Durban’s Epilogue: The Zombie Protocol

Categories: Climate Change, Durban COP-17, International Relations

The End of COP-17

In a surprise turnaround, the ending of Durban’s COP-17 is actually about as positive as I could have hoped, given the state of affairs on Saturday morning.  At 6:00am yesterday, Poland’s Marcin Korolec (who took over for Chruszczow), announced that this COP has led to a “historical moment,” noting that they “adopted the Durban platform, which will us lead to legally a binding agreement, adopted by 2015, which will engage all parties, including the major economies.”  It is currently expected that the agreement negotiated in the future COP will come in to force in 2020.

Agreeing to Agree

In short, the Parties have agreed to agree (in the future).  Although almost derailed at the last minute by India, and although stopping short of creating a new binding agreement to cover between 2012 and 2020, this nevertheless marks a change in that developing countries (particularly the BASIC ones) have agreed to be bound by iterated, specific obligations.  This would not have been possible without splits in the G-77+China caused by the wavering of Brazil and South Africa on the BASIC group, and with the support for the EU’s position offered by the most climatically vulnerable poor countries among AOSIS and the Least Developed Countries.  While there is still no guarantee that a relatively binary North-South split will not derail the future negotiations, it is heartening to see compromise possible between the richer and poorer nations on this pressing issue.  In the words of Connie Hedegaard: “What difference does a roadmap mean?  It marks a turn away from the 20th century, where the developed countries have to commit, and the others have to do voluntary actions.  In the future, we can have different efforts, but whatever we pledge, whatever we do, will have the same legal value…. This is very important.”

But wait!  That’s not all!  Resurrecting the Kyoto Protocol almost single-handedly, Korolec, speaking for the EU said that they “…proved that the Kyoto Protocol is alive…” (it’s alive!) by agreeing to sign on to a second commitment period starting next year.  While the KP itself (covering, at this point, only 37 countries – including the 27 EU countries – and 15 – 20% of the world’s GHG emissions) is a shell of an institution, its resurrection means 1) institutions such as the CDM, LULUCF accounting rules, and flexibility mechanisms will persist, given their dependence on iterated cuts; 2) it may serve to catalyze the conditional commitments under the Cancún Agreements.  So, Hedegaard , invoking the EU’s pusher strategy in this COP spoke very favorably about the extension of Kyoto in large part due to its function as part of a broader commitment, rather than as a stand-alone institution: “The EU strategy worked…  The strategy, saying that we will only commit to a second period – although only a few others will do it – we are ready to do it, but only if in return we get a roadmap for the future.”

To be sure, they haven’t signed on to a second commitment period yet, but that’s due to the need to hash out the technical details of further emissions requirements – necessary, particularly since the EU has already surpassed its requirements under the first commitment period.  You can’t just add new requirements, a fact observed by Hedegaard thus: “We have to go back and calculate the QELROs (Quantified Emissions Limitation and Reduction Objective)…  It’s not something you just do in a night or so.”  Echoing this sentiment, Korolec pointed out: “That was a political decision.  We are now sending a text to lawyers… it’s a long legal process.”  But in the end, Hedegaard emphasized the commitment of the EU to a second binding period of the KP: “We are taking a second commitment period.  That is clear.”  In short, while undoubtedly pretty far from a meaningful second commitment period, the Zombie Protocol serves a purpose.

Other Positives: the GCF

In addition, the Parties agreed to launch the Green Climate Fund in Draft Decision CP.17 (PDF).  This Fund will provide financial support for both adaptation and mitigation efforts in developing countries.  Unfortunately, although the NGO community asked for official member status for civil society groups on the Board, at present – like the UNFCCC itself – civil society groups are limited to accredited observer status.  This raises concerns about whether the provision of funds and projects will benefit vulnerable societies within recipient countries, a legitimate concern, given the objections raised about REDD+ throughout COP-17.  Observer status is no guarantee that civil society viewpoints will be taken seriously.

So, that’s it for this year’s COP.  The blog will return to covering a range of different environmental issues, domestic and global, in particular those that focus on environmental justice and racism.  Highlights for next year will include the Rio+20 conference, and various other COPs, including the Convention on Biological Diversity’s COP-11.  Hopefully, with the various scholarly links scattered throughout, this has served as a useful academic take on climate change negotiations.

About Kemi Fuentes-George

I am a professor in environmental studies and political science at Middlebury College.