Part 1 of this series about the significance of last month’s Durban climate talks (COP17) can be found here.
TIME magazine’s Person of the Year 2011 was “the protester”, and protesters certainly made their presence felt and their voices heard in Durban. As 350.org put it: “There is a story of hope from Durban—it’s the story of the youth and their allies who refused to remain silent.”
The drama began on Thursday 8 December, when US delegate Todd Stern’s speech was interrupted by SustainUS youth delegate Abigail Borah:
“I am speaking on behalf of the United States of America because my negotiators cannot. The obstructionist Congress has shackled justice and delayed ambition for far too long. I am scared for my future. 2020 is too late to wait! We need an urgent path to a fair, ambitious, and legally binding treaty.”
Though Borah was thrown out by security and banned from the rest of the conference, she was applauded by other delegates. Shortly after, Stern told a press conference it was a “misconception” that the US advocated delaying until 2020, and the US did not oppose the EU’s push for a legally binding agreement. However, his office later clarified that actually the US do oppose a legally binding agreement.
On Friday morning, delegates from the EU, Least Developed Countries (LDCs), and Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS) – together comprising 108 of the 195 nations in UNFCCC – held a joint press conference calling for “an ambitious outcome in Durban”:
“We need firm and clear decisions mapping out next steps that deliver the ambition we need. This includes agreeing an amendment of the Kyoto Protocol for the second commitment period together with a robust mandate and roadmap for a legally binding instrument. Under this instrument, all Parties to the UNFCCC need to commit, respecting the principle of common but differentiated responsibility and respective capabilities. The price of buying time is rising. Durban must deliver.”
“You’ve been negotiating all my life. In that time, you’ve failed to meet pledges, you’ve missed targets, and you’ve broken promises. […] The International Energy Agency tells us we have five years until the window to avoid irreversible climate change closes. The science tells us that we have five years, maximum. You’re saying “give us ten”. The most stark betrayal of your generations’ responsibility to ours is that you call this “ambition”. […] There is real ambition in this room, but it’s being dismissed as radical, deemed not “politically possible”. Long-term thinking is not radical. What’s radical is to completely alter the planet’s climate, to betray the future of my generation, and to condemn millions to death by climate change. […] Mandela said, “it always seems impossible until it’s done”. So, distinguished delegates and governments of the developed world: deep cuts now; get it done!”
That afternoon, the conference was “Occupied” by 400 protesters from diverse backgrounds, including the Maldivian Environment Minister, singing anti-apartheid songs and saying things like “don’t kill Africa” and “listen to the people, not the polluters”. The demonstrations continued for more than an hour. Several petitions, including one signed by 847,542 people, implored the negotiators to keep Kyoto and negotiate an ambitious legally binding agreement by 2015. The leader of Greenpeace, Kumi Naidoo, said before being expelled from the conference:
“The United States delegation is right now organising, line-by-line, the means by which United Nations member states will be eradicated from the map. I ask the proud American people, in whose name this is being done, to take just a moment today to consider what they would do if they learned that a conference of powers was plotting to wipe their great nation off the map, because for low-lying islands that is the future they face.”
The first draft of the overarching decision, “the Durban Platform for Enhanced Action”, was released that afternoon. It called for negotiations to “begin immediately” and finish “as early as possible but no later than 2015” to “develop a legal framework applicable to all under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change after 2020”. It appeared as though all the protests had made a difference: delegate after delegate lined up to reject the draft text as not ambitious (unfortunately Australia was one of the few countries who still supported that text). AOSIS proposed its own text mandating a legally binding protocol to be negotiated within 12 months.
Negotiations, which had been scheduled to conclude on Friday, instead continued through the night and into the early hours of Saturday morning. The resulting draft text called for “a protocol or another legal instrument applicable to all Parties” (stronger than “legal framework” in the first draft) to be negotiated “no later than 2015” (with no mention of an implementation date). Notably a protocol and another legal instrument under the Convention are the same two options as in the 1995 Berlin Mandate which led to the Kyoto Protocol in 1997. This new text also explicitly acknowledged the “gap” between existing pledges and the agreed goal of 2°C. Maldivian delegate Mark Lynas called it “a significant improvement”.
The negotiations dragged on through all of Saturday, with more rumors than news. Delegates began to say things like “we should not let the perfect become the enemy of the good”, a meaningless phrase which politicians use to obscure the important issues. The Chairs of the negotiations (from the US and New Zealand) ignored the objections of many developing countries that the proposed texts were inadequate and unfair.
The Guardian reported that an apparently forged draft text had for some reason been circulated, a text which many parties rejected as unacceptable and was officially denied. The strange thing is many aspects of that “fake” text seem to have crept into the final version, including the bombshell decision that the global agreement be implemented “from 2020” – an improvement on “after 2020”, but still too late.
Finally in the early hours of Sunday morning it all came down to haggling over a few words in the Durban Platform text. India had changed the words “protocol or another legal instrument” to “protocol, another legal instrument, or a legal outcome”. Small island states responded that India’s third option was meaningless and no different to the 2007 Bali Roadmap (which merely called for an “agreed outcome”, leading to the failing pledge-and-review approach advanced in Copenhagen, Cancun, and Durban).
Finally, at 3am Sunday morning, the chair of the conference (from host country South Africa) told the Indian and EU delegates they had ten minutes to reach a compromise. Nearly an hour later, the negotiators agreed to change “legal outcome” to “agreed outcome with legal force”, as suggested by Brazil. The text was adopted at 4am, followed at 5am by other texts to establish a second commitment period of Kyoto, and to administrate the voluntary pledges from Cancun. EU negotiator Connie Hedegaard proclaimed that “the European Union’s strategy worked”. But did it?