The Big Picture after the Durban Climate Change Negotiations

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Written by Hari Osofsky

The Durban Conference of the Parties (COP17) of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) is finally over two days after talks were scheduled to conclude.  These extra two days were very productive, resulting in some good news on the big picture of treaty negotiations that needs to be contextualized in the big picture bad news for addressing emissions in the timeframe scientists say are needed.

The Good News (as reported by UNFCCC):

Parties made significant progress on the one track (everyone reduces emissions) v. two track (major developed country emitters reduce emissions) debate critical to a long-term functional agreement.  COP17 resulted in an agreement to reach a universal agreement by 2015 and established an “Ad Hoc Working Group on the Durban Platform for Enhanced Action” to begin working on this agreement immediately.  In addition, 35 governments–but unfortunately not the United States, Canada, Japan, or Russia–committed to a new Kyoto Protocol commitment period with binding commitments, which will begin in January 2013.

Beyond these big picture developments, COP17 represented progress on a number of the Cancun commitments to helping developing countries with funding through the Green Climate Fund; adaptation assistance through the Adaptation Committee; obtaining and implementing technology through the Technology Mechanism; and a registry to help developing countries get support for their mitigation actions.  In addition, it established a forum and work program to address unintended consequences of climate change actions and policies, created procedures to allow carbon capture and storage projects under the Clean Development Mechanism.

The Bad News:

None of these developments put humanity on track for reducing emissions adequately in the next few years, a period that consensus climate change science says is critical to reducing the risks.  Scientists from “The Climate Action Tracker” stated, that despite these legal breakthroughs, “the agreement will not immediately affect the emissions outlook for 2020 and has postponed decisions on further emission reductions. They warned that catching up on this postponed action will be increasingly costly….The Climate Action Tracker estimates that global mean warming would reach about 3.5°C by 2100 with the current reduction proposals on the table. They are definitely insufficient to limit temperature increase to 2°C.”

The Bottom Line:

These negotiations reinforce the complexities of using law to address a “super wicked” problem like climate change at the interface of law and science.  Although the progress at Durban should be commended as a step forward in the international community addressing this serious problem, the timeframe for legal action isn’t matching the timeframe for needed action.  And unfortunately the time lag between emissions and impacts means that it’s very hard to galvanize political will on the timframe needed.  Humanity needs these efforts at treatymaking because they are creating emissions reductions that would not have happened otherwise, but we also need to focus on the many other initiatives at multiple levels of government to try to get us closer to what scientists say is needed.

Cross-posted at Environmental Law Prof Blog and SaltLaw Blog.