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Deal reached in Durban

Hailed as a ‘breakthrough’ the new agreement fails to deliver a real solution to climate change

By Alanna Mitchell

Finally, after all these agonizing days and two all-nighters for the negotiators, we have a deal in Durban, reached at 5:10 a.m. today, nearly 36 hours after the talks were to have ended.

Called the Durban Platform, it’s being hailed as a “breakthrough” to a new era of halting global climate disturbance.

Connie Hedegaard, the European Union’s Commissioner for Climate Action, who brokered the central plank of the deal by enlisting the help of the small island states and the very poorest countries, put it this way in an early morning tweet: “We made it. EU’s strategy worked. We got a roadmap that marks a breakthrough for international fight against climate change. Good night.”

Is it really a breakthrough? Opinions are sharply divided. The best thing about it is that the world’s only legally binding system for cutting carbon emissions hasn’t totally collapsed. Many coming into this critical round of talks in South Africa feared that the Kyoto Protocol would die here.

And for a while, it seemed as though that would happen. The first Kyoto period ends on Dec. 31, 2012, and if countries had not agreed to a second period, the Protocol would have perished, along with all the mechanisms contained within it for counting carbon, reporting it and funnelling money to poor countries to make greener energy.

So the Kyoto Protocol lives on for another five years at least. While details were not clear, it seems the Protocol now contains mainly European countries and covers less than 15 percent of global emissions.

It does not include Japan, Russia or Canada. The United States, which did refused to ratify the first Kyoto Protocol, is also not part of the extended agreement, despite being responsible for about 27 percent of the extra carbon now in the atmosphere.

The other breakthrough is that the nearly 200 countries in the talks agreed to start negotiating a new deal that would for the first time require everyone to reduce emissions by 2020. This has been the central sticking point.

Nations such as China, India and Brazil, whose economies and emissions are growing mightily, have resisted binding targets, saying that the responsibility for cutting emissions must fall first to the countries that benefited from burning all those fossils fuels in the first place: the United States, Canada and Europe, for a start.

Europe embraces that position, but both Canada and the United States reject it.

Under the Durban Platform, this principle of “common but differentiated responsibility” holds, but all nations will begin negotiating next year to reach a deal by 2015 that has “legal force,” requiring cuts from all. It’s to kick in by 2020.

As well, the architecture for a new Green Climate Fund seems to have been built. By 2020, this fund is to administer $100 billion a year to poorer countries most affected by climate disturbances. It’s not clear where the money will come from or exactly how it will be administered. The United States and Canada have said that much of the money must come from the private sector, while many other nations say it needs to come from governments.

What’s not in the Durban Platform is a guarantee of the involvement in any future deal of the United States, still by some measures the most carbon-fat nation in the world. The U.S. Congress has been the focus of agonized criticism here for its refusal to understand the risks of a high-carbon world and take steps to bring its carbon use down.

More crucially, the Durban Platform lacks a real solution: a plan to bring emissions down far enough to keep average temperature rise to 2 C, which is what the world leaders say they want to do to avoid catastrophic climate disturbance. Instead, it’s a rather vague pledge to do something later to bring emissions down by an uncertain amount.

Without a new plan to cap temperatures right away, the world is still on the road to more than 3 C warming by the end of 2100, according to climate scientists with Climate Action Tracker based at the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research in Germany.

And that means we’re closer than ever to several tipping points that we might otherwise avoid if we kept warming to 2 C: the global death of corals reefs, the melting of the Greenland ice sheets, the perishing of the Amazon rainforest and the release of high-carbon methane from melting permafrost and warming ocean shelves.

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