Durban COP 17: Saving the day after stormy weather?

29 November 2011

"It always seems impossible until it's done" are the words from Nelson Mandela that UNFCCC Executive Secretary Christina Figures echoed yesterday in her opening speech for the UN Climate Change Conference (UNFCCC COP 17/CMP 7) in Durban, South Africa. The opening took place in the aftermath of an unseasonable powerful storm which flooded the basements of the conference centre which hosts COP 17 and even caused several deaths in the region, according to reports.

The official slogan for COP 17 is "working together, saving tomorrow today." And indeed, the question for all countries in Durban will be whether they want to collaborate to save the day and take action on climate change in accordance with the scientific reality of climate change or whether they will continue to get caught up in procedural matters. Looking first at the reality of climate change, emissions of greenhouse gasses have never been higher than in 2010 and this year the world is on track to break that record again. At the same time, limiting global warming to two-degrees Celsius will require emissions to peak by 2020, and to reduce drastically by 2050. Meanwhile, progress in the climate negotiations over the past two years has been procedural at best.

When listening to the negotiators here, it seems like uncertainty remains the one word everyone can agree upon. But they add that that may not be the end of the world; last year's meeting in Cancun showed that sometimes low expectations may be the best way to get results at climate negotiations. In contrast, the great expectations for Copenhagen to deliver a new binding treaty resulted in disappointment and cost many global leaders a good deal of political capital - leaving them unwilling to make such a gamble the following year. Efforts by delegates to keep ambitions low determine the atmosphere in Durban for now.

Expectations for COP 17: setting the scene

Although a major breakthrough is not expected in Durban, many view the meeting as an important opportunity to deliver both operational decisions and some longer-term signals on the future direction of the process. However, the stakes at Durban remain high.

Most negotiators here in Durban agree that a successful COP 17 will rest on three main pillars:

1.       An arrangement comparable to a second commitment period of the Kyoto Protocol;

2.       A "Durban Roadmap:" a mandate to conclude negotiations on a legally binding instrument by 2015; and

3.       Implementation of the Cancun mechanisms

These three issues have closer connections than it may appear at first.

As the first "commitment period" - climate jargon for implementation - of the Kyoto Protocol (KP) is running out at the end of 2012, there is need for a deal on a second commitment period. The KP follow-up and the mandate for negotiations on a legally binding instrument by 2015 - a "Durban Roadmap" - are closely linked: the EU, as the only developed country supporter for a second commitment period of the KP, has made clear that its condition for accepting a second commitment period is that there is a mandate for negotiating a legally binding instrument by 2015. The US, in turn, has made clear that due to its legislative process it will be challenging to get a legally binding instrument ratified if it does not include at least the biggest emerging countries.

Equally important here in Durban will be working out the Cancun mechanisms: the Green Climate Fund (GCF), the system of Measurement Reporting and Verification (MRV) of mitigation and finance, the Technology Mechanism and the Adaptation Committee. The Cancun mechanisms should be seen as building blocks that will increase the chances of success towards a legally binding instrument in 2015.

Although the contentious issues at Durban are the GCF and MRV, no country has voiced a formal "no" against them, and there is good hope that leeway will be found to work these issues out.

Without the GCF it will be hard to draw the support of developing countries for a future climate arrangement. Cancun successfully delivered progress on MRV of developing countries mitigation actions, primarily due to skilful diplomacy and brokering by the Mexicans.  However, sensitivities remain over the frequency of reporting and verification and how this is differentiated between developed and developing countries.

Trade impacts increasingly on the radar

Setting up 2015 as the next political moment to secure a below two-degree Celsius global deal will require looking across all aspects of climate change and the potential interlinkages between the different areas, including international trade.

Increasingly, it is recognised that trade is closely related with the impacts of and responses to climate change. In Durban there will be a special "forum" on the impacts of domestic measures taken to combat climate change upon other countries. Originally, "response measures" have been associated with the possible harm to oil-producing economies that may arise from a potential global decrease in oil consumption due to measures on climate change. Increasingly, countries are also interested in discussing climate policies with global trade implications in the response measures forum.

A key goal of ICTSD in Durban is ensure that a possible permanent forum on response measures takes trade and its sustainable development appropriately into account. The WTO may have its dispute settlement body to consider instances where climate-related measures might violate trade rules, but affected countries can only exercise this option after the measure has been adopted. Instead, it would be better to provide a potential instance for conflict avoidance. Also, the WTO only addresses the violation of international trade rules and would not consider the broad spectrum of potential consequences to socio-economic development and impacts to the environment. The UNFCCC would be in a better position to protect these sustainable development dimensions, and such a forum would provide a concrete process for reducing negative and maximising positive impacts.

Negotiations weighed down by trade concerns

Meanwhile, under the Ad-hoc Working Group on Long-term Cooperative Action, several trade-related discussions continue. India made a submission for the inclusion of several agenda items for the consideration of COP 17, including access to critical mitigation and adaptation technologies and related intellectual property rights and unilateral trade measures.

First, while the role of intellectual property rights in the deployment and transfer of technologies for climate change remains a concern for many countries, the issue is far from resolved. There is little indication from inter-sessional negotiations or meetings that Durban is poised to make any decisions on this topic, which is among the most contentious subjects under the technology negotiations. It may, nevertheless, get some traction and other innovative processes are underway for the dissemination of clean energy technology.

The issue of unilateral trade measures is related to the question of competitiveness, where some countries fear that action to reduce climate emissions will negatively impact their companies' and industrial sectors' competitiveness in international markets. In essence, many developed countries say they will be at a disadvantage if some countries with competing industries are required to do less than others to mitigate emissions at a global level. For their part, developing countries have concerns about the potential use of trade measures by developed countries attempting to "level the playing field." Poor countries argue that such measures could impact their economic and sustainable development. To pre-empt the use of such measures, they are insisting that language prohibiting the use of unilateral measures to address climate change be included in the new agreement. Similar language is included in a draft text on response measures under the LCA. These discussions are taking place under a sub-category known as the "shared vision," where parties also discuss the composite emission cuts for the world and how the total agreement balances out.

In a separate sub-group on "sectoral approaches" to mitigation, the topics of agriculture and bunker fuels - dirty fuel used in shipping and aviation - are back on the table in a similar form to what was considered and then dropped in Cancun. The trade implications remain an obvious concern under both of these topics and are reflected in references in the draft texts. The agriculture text proposes the creation of a work programme on both mitigation and adaptation in the agriculture sector. Meanwhile, the bunkers discussion is oriented more toward whether to advance discussions on climate change issues related to global transport under the UNFCCC, rather than under the International Maritime Organization (IMO) and International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), as is currently the case. The controversial inclusion of aviation in the EU ETS from 2012 is another topic of hefty discussion in Durban.

Solving honest differences

According to Mahatma Gandhi, who spent 11 years in Durban, "honest differences are often a healthy sign of progress." Over the next two weeks, governments have to show whether they can leverage their differences in order to make progress on climate action. In any case, ICTSD will continue to report on COP 17 over the next 2 weeks.

Remember to join us as we host our annual Trade and Climate Change Symposium in Durban on 5 and 6 December.

Read more blog posts from ICTSD on the Go…