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Since the Conference of the Parties (COP) in Copenhagen in 2009, the witnesses for the prosecution—those who think the process has “lost the plot”—have been growing more vocal.

The negotiations are stuck in an endless treadmill of repetitive meetings, they say.

Morale within the process, which plummeted after Copenhagen only to lift a little in Cancun in December 2010, has sunk once more, say skeptical insiders.

Insanity has famously been described as “doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.” Does this maxim apply to the UN climate negotiations? If so, are those of us flying to Durban later this month about to join an exercise in mass madness?


Since the Conference of the Parties (COP) in Copenhagen in 2009, the witnesses for the prosecution—those who think the process has “lost the plot”—have been growing more vocal. The negotiations are stuck in an endless treadmill of repetitive meetings, they say.

“I shut my eyes and I feel like I’m back [at earlier meetings] in Barcelona in 2009 and in Tianjin this time last year,” one delegate told my colleagues on the Earth Negotiations Bulletin (ENB) team at the recent round of talks in Panama.

Morale within the process, which plummeted after Copenhagen only to lift a little in Cancun in December 2010, has sunk once more, say skeptical insiders. Committed stakeholders—whether it is national or local governments, private companies or engaged civil society groups—are looking elsewhere for answers. “We can no longer wait for the diplomats to catch up,” one private sector investor told me recently.

According to many observers of the process, interest has declined and the political will to forge a new global treaty has evaporated. In the absence of such resolve, governments have become stuck in an endless cycle of discussions on what have become unsolvable policy conundrums. Many predict Durban will see no major breakthroughs, no noteworthy successes.

Is this assessment accurate? Does it mean the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) and Kyoto Protocol are dead? Is the multilateral climate change process set to become an irrelevance? A footnote in history, perhaps?


The case for the defense—argued by those who still believe in the UNFCCC—disputes this opinion. The real problem, they say, lies not in the UNFCCC but in lack of political will. While they readily admit that the process is mired in complex and difficult discussions, the optimists say there is a “method in the madness” and the UNFCCC is not dead or even dying. Establishing a new global treaty cannot happen in a day, a week, or even a year, they say. In spite of some serious setbacks, negotiators are still making incremental gains and a breakthrough is achievable, if not in Durban, then at least in the next three to four years.

Some supporters of the UNFCCC think the next few years will involve maintaining a “holding pattern” with little or no progress until the key players are ready to agree to something ambitious later. However, the more optimistic among this group argue that we can continue to take small steps forward, putting in place the structures and plans to implement a breakthrough deal once it gets the political green light. This, they remind us, is what happened in the late 1990s and early 2000s; the Kyoto Protocol did not secure sufficient ratifications to enter into force as a legally-binding treaty until 2005, but in the meantime diplomats went ahead and finalized the complex rules that would govern them. These rules were set out in the Marrakesh Accords, which were agreed in principle in late 2001, years before the Protocol’s entry into force.

As well as planning for a future treaty, negotiators can also navigate towards a gradual transition for the Kyoto Protocol as the end of its first commitment period approaches (the first set of commitments under Kyoto expires in 2012). Such planning is essential in order to carry over the best elements of Kyoto, give the private sector some clear indicators for how the market will continue to function, and ensure an orderly handover to whatever agreement comes next.

On these grounds, the optimists would argue that Durban is continuing something important and should ultimately contribute to a new deal further down the path. Yes, some of the arguments and discussions will seem repetitive; but equally, other discussions can move forward and progress is possible. As such, Durban is not part of a treadmill on which the whole process is stuck, but rather a slow but steady path towards a longer-term goal.


So who’s right? Can the process be declared clinically crazy? Is interest in it gradually dying? Or is it a perfectly rational approach in a difficult but necessary journey that promises to breathe fresh life into the UNFCCC and a future global treaty?

An evaluation of the recent meeting in Panama and the likely outcomes from Durban may provide some clues.

In Panama, the UNFCCC’s two Ad Hoc Working Groups met for the last time prior to Durban. These two groups—the AWG-KP (focused on the Kyoto Protocol) and the AWG-LCA (dealing with long-term cooperation under the broader Convention)—met in Panama City from 1-7 October.

Keeping Ambition Alive?

According to the ENB team’s excellent analysis, the Panama meeting demonstrated once again that there is a serious gap between what science tells us is needed and what the international diplomatic community is collectively willing to do. Recognizing this gap, negotiators had agreed in Cancun in 2010 to review the adequacy of an earlier target of limiting temperature rise to 2ºC. However, in Panama little progress was reported. The review of this target is not expected to take place until 2013-2015. The modest aim in Panama was to help move discussions forward so that the Durban meeting could finalize the scope, modalities and process for the review. However, even this unambitious objective was not achieved and discussions in Durban are likely to prove difficult.

Money Talk

Another key focus in Panama was on finance. In the 2009 Copenhagen Accord, negotiators had agreed that developed countries should commit US$30 billion for 2010-2012 to help developing countries, and jointly mobilize US$100 billion by 2020. This was followed in 2010 with an agreement to establish a “Green Climate Fund.” Little progress was reported either in Panama or at a subsequent meeting in Cape Town of the Transitional Committee on the Green Fund. The Cape Town meeting ended in confusion and frustration as the US and Saudi Arabia withheld support for the Committee’s report (read the ENB briefing on this event).

In the short term, it appears that even taking the small, incremental steps is proving difficult. In the long term, if real financing cannot be put in place and the mechanisms for delivering it approved, then nothing else is likely to be agreed.

Kyoto on Life Support?

With the Kyoto Protocol’s first commitment period set to expire in 2012, Durban is widely considered to be the last chance to agree on a second commitment period if a gap between the two is to be avoided. Panama gave few encouraging signs for those hoping Kyoto will be revived. With the US never a fan and Japan, Canada and the Russians now joining them in the anti-Kyoto camp (at least for a second commitment period), only the EU stands out among the key OECD players in the “pro” Kyoto group. For its part, the EU is open to a second commitment period, although it views this as part of a transition towards a comprehensive, legally-binding framework that would include all major economies. The European Council recently called for agreement in Durban on a clear process and timeline to secure a legally-binding agreement at a later date.

This could be a sticking point, with the US preferring a focus on implementing existing agreements and arguing that commitments from all major economies should not be conditional on funding, which is what developing countries want. “I do not see a meeting of the minds on these fundamental issues,” said US lead negotiator Jonathan Pershing during a press conference in Panama. Some other key players, such as India and China, are also dubious about efforts to agree in Durban on a mandate to develop a new agreement.

In the face of such disagreements, the fate of the Kyoto Protocol and of the wider process appears unclear.


The outlook for Durban hardly looks positive. Anyone expecting a major breakthrough will probably be disappointed. Even some of the hoped-for incremental gains may not come to pass.

But this does not mean the process is dead and buried, or that it is time to give up on the UNFCCC.

In some respects, the different moods of those engaged in the process could be interpreted as part of the ongoing fallout after Copenhagen almost two years ago. The Copenhagen meeting effectively killed any hopes that a strong global treaty could be inked in the short-term.

Many of those involved in Copenhagen have told me they experienced what psychologists describe as the classic stages of mourning when faced with news of one’s own mortality or the imminent loss of a loved one: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and, finally, acceptance.

Perhaps some are still grieving. However, many now accept that a strong global treaty is not feasible, at least in the short term. These pragmatists are already doing what they can to move things forward. Those on the periphery of the process (business, local, national and regional entities, civil society) are pursuing their own course of action. Whether it is Australia, China or California introducing carbon markets or cap-and-trade systems, or local communities and business leaders implementing new sustainability strategies, action is happening at many levels. These groups are hoping the global process will catch up with them eventually. But they are not waiting for this to happen before taking action themselves.

Meanwhile, those at the heart of the negotiations should continue to press for change, too. Even if the time is not yet ripe for a major breakthrough, incremental steps are still possible on a wide range of areas. For instance, Durban could potentially deliver a sign that a new treaty is feasible down the track, or support other actors to move forward on adaptation. Work on a new Climate Technology Centre and Network—an idea that emerged in Cancun—could move forward. With EU backing, a transitional arrangement on the Kyoto Protocol could still be hammered out.

These sorts of actions in Durban would be modest and incremental. They would not be particularly groundbreaking or inspiring. They will certainly not make a dent in the climate crisis. But, they would represent progress of a sort.


It is clear that the UNFCCC is not the sole answer to climate change. That said, it can still be a part of the solution, combined with bottom-up initiatives involving all stakeholders and strong efforts at the local, national and regional levels.

Yes, the UNFCCC is not the panacea. It can be disappointing, frustrating, repetitive and sometimes even maddening. But that does not make it either mad or dead. The UNFCCC still offers the most logical, practical multilateral venue for addressing what is, after all, a global problem. For all its flaws, it still has the potential to contribute to solving the climate challenge.

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