Reading the Durban deal

12 December 2011

The Durban climate summit ended in high drama, with a consensus agreement to open a new phase of negotiations, to be finished by 2015 at the latest, with targets for all countries kicking in from 2020.

A Datang International Power Generation Co. Ltd. wind farm in Gansu province, China. China has set a target for renewable energy consumption of 40 percent of the market by the year 2050. Credit: Markel Redondo / Panos

Given initial positions of the most powerful actors, this outcome looks impressive; a testament to the diplomatic skills and stamina of those pushing for a deal. Also, importantly for developing countries, there was agreement on the outline design of the Green Fund to pay for adaptation and mitigation (although it is still unclear how much conditionality there will be in practice).

Talks about talks

In all the excitement, however, it’s important to remember that Durban was basically talks about talks, in which the only commitment made was to keep the international process alive. Up until 2020, all we have are the voluntary commitments to reduce emissions that countries made under the Copenhagen Accord, which as my colleague Dirk Willenbockel pointed out this week, fall far short of limiting warming to 2C, let alone the 1.5C that the Chair of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) recently argued should be the target. As many commentators point out, this new agreement pushes legally binding action so far into the future that it may well be too late to prevent warming of 3-4C.

Worse, there is no guarantee that countries will keep to the agreement made at Durban, or that it will result in a strong climate treaty. The underlying nature of the climate change problem is still there – short term political incentives for governments in the major emitters to act are weak. As Scott Barrett’s comprehensive analysis of environmental treaties showed, the tendency in climate talks is to start with targets, rather than paying attention to the incentives to participate and effective mechanisms for enforcement, without which treaties are weak, as is the Kyoto Protocol. The next round of talks may well repeat this mistake.

A mixed outcome for poor countries

So Durban was a very mixed outcome for the world’s poorest countries. In the form of the G77, they were the prime movers in developing the agreement, along with the European Union and the Alliance of Small Island States. But although they are better off with the deal than without it, they still remain vulnerable to the threat of dangerous climate change. Even on the Green Fund, while there has been talk about carbon taxes on shipping, there is no real clarity on where the estimated $100 billion a year needed will come from.

The role of China

Finally, the role of China in Durban was interesting, as it was in the Busan aid summit where the big story was China’s emergence as a major new donor. In Durban, what was striking about the agreement reached was that it established the principle that all countries (not just rich ones) should have emissions reductions targets with legal force, something that the US wanted but China did not.

So why did China sign up? The reason may lie in changing incentives. China has sunk considerable effort and cost into developing clean energy industries, from wind and solar to electric vehicles, and it is even now beginning to show a bit of interest in carbon capture. To get a pay-off from this investment, China will need secure markets for these technologies abroad, so it does need the rest of the world, and especially OECD countries, to adopt sufficiently credible targets to drive those markets, which in the end means a meaningful international agreement. This will come at a domestic cost, because to achieve it (and especially America's commitment) China will also have to sign up to binding targets. But China's leaders may well see this as an acceptable cost, especially since reducing emissions can also offer energy security and local pollution co-benefits.

Matthew Lockwood is Leader of the Climate Change Team at IDS.