Travel globally, think nationally, act verbally

Photo: Leila Mead/IISD

Travel globally, think nationally, act verbally

Arild Angelsen shares his reflection from the climate negotiations in Durban.

Arild Angelsen

Arild Angelsen is a professor at the School of Economics and Business, Norwegian University of Life Sciences (UMB) & Senior Associate, Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR), Bogor, Indonesia.

Below he writes about his thoughts and impressions from the climate change negotiations in Durban.


I’m schizophrenic. During the annual Conference of the Parties (COP) under the UN’s Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) one often needs a microscope to detect progress. With consensus required, giving 194 of the 194 member countries veto power, the turtles determine the speed. Since the establishment of the Kyoto Protocol in 1997, the outcomes have been miserable and grossly inadequate to deal with the climate challenge. The Durban Platform, the outcome of COP 17, was at least an agreement about a roadmap to get a global deal before 2015, and a legal framework in effect from 2020. A success? Well, the Bali roadmap from 2007 also outlined a process towards a legally binding agreement in 2009, to extend or replace the Kyoto Protocol when it expires in 2012. As we all know, Copenhagen failed to deliver that in 2009. Now, after Durban, we are celebrating a decision to delay an agreement by 6-8 years compared to the plan just four years ago.

But, the other part of me, the one that made me travel to Durban, sees the value of tens of thousands people meeting every year to talk – yes, talk – about climate change. In addition to the official delegates, thousands of activists, researchers, business(wo)men and others meet to exchange new research results, experiences, views and ideas. And, for two weeks, at least some global attention is given to one of the world’s largest challenges in this century.

And, what is the alternative? There are several suggestions for reforming the process (use majority decisions), the approach (overly focussed on legally binding agreements), and the participation (for example move to smaller forums of key countries like G8 or G20). These are worth careful consideration (a co-benefit of attending COPs is to learn diplomatic speak). But, the more fundamental problem is that national, short term economic interests are more important than the long term climatic ones. Major countries, and in particular the two largest emitters China and the US (roughly 1/5 of global emissions each), simply don’t want a strong climate deal that constrains their economic action space.

The Kyoto Protocol divided the world in two: Annex I developed and non-Annex I developing countries. Only Annex I countries have a commitment to limit emissions. This division is highly misleading: 70 non-Annex I countries are richer than the poorest Annex I country. Close to 60% of global emissions are from non-Annex I countries. Add the almost 20% of the US, which never ratified the protocol, and that most of the future growth in emissions will be in non-Annex I countries, a continuation of the Kyoto-division simply cannot deal with the climate challenge effectively. Middle income, fast growing emitters must be included. The Durban Platform was a step forward in that respect: the deal to be negotiated by 2015 will have to include all countries, and be legally binding (or: "an agreed outcome with legal force").

EU, the most progressive block in the negotiations, was the big triumphant and succeeded to ally with the poorest (LDC) and most climate-vulnerable countries to put pressure on China and India to start talking about an agreement that also include emissions reductions for them. That was a key change in the political geometry: Poor countries realized that their old colonial powers of Europe are better partners than (ex-) poor and fast growing countries of Asia.

REDD+ has over the last years served as the sunshine story of the COPs. If negotiations fail in other areas, there is REDD+ to, not only save the forests but also an image of success in negotiations. Three main REDD issues were on the table in South Africa.

First issue: Monitoring, Reporting, Verification (MRV) systems and “reference emission levels (REL) and/or reference levels (RL)” (there is no universal consensus about the difference between the two, but RL should also include removals, i.e. increase in the forest carbon stock). RLs are the benchmark for meaning performance and impacts of policies, and also to form the basis for result based payments. I was part of two different reports presented on RL. There is broad agreement that RL should be based on historical emissions and national circumstances, but the troubling question is: what is exactly meant by national circumstances? Countries are to submit their proposed RL to UNFCCC, but what can be included, and how should their reports be processed? Many – me included – fear that countries may inflate their RLs to make results look better and get more funding. Although some decisions were made in Durban, more work is needed to specify the rules and procedures.

Second issue: safeguards. The approved text gives countries flexibility to report on how safeguards have been incorporated into their REDD+ programs. NGOs were not happy, and wanted more details on the reporting, and also more specifics on how safeguards actually should be incorporated in REDD+ implementation, not just how countries should report. Others noted that this is yet another reporting requirement on poor countries with very limited capacity, and goes beyond what is required by Annex I countries for their accounting on land use, land use change and forestry (LULUCF).

Third issue: financing. This is a new topic on the negotiation table, and the main issue was to agree on a roadmap for how to discuss it properly: in which forum (the technical SBSTA, or the more political LCA or SBI, all sub-committees under UNFCCC), asking for technical reports and expert meetings, and so on. For a researcher it makes sense to assess all options, but some countries are sceptical of including “markets” in the long list of options. It’s fair to assume that a lot more controversies will surface over the coming years when the substance of REDD+ financing is to be discussed, in particular the question of ‘offsetting’ (buying REDD+ credits to meet own emission targets). Another report that we presented (commissioned by the Nordic Council) finds that using REDD as offsets can mobilize significant funding for REDD+, but emissions targets must be a lot more ambitious than current pledges to avoid a major crowding out of other mitigation efforts.

As long as there is no global REDD+ mechanism under UNFCCC, what is the utility of long discussions and texts on all the REDD+ issues? The answer is twofold: First, one has made the rules and laid the technical groundwork to play the game when it starts. Second, the consensus achieved will influence the various multilateral, bilateral, private and voluntary REDD+ mechanisms set up.

After two weeks, the negotiators have travelled globally to defend their national interests, and used lots of words. Travel globally, think nationally, and act verbally. That will not save us from potentially dramatic climate change. But, Durban managed to come up with more than we expected: countries agreed on the roadmap or agenda (not a trivial matter, any negotiator can confirm), and to better get on board the countries with most of the projected future emission growth. Many have called for stronger political will and leadership, but that is only a first-order explanation. Politicians get their mandate from the voters and the public, and the failures of climate negotiations reflect humans’ low capacity to deal with uncertainty and long term costs, and our high capacity to blame others. When did you last see a demonstration or a Facebook group demanding higher petrol prices?

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