Editor’s note: Vermont Law School Professor Pat Parenteau, whose expertise includes climate change, wrote the following commentary on the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change in Durban, South Africa, which concluded Dec. 11, 2011.
Measured against the goal of saving the Kyoto protocol and avoiding the complete collapse of the U.N. framework for addressing climate change, Durban was a qualified success. Measured against the goal of acting in time to avoid the catastrophic consequences of climate change, however, Durban was a bust.
Thanks to an 11th hour deal brokered by the European Union and India, the delegates from 194 nations adopted the Durban Platform, which breaches the controversial “firewall” between developed and developing nations and calls for negotiating a comprehensive emissions reduction “instrument” by 2015 that would enter into force by 2020. Not necessarily a mandate to achieve specific limits, but an instrument with “legal force.”
Unfortunately, even with a binding agreement by 2020 it will be too late to hold average global temperatures below the 2 degree C target agreed to in the Copenhagen Accord. That’s the target leading climate scientist James Hansen says is too high and will likely result in the loss of the Greenland ice sheet, leading to a 20-foot sea level rise over several centuries. According to the 2011 World Energy Outlook published by the International Energy Agency, the world has less than five years to avoid a “carbon lock-in” caused by a multi-trillion dollar investment in fossil fuel sources. That would boost global temperatures by at least 3.5 degrees C by 2100, with catastrophic effects in many parts of the world from flooding, drought, famine, heat waves and disease. In fact, the increase could well be closer to 4 degrees C, given nasty feedbacks like the accelerated melting of Arctic permafrost that is well underway.
What would a 4 degree C world be like? Here’s how Kevin Anderson, director of the prestigious Tyndall Energy Program describes it: “A 4 degrees C future is incompatible with an organized global community, is likely to be beyond ‘adaptation,” is devastating to the majority of ecosystems and has a high probability of not being stable.” Translation: a planet you would not want to bequeath to your grandchildren.
Delaying action until 2020 also means that the costs of carbon reduction would be four times greater than they would be today, according to IEA. On a more positive note, Durban did produce a management framework, the Green Climate Fund, which will eventually gather and disburse some $100 billion per year by 2020 to help poor countries develop cleanly and adapt to climate impacts. The proposed fund can help draw private capital into international climate finance. Some progress was also made on addressing deforestation, which is responsible for 15 percent of the emissions — more than the combined emissions of all of the motor vehicles on the planet.
Sadly, the Obama administration was essentially a no-show in Durban, electing to send a low level delegation and keeping a low profile with an eye toward the 2012 elections. Overtures from the Chinese were rebuffed; expectations were constantly lowered; no substantive proposals were forthcoming. This may be good negotiating strategy for a trade agreement but not when the stakes are the future of civilization on earth.
While some may argue that any agreement is better than no agreement, Durban could turn out to be a suicide pact unless the major greenhouse gas emitters come to their senses, stop posturing and immediately commit to de-carbonizing the global economy. Last year saw a record increase in CO2 emissions of nearly six percent despite a weak economy. By 2020, we’d better have turned that around. Another “instrument” won’t cut it.