Overstated Success at Durban Climate Conference

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Contrary to popular reports, the UN summit's "landmark climate deal" is little more than dysfunction as usual

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Environmental activists with flags on their backs bury their heads in the sand on Durban's beachfront / Reuters

The Durban climate talks are over, and many are celebrating. After repeatedly reaching the brink of collapse, the summit produced agreements on several counts. The Associated Press reported that it approved a "landmark deal" that was "meant to set a new course for the global fight against climate change for the coming decades". Christina Figueres, head of the system that oversees the talks, heralded the arrival of a "remarkable new phase in [the] climate regime".

Nonsense.

Most of the agreed texts fleshed out matters left unfinished last year in Cancun: rules for a new climate fund, the structure of an international network of technology centers, a scheme for avoiding deforestation, and parameters for a system meant to increase the transparency of countries' emissions-cutting actions. It is this part that will have the greatest substantive impact and is worthy of celebration. A climate fund with good rules, for example, is more likely to attract money and to use it well, while a sound system for auditing countries' climate efforts will make it easier to create a virtuous cycle of action.

But it was not debate on these matters that took the talks to the edge, and it was not resolution of them that inspired the most applause. Instead, it was an agreement to initiate "a process to develop a protocol, another legal instrument or an outcome with legal force under the Convention applicable to all Parties" that has led commentators to conclude that there will be a new treaty that will legally bind all countries to reduce emissions.  Alas, that conclusion is not warranted.

The process the yielded this language was hard-fought. Developing countries had insisted that developed ones take new commitments to cut emissions under the Kyoto Protocol. Most rejected that out of hand. Europe, though, accepted in principle, but with a condition: the entire conference would need to agree to seek a legally binding deal covering all emitters by 2015, with the aim of bringing that deal into force by 2020. This ultimate demand - rejected by India and China, and met without enthusiasm by the United States - was what nearly brought the talks down.

The precise dynamics that unfolded in the final days are still unclear. In the end, though, the talks came down to a simple choice. Europe insisted on language that would commit all countries "to launch a process to develop a protocol or another legal instrument under the Convention applicable to all Parties". India strenuously insisted that "a legal outcome" be included as a third option. It is not clear exactly where China or United States, which were both fine with including "legal option" but otherwise largely sat out the final public fight, would have drawn the line if forced. Everyone ultimately compromised: an "outcome with legal force", rather than a "legal outcome", was added as the third option.

It is difficult to avoid concluding that the Europeans ultimately blinked, though you wouldn't get that from their spin or from the media coverage. The New York Times, adopting a similar interpretation to most other outlets, reported that the deal foresees "a future treaty that would require all countries to reduce emissions that contribute to global warming". Alas, there's nothing much like that in the text.

The first problem is with the word "treaty", which appears nowhere in the agreement. Indeed some will insist that a mere set of formal decisions by the parties - like, say, the Cancun Agreements of last year - ought to qualify as an "outcome with legal force"; they may not have as much legal force as some would like, but surely one can argue that they have some. Perhaps this traps countries like China and India a bit: they can argue out of seeking a new instrument only by asserting that COP decisions have some legal weight. But one thing is clear: there is no commitment to seek a new treaty or protocol.

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Michael A. Levi is the David M. Rubenstein Senior Fellow for Energy and the Environment at the Council on Foreign Relations. His newest book is The Power Surge: Energy, Opportunity, and the Battle for America’s Future.

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