Durban: Climate summit looks back and forward

Mauritius beach
Island nations want guarantees of safety rather than risk percentages

Durban: To someone based in Europe, the demands, at first sight, seem both unconscionable and completely unrealistic.

Developed nations should cut their greenhouse gas emissions by more than 50% (from 1990 levels) by 2017, and by 100% - or, in one version, "more than 100%" - before 2040.

Developed nations whose emissions have not yet peaked must make them peak and begin to decline immediately.

Developed nations should provide sums of money each year to developing countries for climate adaptation and mitigation that "shall be equivalent to the budget that developed countries spend on defence, security and warfare".

All these are taken from the 143-page screed formally known as the "Amalagamation of draft texts in preparation of a comprehensive and balanced outcome to be presented to the Conference of the Parties for adoption at its 17th session".

Ministers and their negotiators are supposed to whittle it all down into something they can sign off at the end of the week.

And so you wonder - if developing countries are serious about getting an agreement here, why would they submit demands that have as much chance of success as a chocolate teapot?

One answer is that they're not real demands, they're negotiating ploys, designed to drag more reasonable concessions out of the developed world.

There's some truth in that. But there's another thing; from the perspective of some developing countries, these are, in fact, eminently reasonable.

If you're a small island nation, for example, you're interested in safeguarding your shores from rising sea levels.

You want a guarantee of safety - not something along the lines of "if we peak at date X and reduce emissions at rate Y that gives you Z% chance of not being flooded out of existence".

So from their point of view, asking rich nations to peak their emissions within a few years and halve them within five isn't unreasonable - especially, as another portion of the text says, that the problem of greenhouse warming has been on the radar for so long that rich countries could have peaked their emissions during the 1990s if they had wanted to.

In fact, if you choose, you can sum up the issues involved in this negotiation in terms of differing views on the relative importance of the past and the future.

For many of the developing countries, it is largely about the past - the West's responsibility for historical carbon emissions, the large share of the "atmospheric space" for carbon that Western nations have appropriated, and - usually unspoken, but real nevertheless - harms visited during the colonial era.

Their point is that at least some of these issues need to be put straight before moving on.

For other players, it's about starting where we are now - putting the past to one side and simply taking the best course from hereon in.

It might seem like the sensible course. The rate of greenhouse gas emissions is rising and we're rapidly approaching the date by which science suggests they need to peak if there's to be a reasonable chance of keeping the temperature rise under 2C.

But apart from the question of reparations to which some developing countries feel they are entitled, two other issues mean the past is always a factor.

One is, frankly, that governments of some richer developing countries appear to be in this process for what they can get.

If Western countries have to reduce emissions and fork out extensive sums of money and they do not, they stand to gain a competitive advantage - and dragging up the past as often as possible helps this agenda.

The other issue concerns trust.

What some developing country governments see happening here is that rich nations that have not fulfilled their past commitments are now demanding a new agreement.

Canada, for example, signed and ratified the Kyoto Protocol, in the process pledging to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions.

Instead, emissions soared - and rather than meeting its commitment, the government simply said it would not make the emission cuts. There's no sanction.

As Tosi Mpanu Mpanu, chair of the Africa Group, put it: "When you're a country and you commit to a legally binding instrument, you have to respect it.

"If a country cannot keep its word, that country shouldn't be trusted; so for me it's very, very grave that those countries are going against what they committed to."

So in these negotiations, the past is always with us; the one aspect that cannot be changed or washed away.

Its lessons might point the way to a more constructive future for this process, and so for the global community. Then again, they might not.