The Platform Opens a Window: An Unambiguous Consequence of the Durban Climate Talks

In my previous essay – following the 17th Conference of the Parties (COP-17) of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), which adjourned on December 11, 2011 – I offered my assessment of the Durban climate negotiations, addressing the frequently-posed question of whether the talks had “succeeded.”  I took note of three major outcomes from the negotiations:  (1) elaboration on several components of the Cancun Agreements; (2) a second five-year commitment period for the Kyoto Protocol; and (3) a non-binding agreement to reach an agreement by 2015 that will bring all countries under the same legal regime by 2020.  My conclusion was that this package – in total – represented something of a “half-full glass of water,” that is, an outcome that could be judged successful or not, depending upon one’s perspective.

However, something I did not discuss last month is that this third provision ­– the “Durban Platform for Enhanced Action” – has opened an important window.  To explain what I mean requires a brief review of some key points from twenty years of history of international climate negotiations.

The Rio Earth Summit (1992)

The U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change, adopted at the U.N. Conference on Environment and Development (the first “Earth Summit”) in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, in 1992, contains what was to become a crucial passage.  The first “principle” in Article 3 of the Convention reads as follows:  “The Parties should protect the climate system for the benefit of present and future generations of humankind, on the basis of equity and in accordance with their common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities. Accordingly, the developed country Parties should take the lead in combating climate change and the adverse effects thereof.” [emphasis added]  The countries considered to be “developed country Parties” were listed in an appendix to the 1992 Convention ­– Annex I.

The phrase – common but differentiated responsibilities – has been repeated countless numbers of times since 1992, but what does it really mean?  The official answer was provided three years after the Earth Summit by the first decision adopted by the first Conference of the Parties (COP-1) of the U.N. Framework Convention, in Berlin, Germany, April 7, 1995 ­­– the Berlin Mandate.

The Berlin Mandate (1995)

The Berlin Mandate interpreted the principle of “common but differentiated responsibilities” as:

(1) launching a process to commit (by 1997) the Annex I countries to quantified greenhouse gas emissions reductions within specified time periods (targets and timetables); and

(2) stating unambiguously that the process should “not introduce any new commitments for Parties not included in Annex I.”

Thus, the Berlin Mandate established the dichotomous distinction whereby the Annex I countries are to take on emissions-reductions responsibilities, and the non-Annex I countries are to have no such responsibilities whatsoever.

The Kyoto Protocol (1997)

It was in direct response to this Mandate that the U.S. Senate subsequently passed unanimously (95-0) the Byrd-Hagel Resolution in August of 1997 (Senate Resolution 98, 105th Congress, 1st Session) stating that:

“It is the sense of the Senate that the United States should not be a signatory to any protocol to, or other agreement regarding, the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change of 1992, at negotiations in Kyoto in December 1997, or thereafter, which would mandate new commitments to limit or reduce greenhouse gas emissions for the Annex I Parties, unless the protocol or other agreement also mandates new specific scheduled commitments to limit or reduce greenhouse gas emissions for Developing Country Parties within the same compliance period.”

So, in a very real sense, the Berlin Mandate brought about sustained bi-partisan opposition in the United States to the international climate regime and the Kyoto Protocol.  This sealed the Protocol’s fate in terms of ever being ratified by the U.S. Senate.  President Clinton did not submit the Protocol to the Senate for ratification, nor would Al Gore have done so had he been elected to succeed Clinton.  Likewise, Senator John Kerry was explicit about his opposition to Kyoto when he ran for President against George W. Bush, and President Bush was subsequently more than explicit about his lack of support for the Protocol and, for that matter, the UNFCCC process.  When Barack Obama ran against John McCain for President in 2008, one thing on which they agreed was their opposition to the Kyoto Protocol.

Beyond those decisive impacts on U.S. climate politics, the Berlin Mandate had wide-ranging and worldwide normative consequences, because it became the anchor that prevented and has – until very recently – continued to prevent real progress in international climate negotiations.  With 50 non-Annex I countries having greater per capita income than the poorest of the Annex I countries, the distinction is clearly out of whack.  But, more important than that, this dichotomous distinction means that:

(a) half of global emissions soon will be from nations without constraints;

(b) the world’s largest emitter – China – is unconstrained;

(c) aggregate compliance costs are driven up to be four times their cost-effective level, because many opportunities for low-cost emissions abatement in emerging economies are taken off the table; and

(d) an institutional structure is perpetuated that makes change and progress virtually impossible.

Fast Forward to Copenhagen (2009) and Cancun (2010)

The dichotomous Annex I/non-Annex I distinction remained a central – indeed, the central – feature of international climate negotiations ever since COP-1 in Berlin in 1995.  Then, at COP-15 in 2009, there were hints of possible change.

The Copenhagen Accord (2009) and the Cancun Agreements (2010) began a process of blurring the Annex I/non-Annex I distinction.  However, this blurring was only in the context of the interim pledge-and-review system established at COP-15 in Copenhagen and certified at COP-16 in Cancun, not in the context of an eventual successor to the Kyoto Protocol.  Thus, the Berlin Mandate retained its centrality.

Finally, We Arrive in Durban (2011)

The third of the three outcomes of the December 2011 talks in Durban, South Africa, which I mentioned at the beginning of this essay – the Durban Platform for Enhanced Action – completely eliminates the Annex I/non-Annex I (or industrialized/developing country) distinction.  In the Durban Platform, 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 it’s potentially important.

Rather than adopting the Annex I/non-Annex I (or industrialized/developing country) distinction, the Durban Platform 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,” “distributional equity,” “historical responsibility,” all of which had long since become code words for targets for the richest countries and blank checks for all others.

A Dramatic Departure

Thus, in a dramatic departure from some seventeen years of U.N. hosted international negotiations on climate change, the 17th Conference of the Parties in Durban turned away from the Annex I/non-Annex I distinction, which had been the centerpiece of international climate policy and negotiations since it was adopted at the 1st Conference of the Parties in Berlin in 1995.

Because of this, the international law scholar, Daniel Bodansky, has labeled “the Durban Platform a complete departure from the Berlin Mandate.”  Likewise, Indian professor of international law, Lavanya Rajamani says that Durban delivered a “new process and with it, a clean slate on differentiation.”  And Elliot Diringer of the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions, finds the overall Durban deal to be “delicately poised between two eras – the fading age of Kyoto, and a new phase … with developed and developing countries presumably on a more equal footing.”

This is of vast potential importance, but – of course – only “potential” importance, because just as it was the Kyoto Protocol’s numerical targets and timetables that fulfilled the Berlin Mandate’s promise, it remains for the delegates to the UNFCCC to meet this Durban mandate with a new post-Kyoto agreement by 2015 (to come into force by 2020).  Only time will tell whether the Durban Platform delivers on its promise, or turns out to be another “Bali Roadmap,” leading nowhere.

So, with such uncertainty, what’s the “unambiguous consequence” of Durban that I refer to in the title of this essay?

An Unambiguous Outcome:  The Platform Opens a Window

The Durban Platform – by replacing the Berlin Mandate – has opened an important window.  It is this.  The national delegations from around the world now have a challenging task before them:  to identify a new international climate policy architecture that is consistent with the process, pathway, and principles laid out in the Durban Platform, namely to find a way to include all key countries (such as the 20 largest national and regional economies that together account for upwards of 80% of global carbon dioxide emissions) in a structure that brings about meaningful emissions reductions on an appropriate timetable at acceptable cost.

Having broken the old mold, a new one must be forged.  There is a mandate for change.  Governments around the world now need fresh, outside-of-the-box ideas from the best thinkers, and they need those ideas over the next few years.  This is a time for new proposals for future international climate policy architecture, not for incremental adjustments to the old pathway.  I trust that this call will be heard by a diverse set of universities, think tanks, and – for that matter – advocacy and interest groups around the world.  With 48 research initiatives in Australia, China, Europe, India, Japan, and the United States, the Harvard Project on Climate Agreements is prepared to contribute to this effort.  Please stay tuned.


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 “The Platform Opens a Window: An Unambiguous Consequence of the Durban Climate Talks”

  1. Does it make sense to blame all the trouble with achieving a climate agreement on this ‘dichotomy’ between the richer highly polluting countries, and countries that in 1992 were still not so rich, and less polluting? Some countries had to take the lead, and wasn’t it just reasonable that it would be those that had the longest history of pollution and corresponding development?

    It was always clear that all of the world would eventually have to follow those countries that would have to start moving on their energy transition. It is a tragedy that the US congress of the 90’s never wanted to join the leadership. The Kyoto protocol was an attempt to collect countries around the core European effort, and it ultimately failed, mainly because the biggest polluter, the USA, didn’t have the courage to join. Rather than helping steer it in a direction that had a chance, the US sabotaged it by pretending it isn’t fair to demand that the world leading countries take the lead.

    Still, the USA is behind. But by now Europe has move far enough to surprisingly entice China, that is struggling with its own pollution. It is 20 years later, and we are still trying to collect all carbon polluters to do something about this problem.

  2. Rob: Happy New Year.
    You and I see the Durbin meeting the same way. In just two meetings, far faster than I expected, the world made the transition from a two-tier framing to a single tier, where everyone is in the same boat. I particularly like the way you are emphasizing the window of opportunity that has been opened.
    One casualty of the era of “common but differentiated responsibilities” (CDR), whose end is in sight, has been the absence of serious, detailed work on what I call “low-carbon industrialization.” The integrated assessment modelers have never given priority, as far as I know, to detailed studies of specific major developing economies, asking about institutions, policies, major incumbent industries, critically placed individuals… Poverty alleviation and wealth creation have been muddled up. If there is a book or major report called “Low-carbon industrialization: alternative realizations for India” [or Brazil, Mexico, China, Saudi Arabia, Russia, …], I don’t know it. Perhaps some of the readers of your blog can call our attention to such work. Perhaps there are already the beginnings of a new scholarly community focusing on nation-level low-carbon industrialization; for sure, it needs to be heavily populated by analysts based in the developing world.
    What the analytical community has considered sufficient thus far is a broad brush, where required aggregate levels of investment are computed and sector changes are lightly quantified (X gigawatts of concentrating solar power in Latin America, Y electric vehicles in China). I have been baffled by this benign neglect on the part of nearly all analysts. I can only explain it as a consequence of CDR. I have described CDR as a post-colonial construct, expressing the guilt felt in Europe by the descendants of the colonizers and the entitlement felt in the developing world by the descendants of the colonized. I have been calling for “post-post-colonial” institutions. At last, their time may have arrived.
    For grist, take a look at Blue Map Scenario, contained in the IEA report, Energy Technology Perspectives 2010 (ETP 2010), which, it seems, is the most detailed work-up of a two-degrees scenario to 2050 (global emissions fall by half in 2050). See When the minor matter of emissions from non-Annex 1 countries is introduced, there is an amazing sentence (p. 8): “All of the scenarios used in ETP 2010 confirm a somewhat startling fact: nearly all of the future growth in energy demand and in emissions comes from non-OECD countries.” I find “somewhat startling” somewhat startling!
    In short, the window that you identify should be a time for treating seriously the complexities of low-carbon industrialization and the underlying trade-offs. An outcome that I would welcome would be a refocusing on goals less extreme than “two degrees,” goals that require prompt action but are respectful of other objectives.
    For more on my own views, the reader can consult two papers. One is the 2009 PNAS paper, Chakravarty et al., that I co-authored: “One billion high emitters.” (See We suggest there that CDR is about individuals, rather than nations. If people have the same lifestyles, they should have similar commitments and obligations. I learned after we wrote it that its underlying principle is an example of “cosmopolitan ethics,” where individuals matter first and their national identities second.
    The second is a paper I published electronically last September, “Wedges reaffirmed,” which identifies what I consider major shortcomings in how climate change has been communicated to the American public by the environmental leadership. (See I released the paper simultaneously on the websites of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientist ( and Climate Central ( I obtained comments from ten prominent people ahead of time: Nick Stern, Bob May, Phil Sharp, David Hawkins, Freeman Dyson, Ralph Cicerone, Carter Bales, Rush Holt, Bob Fri, and Chris Field. The article and the responses remain in accessible and user-friendly form on the Bulletin site at the top of the Climate tab. The combination of article and responses is a tidy introduction to the problematique of climate change, suitable as course material.
    Robert Socolow
    January 3, 2012

  3. The question is… will these “technical” proposals be adopted without a massive popular demand? What are the incentives for our governments and representatives?
    I am personally working on this direction.

  4. I think the Durban Platform calls for seeking a new definition of ” Common but diffrentiated reponsibilities”. By no mean, the US and for example Lebanon would be equally treated in any future climate regime.

  5. Dear Professor
    First of all , my best wishes for 2012.
    I read with great attention your very interested and documented post on the Durban Platform.
    I would like to express my personal view on this challenging topic.
    You are perfectly right that the Durban platform has a potential for creating a new framework that would replace the so-called Berlin mandate and tackle the major emissions of greenhouse gases of the 21 st century.
    This will require from my standpoint two cumulative conditions
    1) Avoid the temptation for emerging economies to come back to the old Kyoto template. Some statements made by countries like India after Durban on the continuing validity of common but differentiated responsibilities are a concern. The Chinese position is still a big question mark in that respect
    2) As importantly, this will require from the side of Annex 1 Countries and the US to engage actively in the dynamic of the new climate change negotiation, with the good gives and takes. Europe is certainly prepared to do so but I am more doubtful about others. The US position is still a big question mark in that respect
    Incidentally, I note that, when including aviation into its emissions trading scheme, Europe did get rid of the Berlin mandate: the EU introduced a “de minimis” rule for the smallest CO2 emitters . Unfortunately, for other reasons, the US spent and still spends a lot of energy to get along with countries like China and India in a try of forcing the EU to step back on this issue.
    With my best regards

    Thierry Buttin

Leave a Reply