From Pillars to Platform: Demystifying the Durban Outcome

by Kartikeya Singh on February 8, 2012

“If we accept this text, we are killing ourselves.” These were the words of an ambassador from a small island nation in the final hours of the longest UN climate negotiations in history. “We may be small, but we are not dead,” he continued. With these strong statements, the ambassador sought to rally other countries like his to push back against the weak agreement the conference had produced.

As a negotiator for the Maldives at the 17th Conference of the Parties (COP 17) in Durban, South Africa last November, I witnessed this heated discussion. In the end, it left many of the most vulnerable nations—primarily islands and the least developed countries—quite discouraged. Climate change poses an existential threat to states like Maldives, where the recently ousted president once held a government meeting underwater to symbolize the risks to his country from rising sea levels.

COP 17 was to decide the fate of the only legally binding treaty on climate change, the Kyoto Protocol (KP). Specifically, nations were negotiating whether or not the countries obligated to reduce emissions under Kyoto (the industrialized nations) would sign up for a second commitment period of reductions. Unfortunately, as negotiations progressed, insufficient carbon emissions reduction targets, unmet financial commitments and debates about equity and the right to pollute resurfaced. The conference only reinforced the divide between developed and developing countries. 

Securing a second commitment period for the KP was essential to ensure that there would be no gap after the first period expires in 2013. This was to provide a foundation as negotiations continue for a new treaty that would include obligations for the United States, China and other major emitters currently not obligated under the KP. COP 17 came up short on both fronts.

First, regarding the prospect of a new treaty, countries punted plans a few years further down the line. In 2007, a formal process was launched to negotiate and agree on a new treaty by 2009. It established the “Bali Action Plan” with five key pillars for a new climate treaty:  mitigation, adaptation, finance, technology transfer and capacity building. The subsequent failure to produce a legal treaty by 2009 at COP 15 in Copenhagen left the negotiations severely strained. Then, COP 17 produced the “Durban Platform on Enhanced Action” (DPEA).

But there is little difference between Durban’s “platform” and Bali’s “pillars.” The DPEA forms an Ad-hoc Working Group to launch immediate negotiations to produce an agreement “with legal force” by 2015 and coming into effect by 2020. In effect, 2015 is now the new 2009, and 2020 is the new 2013 while all elements (read: pillars) of the Bali Action Plan remain intact. Thanks to this additional delay, scientists advanced the notional “Doomsday Clock” one minute closer to midnight.[i]

Second, COP 17 proved disappointing with regards to the Kyoto Protocol as well. Sadly, only the European Union has agreed to a second commitment period that will last between five to eight years, which might be just enough time for the new treaty to be established. Canada, on the other hand, has walked away from its commitments to the KP, and Japan and Russia are unlikely to commit. All of this threatens to destabilize the global carbon market (a system of buying and selling earned carbon reduction credits between countries or companies), currently valued at 96 Billion Euros. Without guarantees that all the credits will have a market, efforts to reduce emissions may falter. 

But the world may be in for a bigger surprise when and if a new treaty finally comes into force. Hidden in the COP 17 text in a section on “Long Term Cooperative Action” (paragraph 83), it states that the agreement “defines a new market mechanism” to facilitate the reduction of emissions. This vague reference leaves unanswered many questions about what form such a mechanism would take. Perhaps, though, it will allow for greater flexibility and more enhanced action than the current regime. Critics of the DPEA argue that without a clear commitment to the terms of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), the principle of “Common but Differentiated Responsibility” will be lost.[ii] But a potential benefit of this shift is that it may put developed and developing countries on an equal footing, circumventing the deadlocks that have plagued the negotiations for too long.

One of the primary challenges that junior climate diplomats face is bearing the chaos of the negotiations without sufficient institutional memory that a complicated process like this requires. But perhaps this is the opportune time for new diplomats with fresh ideas to get involved in the process. Indeed, the proponents of the DPEA might argue that its unresolved questions offer a chance to write an entirely new treaty, unencumbered by the twenty years of baggage that have brought halting progress.

COP 17 has come and gone, falling short even though it took up more time than any other climate negotiation. Whether it will be viewed as the beginning of substantial progress to tackle one of the greatest challenges of our time—or as the beginning of the end—remains to be seen. For now, I would leave the Doomsday Clock as is, five minutes to midnight.


[i] Established by the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists in 1947, the clock is a symbolic measure of how perilously close humanity is to self-annihilation from threats such as nuclear weapons (the original cause for concern), biosecurity, and now, climate change. 

[ii] “Common but Differentiated Responsibility” is a guiding principle of the UNFCCC, establishing that “the developed country Parties should take the lead in combating climate change and the adverse effects thereof.” The principle drove the distinction between Annex I (developed) and non-Annex I (developing) countries under the UNFCCC through differing emission reduction targets as well as established financial obligations for the Annex I parties.   

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