Important Progress at Global Warming Negotiations in Durban; Major Work Ahead


As Nelson Mandela famously said*: “It always seems impossible, until we are done.” 

That is exactly how it seemed at the United Nations COP-17 climate negotiations over the past two weeks  – extremely difficult (and even impossible at times). The negotiations lastest more than than 36 hours after  they were supposed to end.  They culminated in some extremely passionate statements from the floor and a quick “open air” negotiation among the major players to try to address one last minute disagreement. Eventually they ended in agreement in the dim light of Sunday morning. 

The agreements reached in South Africa make important progress, but much more work lies ahead to address global warming.

Here is a quick overview of what was agreed and what it means:


Developing countries were pushing the European Union to undertake further commitments under the Kyoto Protocol for the period after 2012.  The E.U. was very clear from the outset, and held firm the whole time, in saying that they would only undertake such commitments under the Kyoto Protocol if they secured a “roadmap” in Durban to negotiate a new legal agreement that covers all countries.  The most vulnerable countries – the small island states, least developed countries, and countries in Africa – Brazil, and U.S. also joined in the push during the two weeks.  This was an important dynamic, as no country wants to stand against the most impacted countries, especially when the meeting was being held in Africa which is extremely vulnerable to the impacts of global warming.  So this dynamic was a crucial new development that helped get agreement in South Africa.    

The Durban agreements launched a “process to develop a protocol, another legal instrument, or outcome with legal force under the Convention applicable to all Parties”.  This process is supposed to be completed as early as possible but no later than 2015.  This means that countries will now be working towards an agreement that, at a minimum, has “legal force” for the actions by all countries.  This outcome brings large countries like China and India into the room to negotiate meaningful commitments to address the urgent need to cut global emissions.  This is important progress.

We still have a ways to go as the final details of the legal agreement weren’t reached in Durban.  It is clear that if all major emitting countries don’t commit to actions with “legal force” then it will be rejected by Europe, the U.S., and the most vulnerable countries.  Whether all the major emitters and most vulnerable countries can rally around an agreement is uncertain, but now we are on a road towards that aim before it is too late.  


Countries followed through on their agreements from last year by setting out the detailed guidelines and institutions to put these frameworks into operation on-the-ground. [More on each of these in subsequent posts.] 

Increased Transparency and Accountability.  Countries agreed to detailed guidelines for biennial reporting of their global warming pollution and their actions to combat global warming.  They also agreed to have those reports subject to expert review and a formal “consultation” amongst all countries.  This will mean greater transparency and accountability which is essential for ensuring that all countries are living up to their commitments.

Launched the Green Climate Fund.  The agreements also helped establish the new Green Climate Fund as one of the means to mobilize investments in developing countries to help deploy low carbon energy, support reductions in deforestation, and assist the most vulnerable countries in increasing their resilience to the impacts of global warming.

Helping spur technology deployment and adaptation action.  Countries helped launch a new “technology center and network” which will ensure that developing countries can effectively tap into the growing opportunities to deploy low carbon energy.  And countries supported a more focused effort to help countries improve their resilience to the impacts of global warming.


Countries now must follow through on the commitments they made in Durban. They must act at home, while also continuously working toward even more detailed international agreements in the near future.    

Even more needs to be done in the coming years as recent studies have shown that we are right now building the power plants, factories, buildings, and cars which could very well determine how much we “lock-in” dangerous global warming.

The steps taken by the 194 countries meeting in South Africa won’t address the global warming by themselves.  They create hope for the future, but only if countries, companies, and citizens follow through.


* This was the logo on the lanyards passed out by the environmental NGOs.