The president of COP 17, Maite Nkoana-Mashabane, speaks at the final plenary session of the climate change meetings in Durban, South Africa (Source: Worldwatch).

As the new year begins, climate negotiators have begun to move on from their engagement at the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Durban, South Africa. After two weeks of intense negotiations on the future of the international regime to combat climate change, they bring home pieces of an ambiguous mandate—but also some critical steps forward. Below, we discuss some of the outcomes of those exhilarating talks in early December.

Symbolic survival of the Kyoto Protocol

Under European Union leadership, signatories of the Kyoto Protocol agreed to enter a second commitment period for reducing their greenhouse gas emissions, extending the treaty terms through 2017 or 2020. This symbolically salvaged the agreement—the only existing climate treaty with internationally binding reduction targets. However, the 27 EU countries, together with Australia, New Zealand, Norway, and Switzerland, are the only countries to take on these targets, and they agreed to do so only under the condition that all major countries agree to a new, truly global and comprehensive climate treaty, if necessary outside the Kyoto structure.

Meanwhile, other major developed-country emitters—including Japan, Canada, and Russia—have announced their abandonment of the Kyoto Protocol in recent months. And the United States never ratified the agreement. Thus, the symbolic act of keeping the Kyoto Protocol alive accommodates the demands of developing countries, which will be hit hardest by climate change, but the renewed commitment covers only 15 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions. Still, salvaging Kyoto was necessary to leverage developing countries’ willingness to enter a new global deal, scheduled to be finalized in 2015 and operational in 2020.

A roadmap to a new climate regime

Two days after the scheduled end of negotiations, conference delegates finally snatched a deal, outlining a roadmap for the next 10 years. A newly created body, the Durban Platform for Enhanced Action, will be in charge of developing “a new protocol, another legal instrument or agreed outcome with legal force” that would be applicable under the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, the birth document of international climate negotiations.

The phrasing, agreed to at a last-recourse huddle in the early hours of December 11 that included the South African COP presidency, Brazil, China, India, the EU, and the United States, managed to balance Parties’ concerns and requests. Although the EU and the U.S. are optimistic about the significance of the deal, UN climate chief Christiana Figueres acknowledged that the final wording on the legal format of a future deal was ambiguous: “What that means has yet to be decided.”

“Tear down this (fire)wall”: Toward a climate regime without CBDR?

The Durban decisions mark a turning point in the climate negotiations as we have known them. By excluding the concepts of “equity” and “common but differentiated responsibilities” (CBDR), a key principle of the 1992 framework convention, the Durban decision opens a breach in the “firewall” between Annex I parties (richer, industrialized countries) and non-Annex I parties (all others, i.e., the developing and least-developed nations) in terms of emissions reduction obligations.

Potentially, emerging economies like Brazil, China, India, South Africa, and Mexico that were considered to be “non-Annex I” countries under the Kyoto Protocol will be included in a future legally binding agreement. But how their contribution would relate to new commitments in developed countries, and what specific indicators and principles these would be based on, has not yet been touched. Major disagreement on who has to do what—in other words, what “fairness” in sharing responsibilities looks like—will likely dominate future discussions as much as it has in the past.

Good news from the support package: Operationalizing the GCF

The Cancun Agreements  established the Green Climate Fund (GCF) as the new operational entity for the convention’s financial mechanism. After a year of technical work by the Transitional Committee, the Durban decision provides a clear yardstick for how to operationalize the GCF over the next year. It establishes a process for appointing the Fund’s Board (with the first board meetings to take place in Switzerland and Korea), sets up an interim trustee (the World Bank) and an interim Secretariat (to be created jointly by the UNFCCC Secretariat and the Secretariat of the Global Environment Facility), and lays out a process to appoint the permanent Trustee and Secretariat personnel.

But what Durban failed to clarify is the scale and sources of financing, as well as funding priorities. In the discussion, Parties have once again recognized the need to scale up financing from public and private sources. Regarding public finance, the decision sets the path for a series of workshops on financing sources throughout the coming year. Among the proposals, France and Germany are favorable to a Financial Transaction Tax; however, this funding approach has been popular (unsuccessfully) with politicians worldwide for many years, in issue areas from health and education to financial stability. The role of the private sector in addressing the financing gap was acknowledged in many ways, and also particular through the creation of the GCF’s Private Sector Facility, but without further details on its concrete setup yet.

This is the first in a series of blog posts analyzing the future of climate and energy governance, stay tuned for the following analyses.

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