Assessing the Climate Talks — Did Durban Succeed?

The 17th Conference of the Parties (COP-17) of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) adjourned on Sunday, a day and a half after its scheduled close, and in the process once again pulled a rabbit out of the hat by saving the talks from complete collapse (which appeared possible just a few days earlier).  But was this a success?

The Durban Outcome in a Nutshell

The outcome of COP-17 includes three major elements:  some potentially important elaborations on various components of the Cancun Agreements; a second five-year commitment period for the Kyoto Protocol; and (read this carefully) a non-binding agreement to reach an agreement by 2015 that will bring all countries under the same legal regime by 2020.

Is This a Success?

If by “success” in Durban, one means solving the climate problem, the answer is obviously “not close.”

Indeed, if by “success” one meant just putting the world on a path to solve the climate problem, the answer would still have to be “no.”

But, I’ve argued previously – including in my pre-Durban essay last month – that such definitions of success are fundamentally inappropriate for judging the international negotiations on the exceptionally challenging, long-term problem of global climate change.

The key question, at this point, is whether the Durban outcome has put the world in a place and on a trajectory whereby it is more likely than it was previously to establish a sound foundation for meaningful long-term action.

I don’t think the answer to that question is at all obvious, but having read carefully the agreements that were reached in Durban, and having reflected on their collective implications for meaningful long-term action, I am inclined to focus on “the half-full glass of water.”  My conclusion is that the talks – as a result of last-minute negotiations – advanced international discussions in a positive direction and have increased the likelihood of meaningful long-term action.  Why do I say this?

The Significance of Durban

Let’s look at the three major elements of the Durban outcome.

     1.  Putting More Flesh on the Bones of the Cancun Agreements

First, the delegates agreed to a set of potentially important details on various components of the Cancun Agreements.  This progress may turn out to be very important indeed, and helps advance – at least for the interim – a workable bottom-up, pledge-and-review approach to international climate cooperation.  The progress on this front includes work done on the Green Climate Fund to help mobilize public and private funding of climate change mitigation and adaptation in developing countries; more specifics on technology transfer mechanisms; mechanisms to enhance the transparency of national commitments under the Cancun Agreements; and an international scheme to reduce deforestation, which – importantly – includes market mechanisms.

     2.  A Second Commitment Period for the Kyoto Protocol

Second, the delegates agreed to a second five-year commitment period for the Kyoto Protocol.  Without this element, the talks would have collapsed, because the key emerging economies of China, India, Brazil, South Africa, Korea, and Mexico (not to mention the much larger number of truly poor, developing countries) would have walked out.  Would this have been so bad?

I have long argued that the Kyoto Protocol – with its structure of relatively ambitious targets for a small set of industrialized countries (the Annex I countries) and no targets whatsoever for the much larger set of other nations in the world (the non-Annex I countries) – is fundamentally flawed as a basis for addressing the climate change problem in a meaningful way, that is, in a way that can eventually limit global temperature increases to no more than 2 or 3 degrees Centigrade above pre-industrial levels.  In the past, some observers have gone so far as to argue that such a collapse of the talks would be necessary to free the world to consider alternative and ultimately more productive routes going forward.  Eventually, that may turn out to be true, but extending the Kyoto Protocol at this time for another period does little mischief.

The major effect – in addition to keeping the emerging economies (and developing countries) from walking out of the room – was to place the European Union in a position of accepting a target (for a second five-year period) that is no more stringent than what it has already committed to do under the European Union Emission Trading Scheme (EU ETS).  The United States is not a party to the Kyoto Protocol, and Canada, Japan, and Russia have indicated that they will not take up targets in a second commitment period.  Europe (and New Zealand, and possibly Australia) will be doing what they would have done anyway.  In exchange for this, the major emerging economies agreed to the third key element.

     3.  The Durban Platform for Enhanced Action

Third and finally, the delegates reached a non-binding agreement to reach an agreement by 2015 that will bring all countries under the same legal regime by 2020.  That’s a strange and confusing sentence, but it’s what happened, and – in my opinion – it’s potentially important, although it’s much too soon to say for sure.

The anchor that has been preventing real progress in the international climate negotiations for the past fifteen years has been the Kyoto Protocol’s dichotomous distinction between Annex I and non-Annex I countries.  With 50 non-Annex I countries now having greater per capita income than the poorest of the Annex I countries, it is clearly out of whack.  But, much more than that, this dichotomous distinction means that the world’s largest emitter – China – is unconstrained, that half of global emissions soon will be from nations without constraints, it drives up costs to four times their cost-effective level, and it creates a structure that makes change and progress virtually impossible.

Fortunately, the Copenhagen Accord and the Cancun Agreements began the process of blurring the Annex I/non-Annex I distinction, which was an important accomplishment, although it was only in the context of the interim pledge-and-review system, not in the context of an eventual successor to Kyoto.  Now, the COP-17 decision for “Enhanced Action” completely eliminates the Annex I/non-Annex I (or industrialized/developing country) distinction.  It focuses instead on the (admittedly non-binding) pledge to create a system of greenhouse gas reductions including all Parties (that is, all key countries) by 2015 that will come into force (after ratification) by 2020.  Nowhere in the text of the decision will one find phrases such as “Annex I,” “common but differentiated responsibilities,” or “distributional equity,” which have – in recent years – become code words for targets for the richest countries and a blank check for all others.

We should not over-estimate the importance of a “non-binding agreement to reach a future agreement,” but this is a real departure from the past, and marks a significant advance along the treacherous, uphill path of climate negotiations.

The Path Ahead

In my previous essay at this blog, I expressed the fear that contentious debates over a possible second commitment period for the Kyoto Protocol might disrupt the Durban talks, divert them from making sound progress on the Cancun structure, and keep the delegates from moving toward a sound foundation for meaningful long-term action.  I worried, in essence, that Durban – despite the weather – might resemble Copenhagen more than Cancun.

My conclusion is that this did not happen.  Not only did Durban not undo the progress made in Cancun, it built upon it, and moved forward.  This won’t satisfy the crowd, and it must greatly annoy the opponents of sensible climate policy, but in the real world of international negotiations on this exceptionally difficult global commons problem, this is what success looks like.


For an interesting and helpful assessment of “The Legal Aspects of the Durban Platform Text,” I recommend an insightful Q&A by Jacob Werksman of the World Resources Institute.


Author: Robert Stavins

Robert N. Stavins is the A.J. Meyer Professor of Energy & Economic Development, John F. Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University, Director of the Harvard Environmental Economics Program, Director of Graduate Studies for the Doctoral Program in Public Policy and the Doctoral Program in Political Economy and Government, Co-Chair of the Harvard Business School-Kennedy School Joint Degree Programs, and Director of the Harvard Project on Climate Agreements.

5 thoughts on “Assessing the Climate Talks — Did Durban Succeed?”

  1. Dear Prof. Stavins,

    The source of your optimism for the current multilateral framework to achieve meaningful agreements to stabilize the earth’s climate at a 2 degree Centigrade rise eludes me.

    The question I have is whether or not there are unilateral actions that could be taken by one or more countries that might break the various logjams in international negotiations. For example, is there a compelling reason why individual or blocs of countries haven’t used tariffs to induce others to cooperate?

    Is a flexible carbon tax/tariff imposed on foreign goods strictly illegal under WTO rules. Flexible, as in the tariffs would depend upon the types of goods and the country of origin, given the best, public estimates of carbon intensity. It isn’t obvious to me why such action would necessarily be considered discriminatory.

    And even if the WTO would eventually and surely pooh-pooh such an approach, such unilateral action or perhaps merely the threat of it could have some positive effect in solving the impasse, as my impression is that sorting out any such trade disputes would take years to resolve.

    The EU is an entity that comes to mind which would stand to benefit directly by carbon tariffs given the generally higher domestic energy taxes of member countries. Why haven’t they pursued this approach, or have they?

    Best Regards,

    Steve Schran

  2. Steve,

    There are two questions here, one dealing with what you characterize as my “optimism” that the evolving framework will achieve 2 degrees Centigrade climate stabilization. The short answer is that I don’t agree with your premise. I’m NOT optimistic about that target being achieved. Take a careful look at what I’ve written above. My claim is simply that the outcome of Durban “has advanced international discussions in a positive direction and has thereby increased the likelihood of meaningful long-term action.” The immediate outcome will please neither proponents of aggressive climate policy nor opponents of climate policy, but it is “what success looks like” right now in the real world of the global politics of climate change.

    Your second question is about whether border adjustments could be used by willing nations to break the existing logjam in international negotiations. I could write many pages about this (and others have written articles and books), but because of time constraints, I apologize for the brief response that follows.

    First, it’s true that the only credible threat that could be employed in an international climate agreement to ensure compliance would probably be trade sanctions, although the threat of significant compliance penalties can simply cause participants to drop out (as Canada confirmed yesterday, in order to avoid penalties on the order of billions of dollars). And, in any event, it can well be that the cure is worse for global welfare than the illness, if a trade war were fostered.

    Second, your question is really about incentives for participation, not compliance, and here it is valid that a significant group of countries — at a minimum Europe, the United States, and several of the key emerging economies together — could conceivably put in place strong incentives for other countries to participate through imposition of carbon border adjustments. This was the argument for the import-allowance-requirement that was part of the Waxman-Markey cap-and-trade system that passed the U.S. House of Representatives in 2009; it was also the argument behind the EU carbon border tax promoted several years ago by President Sarkozy and then quickly withdrawn at the behest of Brussels.

    Whether such mechanisms – if put in place by the U.S. and Europe alone — would induce China to participate is doubtful. Take as an example, one of the key targets of such carbon border adjustments – cement production (remember that the electricity and transportation sectors do not feature tradable goods and services). China is the world’s largest producer of cement. China is also the world’s largest exporter of cement. Sounds like our border adjustment might be effective, right? But China consumes 97% of its cement production, and the remaining 3% largely goes to developing countries. So, would China be willing to increase its costs of production for 97% of its production for domestic consumption to protect less than 3% of its overall market?

    As for whether border adjustments of this kind would be compliant with the WTO, there have been many papers written both by international law scholars and by economists. To summarize very briefly, the literature suggests that such border adjustments would be WTO-compliant if and only if they were put in place as part of complying with an international agreement (such as the Kyoto Protocol). That doesn’t mean there wouldn’t be lots of screaming (and threats of retaliation), but apparently these could pass muster with the WTO.

    I hope this is helpful.

    Best wishes,


  3. Dear Prof. Stavins,

    I thank you for your thoughtful reply, though I wish you had been able to express some optimism for the possibility of catastrophe being averted.

    Given this dire state of affairs, I don’t quite comprehend your implicit dismissal of unilateral action, “border adjustments” in the instance. As to their potential effectiveness – the debatable macroeconomic point(s) aside – it seems to me that providing a “concrete” example isn’t necessarily the best way to approach the matter. The relevance of such tariffs would be less the total revenue collected from this or that source and more how they might impact on the margin the domestic politics of the countries in question.

    Do we know that such a notional policy could not alter the Chinese calculation? What if, as a gesture, collected revenues were offered back as grants in support of transitioning away from the dirtiest coal plants, say? Given the sclerotic status quo and nature’s deadline, what is lost by trying?

    Sad days.


    Steve Schran

  4. A Very Real Disagreement

    Although I appreciate your analysis, Robert, I disagree with its central conclusion very substantially. Really!

    Here’s why:

    The climate is a real thing, and the only thing the climate “cares” about, so to speak, or at least the main thing in relation to climate change, are our emissions. Real climate, and real emissions.

    The consequences (to humans, other species, and etc.) of changes in the climate are also real and will be real.

    So we have three real things: the climate (and the underlying principles of nature); our actual emissions; and the consequences on humans, other species, and etc.

    In such situations, it’s simply incorrect to say that “… such definitions of success [i.e., definitions of success that are relative to some absolute real standard, rather than relative to our own expectations of ourselves or what might have happened] are fundamentally inappropriate for judging…”, as your post does.

    What physical scientist (who has in mind the reality of the relationship between emissions and climate, even if not precisely) or medical doctor (who has in mind human life and health) or expert on biodiversity (who has in mind the existence and health of other species) has said, or can credibly say, anything that tells us that it’s fine and dandy to measure progress relative to our own expectations of ourselves or to whatever definition of progress, or the speed of progress, we might assert to be “appropriate”? None.

    So what is the problem with self-applied grade inflation? What is the problem if we actually see the glass of progress as being half full, whatever that means?

    The answer is that they lull us into being somewhat satisfied with the present pathways of making progress. They prevent us from being as dissatisfied as we really ought to be — and I mean that quite literally. They cause us to NOT see the situation as clearly as we ought to. They are enabling factors that keep us on that slow-boil trajectory that you hear about (although I hear conflicting stories about whether frogs actually do this, but humans apparently do) when frogs are put in warm water and slowly boiled, becoming acclimated to small changes and never getting to the point of saying “enough!”, and taking action.

    Consider: One of the oft-repeated central questions, and real concerns, is this: “Will humans be wise enough and able to take responsible action to address climate change, before it gets ‘real bad’, without having to experience ever-larger catastrophes to wake them up and force them into action?” Well, assessments such as yours are not a small part of the reason why the answer to that question may well be ‘No’, unfortunately. In other words, measuring our “progress” relative to the expectations we think are reasonable to have of ourselves, rather than relative to the realities of the situation (emissions, climate, consequences), lulls us into the boiling-frog syndrome: doing so results in a situation wherein increasing catastrophes are necessary to wake us up and force us to face reality. Indeed, in such a situation as this, the very point of wisdom — to see the problems we’re causing ahead of time, and to address them well before we experience increasingly harmful consequences — is undermined and defeated by assessments that are based, relatively, on expectations we might have of ourselves, rather than on the realities of the situation.

    The point I’m making here should be obvious once it’s understood.

    The proofs of the problem are many. One of them is the way that academia is acting — and not acting. Here we have you, a great thinker from Harvard, doing an in-depth analysis, using an inappropriate “relative to ourselves” measure of assessment, calling assessments that would use any absolute scale (including the ticking clock) inappropriate, and seeing the glass as half full — when folks at Harvard should be screaming from the rooftops by now, and should have been doing so ten years ago. Consider: President Obama is from Harvard, and Mitt Romney is from Harvard. Rather than helping the public to understand that Durban was not all that bad, and that the glass is half full, folks from Harvard should be doing massive sit-ins around the White House and Romney’s home — joined also by folks from U.C. Berkeley, Stanford, MIT, and so forth — to insist on REAL action according to a REAL time-line that will result in nothing less than REAL, responsible, and effective solutions. Folks from Harvard should be taking out full-page ads by now to express deep dissatisfaction, and indeed disgust (at this point), with the inaction and delays on the U.S.’s part and with the repeated failures (relative to any real standard and real time-line) of the recent COP gatherings. This much should be crystal clear. But instead, we get assessments that are “relative to” assessments, and those assessments detract from, or delay, the development of the feelings of urgency and ideas that will ultimately be necessary to prompt truly timely and effective action.

    In short, assessments like this are not “appropriate” — in the sense that they do not fit the real nature of the situation — and they ultimately help serve to keep us on a slow-boil path, postponing the sort of “face the facts” moments that will, or should, bring about appropriate action.

    That said, I do appreciate the analysis — thanks for it — and I do admire Harvard — went there myself — but I don’t agree with the assessment, and I think that we need to start measuring progress against REAL measures that really matter. The sooner we realize this, the better.



    Jeff Huggins

    U.C. Berkeley, chemical engineering, class of 1981

    Harvard Business School, class of 1986, Baker Scholar

    McKinsey & Company, 1986-1990

    Concerned parent and citizen

  5. Dear Prof. Stavins,
    Thanks for your analysis of happenings in Durban.
    With all due respect, I think both Steve and Jeff have excellent points.
    Why don’t you suggest a move that would preserve a livable climate for humans?
    We need a frank assessment, and a solution, more than a silver lining.
    We’re so close to tipping points, we need all hands…
    Very truly yours,
    R. Shamel

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