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Hints from Panama: What can global warming negotiations accomplish in Durban, South Africa? (Part 1)

Jake Schmidt

Posted October 4, 2011 in Solving Global Warming

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Panama Climate Change Conference

Global warming negotiators from around the world are in Panama City, Panama for the final negotiation session before Ministers arrive in Durban, South Africa – November 28-December 9.  The session in Panama will set the stage for what can be accomplished in Durban.  Whether or not Panama will lay the foundation for agreement in Durban is an open question.  While countries continue to move forward at home with actions to reduce their global warming pollution, negotiators continue to haggle over a number of details.  So will negotiators translate the standing ovations from Cancun into detailed guidelines and operations?  Or will applause turn to boos?

While Panama won’t finalize the guidelines and operational details, it will set an important stage for what can be accomplished in Durban.  Failure to move forward in Panama will make agreement in Durban difficult.  So what should we expect in Durban (and what should we watch for in Panama)?

At global warming negotiations there are often two key dynamics – (1) key political issues that often dominate the overall narrative; and (2) negotiations on the key technical details which implement previous agreements (these agreements were often the main political narrative in the previous year).  While these two dynamics dominate the overall narrative, it is critical that we not lose focus on what really matters –whether countries take strong action at home to meet their commitments. 

So how are those dynamics playing out in the lead-in to Durban?

[This post is part of a three-part series on the state of the global warming negotiations in the lead-in to the Ministerial meeting in Durban, South Africa this December.  This post—Part 1—outlines the state of negotiations on the key political issues that will dominate the overall narrative in Durban – the “fate of the Kyoto Protocol” and “where are we headed”.  Part 2 outlines the state of play on the implementation of the Cancun Agreements.  Part 3 outlines “what really matters” – actions on the ground.]  

Two key intertwined political issues will dominate the overall narrative.  The negotiations in Durban will likely be dominated by a debate around the “fate of the Kyoto Protocol” and “where we are headed?”

“Fate of the Kyoto Protocol”.  At the end of 2012, the first round of targets for developed countries will end — developed country targets under the Kyoto Protocol run from 2008-2012.  While major developed and developing countries explicitly committed to individual actions to reduce their global warming pollution, whether or not those targets will be enshrined in another “commitment period” of the Kyoto Protocol (e.g., from 2013-2017) is an open question.  Developing countries (e.g., BASIC and African Union) have been explicit that their top priority in Durban is securing “a continuation of the Kyoto Protocol”.  The exact form of that “continuation” is under intense negotiation between the developing countries and the European Union (EU).   Recently, the EU has said that it would be willing to “politically” commit to a “second commitment period” if there was explicit agreement to negotiate a new legally binding commitment for all countries by 2015.  While not explicit, presumably those legal commitments would go into effect sometime around 2020.

It isn’t clear whether other developed countries like Australia and New Zealand would agree to such a framework to continue their commitments under the Kyoto Protocol.  And it isn’t clear whether developing countries, the US, and other developed countries will accept an explicit agreement to negotiate a new binding international framework.  Key to this is a vision of “where we are headed?”

“Where we are headed?”   Part of the package that is appearing would entail a commitment from all countries to outline where the global warming negotiations are headed – e.g., to a new legal agreement which covers all countries.  While countries wouldn’t have to agree explicitly in Durban the form of a new legal agreement, they would have to be prepared to negotiate with the explicit intention of moving to a new legal framework for all countries.  So can countries agree in Durban to launch a clear plan to negotiate a new international legally binding agreement over an agreed timeframe (e.g., by 2015)?  In Copenhagen and Cancun there was intense discussion about launching a formal commitment to negotiate a new legally binding system.  The thinking going into Copenhagen was that we would agree to “one agreement, two steps” – with the second step being a new legally binding framework.  Can Durban agree to such a roadmap for a new legally binding agreement?  Australia and Norway have recently proposed a pathway to get to such an agreement by 2015.  This proposal and others are a key part of the political dynamics going into Durban.

How will these issues end up in Durban?  It is appearing like we won’t know what will be acceptable on the “fate of the Kyoto Protocol” and “where are we headed” until the very last moment in Durban.  There are many, many variations that are emerging in the “corridor discussions”.  High-level policymakers will have to decide the fate of these two key issues.  Agreement in Durban to implement the Cancun Agreements hinges on resolution of these major political issues.

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So will the key agreements in Cancun be translated into guidelines and institutions to help deliver real change on-the-ground?  The next post will outline where things stand on that front.

** Photo credit: Adopt a negotiator's photostream.

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Switchboard is the staff blog of the Natural Resources Defense Council, the nation’s most effective environmental group. For more about our work, including in-depth policy documents, action alerts and ways you can contribute, visit NRDC.org.

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