Durban 2012: A step forward or a lurch towards a 4°C world?

13 Dec 2011

There are decidedly mixed reviews of the agreement produced after marathon overtime negotiations in Durban, South Africa on the weekend.

The delegates have gone home. The offices, banks of computers, displays, and the temporary restaurants selling boerwurst and pap have been dismantled in Durban’s International Convention Centre. After more than a day of overtime negotiations, the Durban climate change talks produced a deal.

But as the UK Guardian newspaper reports, is it a deal that will get us to where we need to go? The opinions are mixed, to say the least.

There was agreement by all countries to extend the Kyoto Protocol into a second commitment period and to finalize a new climate agreement by 2015. But that agreement will not come into effect until after 2020. The agreement was criticized for being vague and weaker than what is needed to bring the world’s emissions of greenhouse gases to a level that will avoid dangerous climate change.

A Canadian newspaper summed up the concern: “While politicians from virtually all of the world’s 194 countries claimed victory after the Durban deal, the reality is that the Durban agreement is riddled with loopholes, delays and uncertainties. Its vagueness allowed all nations to accept the deal, but it postponed the key negotiations for years down the road.”

UNEP’s Executive Director Achim Steiner sounded a cautiously optimistic note on the website:

"The outcomes of Durban provide a welcome boost for global climate action. They reflect the growing, and in some quarters unexpected, determination of countries to act collectively. This provides a clear signal and predictability to economic planners, businesses and investors about the future of low-carbon economies. A number of specific commitments agreed in Durban also indicate that previous decisions on financing, technology and Reduced Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD+) are moving to implementation."

UNEP released a report during the negotiations which showed a growing gap between the amount countries have pledged to reduce emissions, and what is needed to get to the required levels by 2020. The UNEP report states that “the current emissions trajectories, unless urgently reversed, could lead to a global temperature rise of 3.5° Celsius or more sometime by the end of the century.”

As well, the cost of cutting emissions will be “four times more beyond 2020 than they would cost today with the price rising over time.”

Bill Hare is a physicist, environmental scientist and a lead author on the 2007 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Fourth Assessment Report. He runs a web site called "Climate Action Tracker," an independent science-based assessment that tracks the emission commitments and actions of countries. Here is his reading of the Durban agreement:

“The Climate Action Tracker estimates that global mean warming would reach about 3.5°C by 2100 with the current reduction proposals on the table. They are definitely insufficient to limit temperature increase to 2°C.” 

Warming over 3°C could bring the world close to several potential global-scale tipping points, the website says, such as:

- Possible dieback of the Amazon rainforest

- Corals reefs being irreversibly replaced by algae and sea grass

- Irreversible loss of the Greenland ice sheets of many centuries to thousands of years

- Risk of release of methane hydrates in ocean floor sediments further adding to the warming

- Permafrost thawing due to fast rising arctic temperatures

WWF and other organizations have criticized the Durban deal. Samantha Smith is the leader of WWF’s global climate and energy initiative. She says governments “ did just enough to keep talking, but their job is to protect their people…. But it is clear today that the mandates of a few political leaders have outweighed the concerns of millions, leaving people and the natural world we depend on at risk. Catastrophe is a strong word but it is not strong enough for a future with 4 degrees of warming.

In his post Durban statement, UNEP’s Achim Steiner said the “key question” is whether the agreement will lead to a peak in global emissions before 2020.

"The big question many will ask is how this will translate into actual emission reductions and by when?” said Steiner. “Whatever answer will emerge in the coming months, Durban has kept the door open for the world to respond to climate change based on science and common sense rather than political expediency.”


Aerial view of the Store Gracier, northwest Greenland. One potential tipping point in a 3°C warmer world could be the irreversible loss of the Greenland Ice Sheet. Photo credit: Lawrence Hislop


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