perception of climate science and on public support for climate change policy.

I will be discussing each of these issues, plus a few others—such as the Clean Development Mechanism, and the ongoing dispute between the U.S. and China on Monitoring, Reporting, and Verification—in more depth during the Durban meetings over the next two weeks.