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Climate negotiators huddle for a dramatic deal in Durban

photo copyOn 11 December 1997 nations of the world gathered in Japan to sign a legally binding instrument intended to begin the long task of reducing global greenhouse gas emissions. Today, as the Kyoto Protocol celebrates its fourteenth birthday, questions about its future pushed the United Nations climate talks to the brink of complete collapse in Durban, South Africa.

The protocol’s fate as well as that of the entire UN negotiations process came down to two words – “legal outcome” – and a series of rather strange and certainly unusual public huddles (see photo, taken by yours truly standing atop a chair moments before being removed from said chair by police). We’ll get back to that, but first a little background.

Going into the Durban meeting the European Union agreed to demands by developing countries for a second commitment period under the Kyoto Protocol, which is set to go dormant at the end of next year (for details, see our Durban special). Europe’s condition was that the rest of the world commit to negotiations on a binding treaty that would carry things forward after that. As the talks extended into Saturday evening, most of the major emitters, including Brazil, South Africa, China and the United States, agreed to language that would create a new negotiating track to pursue either “a protocol or another legal instrument.” Only India objected.

The text presented to the full body by South African organizers late Saturday evening included “a protocol, another legal instrument, or a legal outcome”. The last option came at the behest of India, which didn’t want to commit itself to emissions reductions, but that drew objections from Europe and many other countries – both developing and developed – that are seeking a legally binding treaty.

“The European Union has shown patience for many years,” said Connie Hedegaard, the EU’s commissioner for climate change. “We don’t’ think we ask too much of the world … that after this second commitment period all will be equally bound.”

Indian Environment and Forests Minister Jayanthi Natarajan proceeded to give an impassioned speech regarding responsibility for historical emissions and equity issues that date back to the original 1992 Framework Convention on Climate Change, which affirmed the idea that countries have “common but differentiated responsibilities.” That language disappeared from the new proposal, which seeks to bring developing countries on board for binding emissions cuts.

“Does climate change mean you give up equity?” Natarajan asked. “I’m sorry madam chair. India will never be intimidated by threats … or any kind of pressure like this.“


After a long debate, South Africa’s Maite Nkoana-Mashabane sought to broker a spontaneous compromise that has been years in the making by forcing negotiators to work out their differences on the floor of the plenary, in plain view and earshot of media and anyone else willing to push their way into a crowd (or onto a chair). All of this took place at 3 a.m. Sunday morning, making Durban the longest of 17 annual conferences convened by signatories to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change.

Be the cause clever politicking, schoolyard peer pressure or sheer fatigue, it worked. After some 45 minutes of shifting scrums punctuated by occasional applause, India, the European Union, the United States and other key players worked out their differences on a host of interrelated issues. This time it came down to five words: “agreed outcome with legal force”. To recap, the final language states that countries will begin new negotiations on “a protocol, another legal instrument, or an agreed outcome with legal force,” which apparently falls somewhere in the legal spectrum between a binding treaty and a nonbinding decision. Both India and the EU promptly dropped their objections.

The so-called “Durban package” was adopted shortly before 5 a.m. Sunday. It extends the Kyoto Protocol and commits the world to negotiating a new agreement by 2015 that covers all countries, developed and developing. Among other things, it also advances some details of the new Green Climate Fund established last year in Cancun as well as language intended to promote efforts to reduce emissions from deforestation. Despite universal acknowledgements that the deal does nothing to reduce emissions or increase funding beyond existing commitments, environmentalists and scientists generally endorsed the decision as a significant step that could put all major emitters onto the same playing field in the years to come. Keep an eye out for more details and analysis in next week’s issue of Nature.

Photo: European Union Commissioner Connie Hedegaard huddles with the Indian delegation as South Africa’s Maite Nkoana-Mashabane and the United States’ lead negotiator, Todd Stern, look on.

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    Anders Hedberg said:

    We have a joint responsibility for this crucial issue, but polluters must pay. The rich world must take a historical responsibility for their past pollution. Time is running out to reach a binding agreement. What a world do we want to pass on to our children?

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