Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Post-Durban Wrap-Up

Now that the Durban climate conference has ended, it is appropriate to take a look at what its outcome means for geoengineering policy and research. Before the start of COP17, I listed four agenda items that would be particularly relevant to geoengineering (see What to Look for in Durban, 11/16). Below I assess these in light of the conference results:

1. The future of Kyoto - At the core of the final "Durban Platform" was an agreement to extend the Kyoto Protocol beyond 2012 into a second commitment period. However, most details of this second commitment period were left for future negotiations to resolve. Remaining Kyoto parties agreed in principle to reduce their emissions by at least 25 to 40 percent below 1990 levels by 2020, but hard targets were not specified. A "pledge and translate" process next year will attempt to quantify actual emission reduction commitments. Parties failed to agree on whether the new commitment period will end in 2017 or in 2020. The only major emitter bound by this extension is the EU, and it is unclear whether the bloc's previous internal target of a 20 percent reduction below 1990 levels by 2020 is affected at all by this new agreement. In other words, the substance of the agreement remains undefined, and its practical impact is far from clear. As if to underline the fragility of the Protocol, yesterday Canada announced its intention to withdraw from Kyoto, the first country to do so. In addition to all this, the inclusive post-2020 treaty negotiation process Europe extracted in return for its Kyoto lifeline is vague and the legal status of any outcome is already contested. Although Kyoto survives, the Durban Platform hardy signals a shift in the direction of strengthened emissions mitigation.

2. Geoengineering on the fringes - Geoengineering as an explicit topic did not figure prominently at COP17, either formally or informally. The main discussion on climate engineering took place at a dedicated side event, where two documents were released: an SRMGI status report (containing no recommendations), and a short UNESCO-SCOPE-UNEP policy brief. None of this activity seemed to have any significant effect on the broader conference proceedings.

3. Market mechanisms - By extending the Kyoto Protocol, parties also preserved its market mechanisms, CDM and JI. Importantly, parties agreed to integrate CCS projects into the CDM, which gives this key CDR component technology a foothold in the carbon offset market and may eventually help qualify other carbon removal techniques for carbon credits. In general, Durban maintained key elements of the global carbon market that may one day play a substantial role in promoting large-scale carbon dioxide removal.

4. REDD+ - Little was achieved with regard to REDD+ at Durban. The central issue remains financing--how much? from whom? public or private? under what oversight? While REDD+ will probably end up incorporated into carbon markets, some civil society groups vigorously oppose this on ideological grounds. Parties agreed to continue work on REDD+ financing in the new year.

Overall, COP17 and its resulting Durban Platform underscored the weakness of global mitigation efforts. The Kyoto Protocol will live on after 2012, but it is unlikely to lead to significant emissions abatement, and prospects for its 2020 successor agreement are questionable at best. As IISD notes, "those who look first to science to measure success were the least enthusiastic about the Durban Platform, for they know that--once again--the endemic incrementalism that has haunted climate negotiations since 1992 continues to force compromise on sufficient commitments on mitigation." Our collective options continue to narrow, and climate engineering looks increasingly unavoidable.

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