Durban outcomes: Smoke 'n mirrors

When four blind men describe the same animal in different ways, we know that it is an elephant. However, when four men with perfect eyesight do the same, what creature is it?

The outcomes of the just-concluded Durban climate change conference are being projected in wholly different ways by the four principal players: the US, the EU, developing countries and, of these, India and China.

The US is able to declare victory by pointing to the fact that under the Durban Platform, the differentiation between developed and developing countries stands removed, that there is no mention of their chief bugbear, the "common but differentiated responsibility" (CBDR) Principle, that the own-financed actions of China and India would be open to international scrutiny, and that the same legal outcome would bind developed and developing countries.

The EU can go to their publics saying that in accepting a second commitment period under the Kyoto Protocol, they have ensured that China and India, which loom over their political consciousness as giants that would overwhelm them economically and strategically in the near future, would after 2020 be legally bound by the same carbon discipline as themselves.

Developing countries believe that the Green Climate Fund is at last a reality, that they have greater representation in it than in the older "aid" institutions such as the World Bank, and that the way is now open for them to receive up to $100bn a year by 2020 for climate change adaptation and mitigation. Moreover, developed countries would, in the interim, remain bound by legally binding commitments under the Kyoto Protocol.

Finally, India and China can point to the fact that "equity" is, at last, on the negotiating table, for their publics would never accept a future outcome that is not clearly seen by them to be fair.

Let us examine these claims. The Durban Platform simply says that, starting immediately, parties will negotiate a new legal outcome, applicable to all, and complete the process by 2015, so as to enable it to come in force from 2020. It says nothing at all about whether China or India or the EU or the US would accept commitments, legally binding or not, to anything at all-certainly not to GHG reductions. And as for the CBDR Principle, and differentiation between developed and developing countries, since the post-2020 legal outcome would be under the 1992 climate change convention, all its principles and provisions would apply, including CBDR and differentiation. As for transparency of actions of China and India, the hope that this would wrench open the door to international policy dictation of these countries has crashed.

Further, the Durban Platform description of the post-2020 regime as "protocol, other legal instrument, or outcome with legal force" contains within it many possible variations of the types of climate change actions to be undertaken by parties-whether the "bottom-up voluntary pledges" favoured by the US or the "top-down legally binding commitments" preferred by the EU or commitments based on a pre-agreed equity formula preferred by India and China. Would the outcome involve actual GHG limitations or reductions in carbon intensities of national economies (currently pledged by developed and developing countries respectively under the Copenhagen Accord? What would be the basis of identifying countries for different types of actions? To what extent would these actions be "legally binding" for each group of countries? In what manner, if at all, would non-fulfillment be penalised? This is a far cry from claiming that China and India, post-2020, would be bound by the same carbon discipline as the EU or the US.

As for the second commitment period under the Kyoto Protocol, the US was never in the Protocol. Russia, Japan and Canada have effectively walked out, while Australia and New Zealand are in the "doubtful" list. That leaves the EU. All EU members' parliaments must accept the new target for the EU as a whole to ratify it. Since it has hedged its level of ambition with the precondition (among others) that other developed countries (meaning the US) have a comparable target (which the US Congress will never accept), the EU target would remain at a low level even if ratified. Also, while the Green Climate Fund has certainly come into being, it has no money, and there is no provision for developed countries to provide the money through mandatory, assessed contributions. The hope that they would nevertheless contribute significant sums, given the current economic crisis, is, alas, feeble.

What of "equity"? It will be the subject of an in-session workshop next year. However, in the teeth of opposition from the EU and the US, it would be a major challenge to ensure that it is included as part of the Durban Platform work-plan. Thereafter, hard and strenuous negotiations would follow, in which India must assemble an unbeatable coalition around its central theme of equal per-capita rights to atmospheric space, with accounting for historical responsibility. We must not lose the ball on IPRs and arbitrary trade measures either.

India has done well at Durban by dispelling the mistrust about its intentions, which its maverick posturing had created among developing countries at Cancun last year. However, hard work lies ahead. By February, all parties must submit various options for "increasing the level of ambition". We must not be caught on the wrong foot. There is only so much, given our level of development and actual-not mythical-energy options, that we can do. The work plan will be negotiated during the course of the year. We must ensure that our response to its various elements-mitigation, adaptation, finance, technology development and transfer, transparency of action, etc-is creative. Further, our response will be taken seriously only if it is seen as backed by full national political consensus.

To revert to the question we posed at the beginning: what is the creature that has emerged from Durban? It is too early to tell. It could be a peacock preening in the forest, or a wolf at the door. As of now, it looks too much like an illusion.

Tags: green climate fund, Durban climate change, COP 17