Not much expected, not much gained – except for a significant all-inclusive twist.

The United Nations’ latest Conference of Parties (COP) on climate change followed the usual script. A couple of weeks of acrimonious debate leading to near failure, followed by heroic last minute efforts to save the conference from total ruin, just so the attending delegates could fly home in time for the holidays and report to their respective governments that they will be attending another event in a year’s time in Qatar.

The final communiqué, agreed after two extra and frantic days and nights of deliberations, while vague, provided sufficient verbiage to satisfy those who wanted to avoid the appearance of total failure at all cost.

Even the UN’s climate chief, Christiana Figueres, acknowledged that the final wording on the legal form of a future deal was ambiguous. To reporters who asked for clarifications on what the agreement actually said, she replied, “What that means has yet to be decided.”

China and the US, the two biggest global emitters, did not wish to be bound by any legally binding treaty any time soon, India and other developing countries did not wish to stymie economic growth while EU was pushing for more aggressive action. It was the usual cast of characters with their usual and widely different set of priorities.

In the final hours, the word “legal framework” was changed to “protocol,” “legal instrument,” “legal outcome” and finally to “agreed outcome with legal force,” sufficiently ambiguous to allow more leeway for governments who prefer ambiguity to certainty.

As best as we can decipher, delegates from nearly 200 countries attending the Durban event agreed to:

  • Negotiate, by 2015, a legally binding global agreement that will, for the first time, include all emitters including, most importantly, the US, China and India. This is said to be a highly significant step forward since never before had all major emitters had agreed to be included in a binding emission reduction scheme.
  • Establish a Green Climate Fund to provide $100 billion in annual funding by 2020 for clean energy investments and for climate change mitigation in the world’s poorest nations. Since this fund had previously been established, it is not clear how significant it is, nor is there much clarity on where the money comes from, especially during these fiscally difficult times.
  • Expressed “grave concern” that existing commitments to cut greenhouse gas emissions are not enough to hold increases in global temperature below the 2 °C relative to pre-industrial levels that all countries have agreed is the common objective.

A generous interpretation of what was achieved in Durban is that all countries agreed to be bound by the same legal treaty – or rather “agreed outcome with legal force” – to be concluded by 2015 and going into effect by the end of the decade.

A less generous interpretation, perhaps closer to the truth, is that the agreement reached at Durban is nothing more than an agreement to work towards an agreement by 2015. It is as if an enormously obese person were to say that I promise to agree to a diet by 2015, and to go on the diet starting in 2020. It is better than nothing, but not very reassuring, especially given the UN’s past track record on such matters. “It’s certainly not the deal the planet needs – such a deal would have delivered much greater ambition on both emissions reductions and finance,” said Alden Meyer of the Union of Concerned Scientists.

Symbolically, Durban extended Kyoto Protocols until the end of 2017, providing some measure of continuity since Kyoto’s first phase – which imposed limits only on developed countries – is due to expire at the end of 2012. Legal experts must now reconcile those dates with existing EU legislation. The US, which never ratified Kyoto, said it would only do so if all countries agreed to limit their emissions.

The Kyoto extension, however, rings rather hollow. Russia and Japan have indicated that they do not wish to be parties to Kyoto, Australia’s position appears ambiguous, and Canada has announced that it will withdraw from Kyoto. Dealing a symbolic blow to the moribund protocols, Canada’s Environment Minister Peter Kent declared, “As we’ve said, Kyoto for Canada is in the past … We are invoking our legal right to formally withdraw from Kyoto” (see box on right). This leaves Europe as the only significant block hanging on to what is left of Kyoto.

By mid December 2011, carbon prices traded within EU had plunged to a new low record of €6.5 per tonne ($8.50/tonne). Canada’s withdraw was the straw that broke the camel’s back. At such low prices, it could be argued that the European emissions trading (ETS) scheme has degenerated into a mere accounting nuisance.

Environmentalists, who were not generally pleased with what little was achieved in Durban, complained that delegates wasted so much time on a handful of specific words in the final communique while failing to set ambitious targets to cut emissions fast enough to avoid the worst consequences of climate change – which is now a forgone conclusion.

Perry Sioshansi is the editor of EEnergy Informer, and a consultant for energy firms. He can be reached at [email protected].

A recent book, Smart Grid: Integrating Renewable, Distributed, and Efficient Energy, edited by Sioshansi, explores the many dimensions of the smart grid . With contributions from a number of prominent experts, scholars and practitioners with different perspectives, the book provides a broad coverage of the what, how, when, why and other facets of the smart grid.