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Three Issues to Watch During the Durban Climate Summit

The issues on the table in Durban are huge.

The International Climate Negotiations roadshow is rolling into Durban, South Africa this December and the big question – at least for the diminished audience still watching – is what we can expect out of the latest episode of the  UN Framework Convention on Climate Change. The performance that took place in  Copenhagen two years ago was a disaster. Last year’s installment, which occurred in  Cancun, Mexico, was a pleasant surprise, but only because expectations had been set so low. The red-hot intensity that used to greet the performances has cooled to a lukewarm. If the negotiations were just entertainment, that would be bad enough. But this is the future of the planet at stake.

The issues on the table in Durban are huge. First, the very future of the Kyoto Protocol and which countries will be participating in any binding agreement after next year. Second, the key financial issue of how rich and poor countries will pay for responding to climate change. Third, the question of what targets to set for binding emissions reductions.

The very complexity of the climate negotiations is a reason that many people have tuned out these summits. Best, then, to keep it simple. Here’s a quick cheat sheet so you can follow along at home – and help explain the issues to your friends and family.


The pre-negotiation meetings that took place in Bonn, Germany and Panama were characterized by bickering and showmanship. Many climate policy experts are predicting a stalemate at the South Africa summit, and that would be a disaster. A breakthrough in Durban is urgent since the Kyoto Protocol’s targets are set to expire. The only binding international agreement on greenhouse gases (so far), it went into effect in 2005, eight years after it was adopted by the vast majority of the globe’s nations. The treaty’s first set of emissions reduction targets expires in 2012.

Unfortunately, the world’s largest countries are reluctant to play with each other. The United States and some other industrialized nations say they will adopt emissions limits only if rising powers like China, India, and Brazil (which were excluded from the original 1997 goals) also commit to matching reductions. For their part, China, India, and Brazil continue to maintain that the richer nations have larger obligations to make reductions because they have spewed the bulk of the planet’s carbon pollution since the start of the fossil fuel age. It’s a geopolitical game of chicken.

Once again we could see an agreement left on the drafting table, covered in brackets and lacking signatures.


Participation isn’t the only problem. As the worst economic downtown since the Great Depression slogs on (and outraged young people occupy city centers from Cairo to Madrid to New York) climate negotiators are charged with figuring out how to pay for any global agreement, including funding reduced carbon emissions, transferring technology between countries, and adapting to the inevitable changes we are already locked into.

A so-called Green Climate Fund is supposed to provide up to $100 billion a year, through 2020, to help meet those costs. But double- or even triple-counting is starting to impinge upon the mostly hypothetical funding mechanism. There’s another wrinkle. “The proposed Green Climate Fund is good news, but it is designed to distribute the funds – not raise them,” says Richard Gledhill of the consulting firm PwC. While there are plenty of ideas for sources of funding – including carbon credits, taxes on bunker and aviation fuels, and even a “Robin Hood” or Tobin Tax on financial transactions – political will is sparse.

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