What to Make of the Durban Climate Deal?

The recently concluded talks in South Africa yielded an agreement. But to what end? Figuring that out is anybody’s guess.

(See related posting.)

This past Friday, December 9, a day before the COP17 talks concluded, a long-time observer of climate policy predicted: “The best case scenario for those wanting success at the Durban Climate Conference is going to be the kicking of the can way down the road.”

News Analysis

And that was exactly what happened. This, despite recent warnings that the world is headed for “irreversible climate change” if the can got kicked down the road. Mainstream media outlets, however, have generally painted the Durban outcome as a success. For example, here was the Guardian‘s lead-in:

The world is on track for a comprehensive global treaty on climate change for the first time after agreement was reached at talks in Durban in the early hours of Sunday morning.

Negotiators agreed to start work on a new climate deal that would have legal force and, crucially, require both developed and developing countries to cut their carbon emissions. The terms now need to be agreed by 2015 and come into effect from 2020.

Never mind the timeline, what about the deal itself? Some climate analysts, such as widely read blogger Joe Romm, appeared conflicted. He hailed the agreement as “a pretty big success,” but also acknowledged in the same breath that it was “sadly lacking” in terms of “what is needed to avert catastrophic climate change.”

There was no such equivocation from Michael Levi, a climate and energy analyst with the Council on Foreign Relations. He called all the happy talk about the “landmark deal” (which is how the AP characterized it), “nonsense.” Levi examined the fine print of the Durban agreement and found that its true meaning doesn’t jell with how it’s been reported by the press. Here he is on the brinksmanship that produced the flexible language he’s pointing to:

The precise dynamics that unfolded in the final days are still unclear. In the end, though, the talks came down to a simple choice. Europe insisted on language that would commit all countries “to launch a process to develop a protocol or another legal instrument under the Convention applicable to all Parties”. India strenuously insisted that “a legal outcome” be included as a third option. It is not clear exactly where China or United States, which were both fine with including “legal option” but otherwise largely sat out the final public fight, would have drawn the line if forced. Everyone ultimately compromised: an “outcome with legal force”, rather than a “legal outcome”, was added as the third option.

It is difficult to avoid concluding that the Europeans ultimately blinked, though you wouldn’t get that from their spin or from the media coverage. The New York Times, adopting a similar interpretation to most other outlets, reported that the deal foresees “a future treaty that would require all countries to reduce emissions that contribute to global warming”. Alas, there’s nothing much like that in the text.

Alas, as the NYT‘s John Broder wrote in a separate news analysis, “maybe the task is too tall.” As he assessed the situation:

Effectively addressing climate change will require over the coming decades a fundamental remaking of energy production, transportation and agriculture around the world — the sinews of modern life. It is simply too big a job for the men and women who have gathered for these talks under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, the 1992 treaty that began this grinding process.

Broder then quotes Nick Robins, an energy and climate change analyst at HSBC, the London-based global bank, who makes this observation: “There is a fundamental disconnect in having environment ministers negotiating geopolitics and macroeconomics.”

That’s something to chew on for the future. But right now, regardless of the sunniest spin put on the deal reached in Durban, there is also a fundamental disconnect between what climate science says about the unabated rise of carbon emissions and what the world’s response has been to that science.

Keith Kloor

Keith Kloor is a New York City-based freelance journalist who writes often about the environment and climate change.
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2 Responses to What to Make of the Durban Climate Deal?

  1. EdG says:

    The Guardian as an example? Here’s one I feel was much closer to the mark:

    “Of course, at the 28th hour of extended play they had to announce something “landmark” and thus they did. All you need to know about their success is written in the following paragraph:

    “The deal doesn’t explicitly compel any nation to take on emissions targets, although most emerging economies have volunteered to curb the growth of their emissions.”

    That’s the good news. The bad news is they still got our money:

    Sunday’s deal also set up the bodies that will collect, govern and distribute tens of billions of dollars a year…

    Environmentalists criticized the package – as did many developing countries in the debate – for failing to address what they called the most urgent issue, to move faster and deeper in cutting carbon emissions.

    “The good news is we avoided a train wreck,” said Alden Meyer… “The bad news is that we did very little here to affect the emissions curve.”

    But then it was never about emissions, was it?”


  2. JA BELLE says:


    It is sad indeed that the World gathered in Durban and failed to reach concrete agreement on a global hazard that has ruined the livelihood of many poorest of the poor. The rich coutries, especially the USA and China who are among the top polluters stay adamant to even reduce and clean their mess. USA controls the UN(no one can doubt that) and can do as it pleases, China is the fastest growing economy( a potent threat from the East) and can export its population to Africa if the air is that very bad at home. India will like to immitate China, if technolgy allows. Africa, the hardest hit of all, is where the “High sounding nothing” talks were held. We are in for more disasters, Haiti and Japan were just a “tip of the iceburg.” For Africa, if HIV/AIDS spares us, the effects of global warming will complete our requiem mass and the rich who can better manage disasters will attend our funerals.”May their will be done!”