Another year, another COP, another step closer to the brink. It must seem to the casual observer that the UN climate negotiations are an exercise designed explicitly to create gridlock and failure. Judging by many of the blogs, comments and tweets I’ve been reading since bleary-eyed delegates stumbled out of the Durban ICC on Sunday, the most recent episode has provoked some strong but mixed reactions: politicians claiming a triumph of multilateralism, NGOs decrying the lack of progress on issues of substance. Both views hold some merit. As someone who was present in Durban for the regulation fortnight – but missed the 36 hours of injury-time – I’d like to weigh in with my personal reflections.
Before that, a confession: I’ve always had a ‘thing’ for prime numbers. I find their indivisibility immensely satisfying, suggestive of an eternal significance which shows up in unexpected places. For instance, I could never quite put my finger on why the game of rugby is such a dire spectacle, until I realised: there are 15 players on each side! The prime numbered 11-a-side codes of football and cricket are self-evidently superior. In a similar vein, when a football club wins five European Cups (as my Liverpool did in 2005) it gets to keep the trophy in perpetuity and UEFA commissions a new one, to be tossed around cheaply among subsequent winners of the tournament… until that magical prime number is reached once more.
Back to climate change. A brief review of previous UNFCCC COPs reveals a curious pattern in which significant moments of progress are marked by prime numbers. At COP3 in Kyoto, negotiators hammered out the eponymous Protocol, which to date remains the only legally-binding international climate treaty ever brokered (although as I write this, news filters through that Canada has withdrawn due to its failure to meet commitments – a bit like skiving off your final exams the day before because you didn’t show up at any lectures). In Marrakech, COP7 reached an agreement on how to implement the Kyoto Protocol among 193 of the 194 signatories of the UNFCCC, the sole absentee being the nation that is by far the largest historic contributor of GHGs to the atmosphere. Montreal’s climate summit in 2005 was significant for being the first meeting of the Parties to Kyoto, namely COP11/MOP1 – two prime numbers in one conference! Two years later, in another prime double-header, it was at COP13/CMP3 in Bali where the intransigent US was famously shamed by Papua New Guinea’s Kevin Conrad, who issued the challenge to either lead, or “get out of the way”. The US backed down, opening the way for the Bali Roadmap that was intended to deliver a “Kyoto 2” in Copenhagen.
I won’t lay the blame for COP15’s failure to deliver entirely at the door of composite numbering. At least the signature text of the summit went as far as to declare – for the first time at a UNFCCC conference – what was meant by the Convention’s ultimate objective to “avoid dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system”. By introducing the 2°C threshold – with deep emissions cuts guided by science and on the basis of equity – the Copenhagen Accord (PDF) was not entirely useless, setting the tone for the Cancun Agreements issued at the low-key COP16. As for the rest of the even-numbered COPs, they were undoubtedly necessary staging posts on the way to the prime events, but honestly, who remembers what happened at COP14 in Poznan? Anyone? How about COP12 in Nairobi? Like the World Cup group stages, there’d be no knock-out phase without them, but barring the occasional seven-goal thriller they’re generally pretty tedious affairs.
So what of COP17? Despite hosts South Africa receiving widespread and deserved praise for saving the talks from total collapse, many have correctly asserted that the Durban Platform contains nothing of substance that helps steer the world from its catastrophic business-as-usual 4°C trajectory. No international legal framework has been agreed (yet), national voluntary pledges made in the wake of Copenhagen have not been tightened, business leaders may still claim paralysis owing to a lack of regulatory certainty. On the flip side, the most complex political negotiations ever attempted remain intact, with all 194 Parties – including the world’s largest absolute emitter, the world’s fastest growing emitter, the world’s largest per capita emitter, and the world’s largest historical emitter – committed to negotiating by 2015 a legally-binding deal to cut emissions that will enter into force by 2020. Perhaps it will take the IPCC’s Fifth Assessment Report (PDF), due towards the end of 2014, to provide the fresh impetus to the negotiations.
Meanwhile, national governments continue to enact domestic laws to penalise GHG emissions, irrespective of the perceived failure of the international negotiations. The UK’s landmark Climate Change Act set the ball rolling in 2008, but now even carbon-intensive emerging economies like South Africa are on the verge of introducing carbon taxes, hot on the heels of Australia’s recent legislation. From a business perspective, surely the drums are now beating loud enough for companies to start planning for success rather than failure in humanity’s collective efforts to address climate change. If we think mitigation for 2°C is expensive and complex, just wait until we start adapting for 4°C. As one observer wrote in the aftermath of Durban, “It’s not a choice between a climate change deal and economic development; it’s really a choice of both or neither.”
Durban may not have been the emphatic breakthrough that most of us wished for, but I’m convinced future historians will judge it to have been an historic COP: the one at which the pump was primed.
Gary Kendall is South Africa Deputy Director for the Cambridge Programme for Sustainability Leadership, a former Executive Director of SustainAbility, and a member of SustainAbility’s Council.