The United Nations climate negotiations of 2011, which have been taking place in Durban, South Africa for the past couple of weeks, ended this morning after running far into extra time, with what Politico calls “a deal for more deal-making”.  Whether you think it’s a success or not depends on whether you’re comparing the agreement to where we were before Durban, or to where we need to go.  This result is more than many people had been expecting: professors at the lectures and discussions on climate change at Yale over the past few months did not want to get anyone’s hopes up.  One described the UN process as going in a cycle: one good year (Bali 2007), one bad year (Copenhagen 2009), one good year (Cancun 2010).  By this logic, Durban should have been a bad year, dealing with the tricky issues that got shunted across from Cancun – most notably, what to do about the Kyoto Protocol, the first commitment period of which is due to expire at the end of 2012 (note: the KP itself is not due to expire, just the first set of emissions reduction targets).  And in the end, Durban wasn’t the crushing failure that Copenhagen turned out to be. But neither was it the sparkling success that people had hoped that Copenhagen could have been.

The Durban Platform sets out a “roadmap” to creating a new global deal on climate change, which would involve commitments from all countries.  If you’re an international lawyer, this looks like a pretty radical step.  The key bit in the text is where it says they’ve decided “to launch a process to develop a protocol, another legal instrument or an agreed outcome with legal force under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change applicable to all Parties”.  Legal force.  All Parties.  The US, China, India – everyone.  If this actually happens – and it’s by no means set in stone yet, because they’ve got until 2015 to agree on the actual deal – it will represent a decisive shift in the dynamics of global climate politics.  Since climate negotiations began in the early 1990s, the world’s nations have been grouped (in the typically obscure language of the UN) into “Annex 1” and “non-Annex 1”.  Annex 1 are those that were classed as industrialised or economies in transition, back in 1992, and these are the ones that have emissions reduction targets under Kyoto – if they signed up to Kyoto, that is – so not the USA.  Non-Annex 1 is everyone else.  The Annex 1 / non-Annex 1 divide has grown more and more contentious as countries classed as “developing” in 1992 have grown into some of the world’s most powerful economies – China’s the obvious one, but also India and Brazil, and others have grown significantly too, like Mexico.  The Guardian’s interactive map is a great illustration of the different ways of thinking about “who’s to blame”.

So what the Durban Platform does, in committing to adopt an agreement “with legal force” that applies to ALL countries, is overcome the Annex 1 / non-Annex 1 divide.  This is no mean feat, given the squabbles between the US on one side, and China and India on the other (delightfully depicted in this video from the UK Youth Climate Coalition, of the Cancun talks last year: “you sign first, USA” – “no China, you sign first” – “noooo, you sign first!”).  It’s been a victory for the EU, which came up with the roadmap idea and worked with the Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS) and less developed countries to push it throughout the negotiations.

Some other important developments are worth mentioning.  The Kyoto Protocol will continue for a second commitment period, meaning the countries that have emissions reduction targets (not the USA, because it didn’t agree to it, and not the non-Annex 1 countries) will see their targets extended for another 5 years, until 2017.  Progress was made on the design of a Green Climate Fund to help less wealthy countries adapt to climate change and develop greener economies: the Fund will have staff and an office, but the crucial detail – where the money will come from – is yet to be decided.  D’oh.  There’s this thing called the “global recession” and also “sovereign debt crises” which mean that none of the rich countries seem to have that much cash any more.  Or, more accurately, not much cash they’re happy to give away, amidst austerity drives and IMF bailouts.  The sensible thing to do would be to establish a tiny tax on financial transactions that would generate billions of dollars a year, known as a Robin Hood Tax.  The idea has been endorsed by President Sarkozy of France, Nobel Prize winners Joseph Stiglitz and Paul Krugman, and even the Pope.  But the UK government is not keen, and neither is the US.

So, some progress, but it’s not fast enough.  Unfortunately, you can’t cut deals with an ecosystem.  The physical, chemical and biological processes at work on Earth – in and between the atmosphere, oceans, plants, rocks, ice – do not respond to political manoeuvring and fancy ways of wording the texts of international agreements.  Climate change will respond to cutting greenhouse gas emissions, and not much else.  But, in an effort to be optimistic, Kyoto isn’t the only game in town.  It’s the only global game, so we’ll have to continue to work at it and puuuush global leaders to get their act together.  But while that’s happening, there is a plethora of national and sub-national initiatives plugging away at the problem.  In the UK, we’ve got climate legislation that commits us to cutting our emission by 80% by 2050.  Other countries, like Costa Rica and Norway, have pledged to go carbon neutral.  Even the bad boys of the global negotiations, China and US, are quietly making some progress.  China’s  12th Five-Year Plan puts climate targets into law.  The US is beginning to regulate greenhouse gas emissions under its Clean Air Act.

Let’s keep at it.  As David Attenborough points out, it is a Wonderful World, and it continues to inspire me to try and conserve its wondrousness.