Fired Up Media

Three Issues to Watch During the Durban Climate Summit

Earth Island Reports

The International Climate Negotiations roadshow is rolling into Durban, South Africa this December and the big question – at least for the diminished audience still watching – is what we can expect out of the latest episode of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change. The performance that took place in Copenhagen two years ago was a disaster. Last year’s installment, which occurred in Cancun, Mexico, was a pleasant surprise, but only because expectations had been set so low. The red-hot intensity that used to greet the performances has cooled to a lukewarm. If the negotiations were just entertainment, that would be bad enough. But this is the future of the planet at stake.

The issues on the table in Durban are huge. First, the very future of the Kyoto Protocol and which countries will be participating in any binding agreement after next year. Second, the key financial issue of how rich and poor countries will pay for responding to climate change. Third, the question of what targets to set for binding emissions reductions.

The very complexity of the climate negotiations is a reason that many people have tuned out these summits. Best, then, to keep it simple. Here’s a quick cheat sheet so you can follow along at home – and help explain the issues to your friends and family.


The pre-negotiation meetings that took place in Bonn, Germany and Panama were characterized by bickering and showmanship. Many climate policy experts are predicting a stalemate at the South Africa summit, and that would be a disaster. A breakthrough in Durban is urgent since the Kyoto Protocol’s targets are set to expire. The only binding international agreement on greenhouse gases (so far), it went into effect in 2005, eight years after it was adopted by the vast majority of the globe’s nations. The treaty’s first set of emissions reduction targets expires in 2012.

Unfortunately, the world’s largest countries are reluctant to play with each other. The United States and some other industrialized nations say they will adopt emissions limits only if rising powers like China, India, and Brazil (which were excluded from the original 1997 goals) also commit to matching reductions. For their part, China, India, and Brazil continue to maintain that the richer nations have larger obligations to make reductions because they have spewed the bulk of the planet’s carbon pollution since the start of the fossil fuel age. It’s a geopolitical game of chicken.

Once again we could see an agreement left on the drafting table, covered in brackets and lacking signatures.


Participation isn’t the only problem. As the worst economic downtown since the Great Depression slogs on (and outraged young people occupy city centers from Cairo to Madrid to New York) climate negotiators are charged with figuring out how to pay for any global agreement, including funding reduced carbon emissions, transferring technology between countries, and adapting to the inevitable changes we are already locked into.

A so-called Green Climate Fund is supposed to provide up to $100 billion a year, through 2020, to help meet those costs. But double- or even triple-counting is starting to impinge upon the mostly hypothetical funding mechanism. There’s another wrinkle. “The proposed Green Climate Fund is good news, but it is designed to distribute the funds – not raise them,” says Richard Gledhill of the consulting firm PwC. While there are plenty of ideas for sources of funding – including carbon credits, taxes on bunker and aviation fuels, and even a “Robin Hood” or Tobin Tax on financial transactions – political will is sparse.

How sparse? A group of German students were the first contributors to the adaptation fund, donating €131.09 in 2009 after throwing a fundraiser at their school. After that stunt, some embarrassed governments began making contributions to the adaptation fund. But many nations remain shameless. The fund has collected around $160 million a year, a far cry from the billions needed to prepare countries for even the lowest levels of climate impacts.

Among climate campaigners, there’s a hope that holding the negotiations in Africa will help draw attention to the need for transferring money from rich countries to poorer ones. “Having the negotiations on the continent of Africa – one of the continents deeply impacted by climate change – should help remind government representatives of the real reason for gathering in Durban, South Africa,” says Ilana Solomon of ActionAid. “That is to say, it’s not about politics and it’s not about maintaining the status quo. It is about real people whose lives and livelihoods are threatened by a global crisis they did little to create.”


If – somehow – a critical mass of countries comes together and agrees to binding agreements, the question becomes: What amount of greenhouse gases should we be cutting?

A growing number of scientists are following NASA’s James Hansen in saying that the most ambitious international targets – 450 parts per million of atmospheric CO2 – would create more warming than anticipated. Hansen and others say we should be shooting for 350 ppm. The opening of the Northwest Passage may only be a precursor to accelerating warming. Penn State climatologist Richard Alley says ice sheets are melting “100 years ahead of schedule.” The takeaway: Even a strong agreement might not be good enough to halt runaway climate change.

Despite these three daunting challenges, campaigners, at least in public, are staying upbeat. Steve Herz of the Sierra Club says: “An essential outcome of the Durban meetings is agreement on the rules that will govern the Green Climate Fund that was established in Cancun. There is no good reason why such an agreement shouldn’t be reached, and failure to do so would be a major setback.”

In short, the upcoming show in Durban will have all the dramatic elements of the last couple of derailed negotiations, but with the looming expiration of the Kyoto Protocol and dire science and weird weather bringing more urgency than ever before. Hopefully – if the wave of democracy cresting around the world washes up against the bureaucratic and sedentary international climate negotiations – we might find some more hope in the warmer parts of the world, where fears of the impacts of climate change keep rising.

And if not? Well then get ready to pack your bags for Rio de Janeiro, where the roadshow is scheduled to meet in June 2012, 20 years after the whole process was started.

You Make Our Work Possible

You Make Our Work Possible

We don’t have a paywall because, as a nonprofit publication, our mission is to inform, educate and inspire action to protect our living world. Which is why we rely on readers like you for support. If you believe in the work we do, please consider making a tax-deductible year-end donation to our Green Journalism Fund.

Get the Journal in your inbox.
Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

Subscribe Now

Get four issues of the magazine at the discounted rate of $20.