Climate talks end with late deal

Protesters hold a night vigil as talks at the climate change summit in Durban, South Africa, on 9 December 2011. Whether there is light at the end of the tunnel as a result of the summit is a matter of opinion

For some reason that I've not quite figured out, lots of people in the dying embers of this UN climate meeting were asking "who's a winner, and who's a loser?"

There are loads of perhaps more rational questions you could ask, the most pertinent being: "What has this done to curb climate change?"

But what the heck - winners and losers is as good a way as any to set up a quick review of the meeting - so here goes.

Among delegations, there's a rich smorgasbord of winners.

The EU decided to play an active leadership role, looking to drive more ambition in cutting emissions - and it did, staying strong and relatively united throughout.

It didn't get the deal it wanted; but then no-one does in a negotiation.

And it didn't crumble at the last minute, as it has done before, and as the Americans reportedly believed it would this time too.

Countries highly vulnerable to climate impacts notched up a win too.

There are a heck of a lot of them - the Alliance of Small Island States (Aosis) and the Least Developed Countries bloc (LDCs) have more than 70 members combined.

That's enough to block decisions on many issues, not just in the UN climate convention.

If more nations pushing for a strong agreement worked with them, they could become a formidable force; and here, for the first time, the muscles flexed.

US 'quiet man' tactic

Politically, the US had a very good meeting.

With an election looming, President Barack Obama could only lose through having his delegation in the public eye.

Give too much away, and the president would be pilloried for being soft - especially if the parties being given to included China.

But stand out against a tide of other countries trying to move forward on climate change, as happened at the UN meeting in Bali four years ago, and he'd risk alienating more of the supporters who reportedly are already too disillusioned to bother volunteering for his campaign this time round.

The "quiet man" tactics worked perfectly. Canada took most of the heat early on; when ministers arrived, the US was barely visible, and if anyone appeared "hard-line", it was India and China - perfect for the US blame game.

Among nations, no-one emerged a particular loser, though the South African hosts had quite a good go at it.

US protester Abigail Borah disrupts negotiator Todd Stern in Durban, South Africa on 8 December 2011 US envoy Todd Stern's set-piece speech was interrupted by a young heckler

Don't get me wrong. In the ordinary sense, they were great hosts - friendly security guards, decent food, sunny skies, functioning wi-fi, prompt public release of conference documents - only the occasional mugging out in town to spoil the mood.

But in terms of active diplomacy to bring a deal to fruition - no.

"No urgency, no strategy" was a complaint heard too often. And all the host city gets named after it is a "platform" - the Durban Platform for Enhanced Action.

Not a protocol, not a convention, not a mandate; and I'll place a small bet that phrases like "waiting on the Durban Platform" will gain a lot of currency over the next four years at least.

Outside the halls of government, it was a very good meeting for the youth.

Unfailingly charming, youth delegates brought a freshness, a "Yes-we-can" -ness, to the often jaundiced proceedings.

Some of their demonstrations worked too. US envoy Todd Stern was visibly rattled when his set-piece speech was interrupted - not so much rattled by the young heckler as by the prolonged applause generated by her heckling - applause coming from people who were supposed to be her elders and his peers.

And the "occupation" on the final scheduled afternoon made an impact simply because it went on for so long - a couple of hours - bringing a distinct feeling of substance, a "we're staying here until you sort it out" kind of vibe.

Big emitters' cuts

Overall, civil society had a mixed time.

If you haven't been at one of these meetings, it's probably difficult to imagine just how important some civil society representatives are to the process - analysing, assisting, strategising, connecting, conniving, colluding.

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The argument that 'we can't ask the big developing countries to cut their emissions because it'll take pressure off the developed ones' is, again, surely outdated; because it also works in reverse.”

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The hookup between the EU, Aosis and the LDCs wouldn't have happened without a bit of civil society glue. For those involved in that initiative, it was a triumph.

But for a number of NGOs who stuck rigidly to the "only developed countries must cut emissions" line, it was a bad, bad meeting.

The strategy is perfectly understandable when you think of all the dirty tricks that have gone on in times past on issues such as trade, when developing countries, frankly, needed the protection that came from forming an unbreakable alliance.

Now, there are people on delegations from small developing states who say they need as much protection from the big boys of the developing world as from the traditional foes.

And the argument that "we can't ask the big developing countries to cut their emissions because it'll take pressure off the developed ones" is, again, surely outdated; because it also works in reverse.

When some countries that are officially developing have higher per-capita emissions than some that are developed, it's pretty clear that any sensible route to the global target of limiting temperature rise to 2C (35.6F) has to involve cuts from the rapidly developing big emitters - maybe not right now, but in the not too distant future.

And by their Europhilia, many of the small developing countries indicated that in this context, the old alliance isn't working for them as it once did.

Future potential

And what of the most important player in this whole thing - the planet's biosphere? If it's a sick Gaia, as James Lovelock might say, how high is its temperature now?

Climate change glossary
Select a term to learn more:
Action that helps cope with the effects of climate change - for example construction of barriers to protect against rising sea levels, or conversion to crops capable of surviving high temperatures and drought.

In climate change terms, it's certainly no worse off as a result of the Durban meeting.

Whether it's better off depends on whether you prefer your glasses half full or half empty.

A number of analysts think it's a disaster because according to the mainstream projections, the emission pledges countries have made so far will take humanity to a world 4C warmer on average than in pre-industrial times by the end of the century.

And that's an average; some places could see twice that.

Equally, other analysts argue that Durban and its Platform are a triumph, because they give governments a tool with which to adjust direction, setting course for a 2C world.

But remember: all we have is an agreement to negotiate an "instrument" with "legal force".

If governments want to go for a 2C world, they can, by designing the new instrument to match up to the science they all endorse through ownership of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

If they don't, we'll see but a minor change of direction and a course still set, if the science is right, for 4C.

It's the negotiations on the new instrument that will determine ultimately whether the biosphere wins or loses from Durban, not Durban itself.

We're waiting on the Platform... darn it, I've done it already...

Richard Black Article written by Richard Black Richard Black Former environment correspondent

Farewell and thanks for reading

This is my last entry for this page - I'm leaving the BBC to work, initially, on ocean conservation issues.

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  • rate this

    Comment number 15.

    @ woodsy280: if you think it's unproved, why not get involved yourself? You find a way of testing whether there's change or not (that others can validate).

    Or is it easier to shout bar-room insults from the sidelines?

  • rate this

    Comment number 14.

    There will be no waiting ... we must move forward with private and community carbon-free energy investments and local action, irrespective of COP and Congress inaction. Person by person, neighborhood by neighborhood, town by town, county by county, state by state ... each of us can that makes a difference ... do what you are best skilled at and enjoy doing most.

  • rate this

    Comment number 13.

    Anyone who is well paid to holiday in Durban, talking self-important rubbish with friends from all over the world is a winner. Anyone who is a poor African or Asian who will never see electricity in their time because it can only be generated by 'dirty' coal is a loser. CO2 is NOT warming the earth, read the science!

  • rate this

    Comment number 12.

    9: borophil: 'King Canute tried likewise to reverse the tides by his decree'

    King Canute is much maligned. He didn't seek to halt the tide, quite the reverse. He sought to show his onlookers that even a king must face futility in some situations. Wisdom that aligns him with Lovelock, re the demise of man not Gaia. Would that we had kings as wise as Canute, not courtiers full of wine and gas!!

  • rate this

    Comment number 11.

    You will have to wait like a typical London rail commuter, indefinitely.

  • rate this

    Comment number 10.

    Alex, the difference being this has accomplished something just a little more substantial than the previous few rounds of talks that ended in a purely verbal 'agreement'.

    The test is whether legal force will translate to legally binding.

    As for the 99% losing, I doubt the vast majority will notice any difference.

  • rate this

    Comment number 9.

    Richard Black et are all naive fools to believe that you can prevent climate change...King Canute tried likewise to reverse the tides by his decree and you foolish people are trying to set back human development in the same manner. The climate has always changed and always will...we are at the front edge of a cooling period with the natural oscillations marginally altered by man made CO2

  • rate this

    Comment number 8.

    No losers?

    The 99% lost. The 1% won. Africa and small island states have been sacrficed. Humanity has been sacrificed to save the markets.

    The deal is not in line with science and makes no commitments other than another meeting. We are all losers, because we utterly are doomed if this is all we've got.

    I will now complain about this article which is sickenly misleading substandard journalism.

  • rate this

    Comment number 7.

    Biggest waste of money we haven't got on an unproven theory

  • rate this

    Comment number 6.

    isn't a 2C rise the same as travelling from Belfast to Brighton, except the beach is pebbly?

  • rate this

    Comment number 5.

    Climate change is real, accept it, and to presume the 7 billion of us arent contributing to this with our energy demands and wasteful materials is purely delusional. We owe it ot the planet, and indeed our children, to stop being so short sighted, money grabbing and selfish. Oh, and btw, there will be no messiah to save us from this, so you may as well accept that as well.

  • rate this

    Comment number 4.


    Do you think it's fair that jourmalists such as yourself are not allowed into the actual talks, whereas disguished delegates working for Oxfam (9) and the WWF(14) are allowed in under the banners of the Belgium government etc

  • rate this

    Comment number 3.

    “…setting course for a 2C world”

    Do you really believe that we understand our climate thoroughly enough to be able to control it within fine limits?

  • rate this

    Comment number 2.

    "What has this done to curb climate change?" Curiously, I may find myself in agreement with those who answer "nothing". The difference being that this scientist still doubts our ability to bring about any such significant changes.

    Note that the 2C number includes all causes, but a casual reader might think that it is being claimed as of anthropogenic origin. Duplicity and deception.

  • rate this

    Comment number 1.

    Trivial correction -- a temperature rise of 2C is a rise of 3.6F -- 35.6F is what corresponds to a temperature of 2C.


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