The Durban Climate Talks: Sidestepping the Fall of Kyoto

Climate negotiations in Durban, South Africa have reached the halfway point of their time frame, although in typical fashion, negotiators seem far from halfway to the finish line. No doubt the focus of Friday’s deadline will accelerate the pace of discussions, mainly for particularly contentious issues. Nevertheless, the first week of discussions has produced a set of draft texts on most of the major questions. These draft texts still contain a substantial amount of unsettled business, so delegates will be working through each of the agenda items carefully over the next week.

The agenda in Durban can been split into two categories—the mundane and the dramatic. On the one hand, negotiators are addressing a number of relatively constrained issues that are amenable to resolution over the next week—issues like the governance structure for a new Green Climate Fund and adaptation activities. On the other hand, there are two major questions whose resolution is hardly assured. First are continuing disagreements surrounding the fate of the Kyoto Protocol: some countries view it as an unhelpful vestige of a well-meaning but ultimately unsuccessful attempt to address climate change, while other countries see Kyoto as an architecture that, in contrast, is not fundamentally flawed and can therefore be repaired with a new and more subtly engineered set of commitments. The United States, for example, has asserted that an alternate, voluntary approach approved last year at Cancun is sufficient for the task and, by extension, Kyoto is redundant. Many developing countries are reluctant, however, to let go of a treaty structure that, at least superficially, appears to be more systematic and rigorous.

The second major issue, which has only recently emerged as a point of contention, is the target date for a new agreement. Even if countries do abandon the Kyoto Protocol, the United States, EU, Japan, and even China have indicated willingness to seek a new treaty that might go beyond the Copenhagen/Cancun approach. However, many of the major emitters (including the United States) have argued that a reasonable timeline would be to conclude such a treaty by 2016 with enactment in 2020. Yet to many stakeholders, 2020 seems an unreasonably long wait time given the necessary emissions reductions. While the timeline is amenable to modification, it too has caused some arguments and may therefore prove to be an additional obstacle.

Coming into Durban, an agenda split between contentious and relatively non-contentious issues seemed to augur the possibility of success—if not on the major questions, then at least on the smaller items. However, in recent days, some delegates have predictably been linking progress on the smaller agenda items to a resolution of the larger issues, thus confounding any easy outcomes. Yet progress should not be held hostage by discussions on the Kyoto Protocol, which has unfortunately become a touchstone for intense disagreement. Especially given the doubts about long-term cooperative action on a binding treaty, much more important is a concrete resolution on the Green Climate Fund, adaptation activities, and continuing the operation of the Clean Development Mechanism.

The above piece is one of several that Nathan Hultman, an attendee at the 2011 United Nations Climate Change Conference in Durban, South Africa, has written about topics discussed at the conference. Topics include the low-emissions development and the Clean Development Mechanism.