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Getting into the same canoe: Climate change post-Durban by Velma McColl 20 December 2011

The outcome at the international climate change conference in Durban marks a significant shift in both climate change politics and implementation. For the first time, all countries agreed to formally commit to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions—particularly the US, India, China, Brazil and other emerging economies. Even small island states facing serious affects of climate change today agreed to reductions.

Between now and 2020, countries will negotiate the terms for the next generation agreement to collectively reduce greenhouse gas emissions. There are many layers of complexity involved in reaching a binding global deal over the next several years. From 30,000 feet, let’s look at the key building blocks coming out of Durban.

First, the Durban meeting confirmed that the Kyoto Protocol and its mechanisms will continue for a second commitment period starting January 1, 2013 and ending either in 2017 or 2020. The Kyoto Protocol has always covered a limited number of industrialized countries and today represents approximately 25% of global emissions, reminding us how much the world has changed since 1995. Canada is now officially out of Kyoto but for the EU, this extension was critical to ensure the continuation of its emissions trading system and the underlying carbon units created under the Protocol.

Second, countries not under the Kyoto Protocol agreed in Copenhagen in 2009 to voluntarily reduce emissions and report their results to the UNFCCC. This “bottom-up” approach allows countries to decide their own domestic strategies (important for China and India) and currently covers more than 75% of global emissions. Ever since Copenhagen, the system of accounting and reporting these pledges has been getting progressively stronger though is still not legally binding.

The concern with voluntary commitments is that they fall short of what is required to limit global temperature rise to 2 degrees Celsius—a target agreed upon in Copenhagen. Along with scientific reports, the International Energy Agency’s (IEA) 2011 World Energy Outlook suggests “we cannot afford to delay further action” and that without new policies, “we are on an even more dangerous track” for higher temperature increases. This leads to another building block promised in Copenhagen and confirmed in Durban, a review that will take place between 2013 and 2015, to see whether countries must do more collectively to lower GHG emissions.

Since energy and climate change are two sides of the same coin, this means focusing on energy systems in both the developed and developing world. As the IEA warned, the existing stock of energy infrastructure is “locking-in” levels of carbon emissions that make future reductions much more costly and difficult so shifts in our systems of energy production and consumption are unavoidable.

Fourth, the Durban meeting established tools to address three key implementation challenges for climate change: a) adapting to the impacts (adaptation) and reducing GHG emissions (mitigation); b) efforts between developed and developing countries; and c) the linkages between energy and climate change. These institutions include the Green Climate Fund, Adaptation Committee and a global Climate Technology Centre and Network to facilitate the exchange of best practices. The Green Climate Fund creates a permanent mechanism for the $100B per annum envisaged by 2020 to support both mitigation and adaptation efforts in developing countries, although the source of funds is still uncertain.

And finally, the Durban Platform launched the difficult political process to formalize emissions reduction commitments countries have made into another “protocol or legally binding agreement or agreed outcome with legal force.” Any new agreement would be negotiated by 2015 and enter into force not later than 2020. How the political gaps will be closed between 194 countries, particularly the US, China, India and the EU is not clear. In the words of their negotiator, this moves the US ratification of a future global climate change treaty “from the impossible to the very hard.”

For Canada, the outcome of the Durban meeting means that the government will continue to work towards the voluntary pledge made in Copenhagen of 17 percent below 2005 levels by 2020, in lockstep with the United States. The drama around withdrawal from the Kyoto Protocol does not change the target and Minister Kent expressed support for the process. The other thing that Canada and the US have shared is a desire to see all countries participate in the solution to a global challenge. Now that this is underway, we will have to figure out how our domestic energy and climate change strategies align with these new negotiations and institutions.

While it may seem like you need a map and a magnifying glass to find your way through all this, two things are true after Durban. For the first time in nearly 15 years, the countries of the world are in the same canoe and rowing in, more or less, the same direction on climate change. And over the next three to five years, all countries will be reporting their emissions results into a common global system so we will be able to judge for ourselves who is acting and who is not. In the midst of all this complexity, these are both steps in the right direction.

Velma McColl joined the Earnscliffe Strategy Group in 2004, where she works on a range of economic and social issues, specializing in energy, environment and green technologies. Previously, she advised several Federal Cabinet Ministers on political strategy, policy and communications. Her career includes success as an entrepreneur and experience working collaboratively with business, academia, not-for-profit organizations and the public sector. She is a frequent writer and commentator on international and national energy and climate change issues and is a co-founder of the Canadian Clean Technology Coalition.