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Durban climate talks end with agreement

December 19, 2011

The 17th Conference of the Parties (COP) of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, held in Durban, South Africa, ended December 11, 2011 after three days and nights of intense negotiations. Durban will likely be remembered as a modest success for having produced a deal that promises continued negotiations toward a legally binding agreement that will involve both developed and developing countries, including some of the biggest polluters in the developing world (namely China, India, and Brazil), which were not subject to mandatory emissions cuts in the 1997 Kyoto Protocol. Because many of the details have yet to be negotiated, this process is unlikely to limit global warming to less than 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit), a goal set at the 2009 Copenhagen COP to avoid some of the most dangerous effects of climate change.  It may even allow for average temperature increases of 4 degrees Celsius.

The Durban climate talks produced three main outcomes of note:

1. The 1997 Kyoto Protocol, scheduled to expire in 2012, was extended for five years. This agreement, which only entered into force in 2005, subjected only the developed countries to emissions cuts. Developing countries, including rapidly industrializing polluters like China, India, and Brazil, were not obligated to cut emissions. Thus, developed countries that are party to Kyoto (the US not a party) will continue emissions cuts while a replacement agreement is negotiated.

2. A new, legally-binding agreement to cut carbon emissions starting in 2020 will be negotiated by 2015. What is most significant about this agreement is that it will treat developed and developing countries equally. Acceptance of this process by China and India signals a shift in climate politics in the developing world, where small, poor nations that are already experiencing the effects of climate change, including desertification and rising sea levels, are pressuring developing-country polluters to participate equally in global climate talks.

3. A Green Climate Fund will be created to help poor countries cut emissions and adapt to climate change. The fund, which will be financed by public and private sources, will provide $100 billion per year to developing countries by 2020.

So, did real progress occur at the Durban climate change talks? The optimistic take is that this deal goes further than any past agreement in promising that developed and developing countries will be legally bound to cut their greenhouse gas emissions. The pessimistic take is that this modest agreement to continue negotiations toward a legally binding agreement does nothing to limit globe climate change in the years ahead. For a discussion of where to go from here, see this PBS NewsHour video clip.

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