Climate Negotiations in Durban: Usual Suspects Continue to Block Emissions Deal

By Markus Becker

Progress has been made on providing aid to poor countries to help them deal with the effects of climate change. Beyond that, however, the summit in South Africa has produced little agreement. Several countries, led by the US, continue to block a binding deal to take over from Kyoto.

Greenpeace demonstrators erecting a windmill on a beach in Durban. A binding deal on climate change seems increasingly unlikely. Zoom
DPA

Greenpeace demonstrators erecting a windmill on a beach in Durban. A binding deal on climate change seems increasingly unlikely.

"It has been a long night, I can tell you," said European Climate Commissioner Connie Hedegaard at the beginning of her press conference on Friday morning in Durban, South Africa. If anything, it was an understatement. Climate conference delegates were in discussions until 4 a.m. on Friday morning, Hedegaard reported, and she then provided the kind of blunt clarity that is often missing from climate negotiations.

Little progress was made on core issues, she said. "If there is no further movement from what I have seen until 4 o'clock this morning," she said, "then I must say I don't think that there will be a deal in Durban."

It was a clear threat that Europe would allow the climate summit to fail should those that have stood in the way of progress thus far continue to do so. It is a list that includes the US, China, India, Russia and Canada.

Despite Hedegaard's obvious frustration, progress was made on Thursday when it comes to climate aid for poor countries -- in the form of a fund called the Green Climate Fund (GCF). The creation of the fund was agreed to back in 2009, and making it functional was considered to be the minimum goal of this year's climate summit. The GCF is to administer the lion's share of the $100 billion pledged by industrialized countries to poor countries so that they might counter the effects of global warming.

But it seems unlikely that an agreement on binding reductions to greenhouse gas emissions is still possible. For days, delegates from the 193 countries represented at the summit have been negotiating over an extension of the Kyoto Protocol. The first phase of that agreement, which was reached in 1997, expires next year, meaning that industrialized countries would no longer be obligated to reduce emissions. So far, developing countries such as China, India and Brazil have been exempt from obligatory reductions.

'Too Late'

Some industrialized countries, though, with the US leading the way, have insisted that a successor agreement to Kyoto must include binding emissions reductions for developing economies as well. While Brazil and South Africa have both signalled their readiness to submit to such a regime, others such as China and India have not. China has said it might not stand in the way of an internationally binding agreement to take effect as of 2020, but the country has yet to indicate whether it would take part in such a deal.

"Today an agreement is within reach," said Hedegaard. But, she added, it must include binding reduction targets by 2015, and not later as some delegations have proposed. "2017 is too late," she said. "What happens if we don't agree in 2017? Then we would say 'oh too bad' and then negotiate another couple of years?" That, she added, would be too late to meet the goal of limiting global warming to 2 degrees Celsius relative to pre-industrial times.

"The success or failure of Durban hangs on a small number of countries who have not yet committed to the roadmap and the meaningful content it must have," Hedegaard said.

Still, the apparent progress on the Green Climate Fund is significant. As of Friday, only Saudi Arabia was holding out. But many observers believe that, should Saudi Arabia not acquiesce, their objections could simply be passed over, as happened to Bolivia during the Cancun climate summit in 2010. Key movement on the GCF was made when poor countries dropped their threat to block progress on the fund should a binding extension of Kyoto not be agreed to.

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