Durban in Retrospect


President and Senior Scientist Dr. Eric A. Davidson

Now that we have nearly a month of perspective after the closing of the 17th Conference of the Parties (COP) of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) in December 2011, was it the disappointment that most had expected, or did it actually make some unexpected progress?

Taking a step further back, I think that we have to conclude that the UNFCCC process has produced very disappointing results since its inception at the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro. Greenhouse gas emissions are continuing to increase and we are on a trajectory towards the upper end of warming projections. Already, the record of extreme weather events is accumulating, along with the disastrous economic, human health, and environmental impacts that accompany storms, floods, and droughts (see my blog of October 26, 2011). Would it have been even worse if there had been no UNFCCC? Perhaps, but that is little solace to the billions of people now facing increased risks of food insecurity and disease as a consequence of climate change.

It became clear at the 15th COP in Copenhagen in 2009 that many of the world’s political leaders were not yet ready to sign on to the kind of binding international agreement on emissions controls that is needed to stabilize the climate. One of the main sticking points was that developing countries, especially China, India, Brazil, and Indonesia, were insisting that the developed countries fix the problem created mostly by their historical emissions, while these developing countries are allowed to develop economically without restrictions on emissions. In that light, the recent Durban meeting made an important breakthrough. Both developed and developing countries have now agreed to negotiate a single emissions agreement that will apply to all. But here is the catch – they won’t finish those negotiations before 2015 and the new agreement won’t take effect until 2020. Nor do we know whether this future agreement will have any more teeth or effectiveness than what we’ve had for the last 17 years. It is tempting to conclude that this progress is simply too little too late.

Unlike the case of the Montreal Protocol of the 1980s, which successfully addressed the “ozone hole” problem by limiting emissions of ozone-eating chlorofluorocarbons in refrigerants and a few other industries, greenhouse gas emissions come from all sectors of the economy and are part of everyone’s everyday life, from subsistence farmers to corporate CEOs. While we will all suffer from the economic and environmental consequences of climate change, the suffering from doing nothing, the payoff from doing the right thing, and the costs of needed changes will not be shared equally. With such disparities among so many stakeholders, the international negotiating process has been stymied.

Again stepping back, one thing that the UNFCCC process has taught us is that fixing the climate change problem will require broad domestic support within many countries, driven from the ground up. While the COPs have been disappointing, a positive sign comes from the numerous state and national efforts that are popping up to partially fill the void, including various types of carbon trading or carbon taxes about to start or being seriously contemplated in Australia, China, Korea, and Japan. Europe and New Zealand already have carbon trading markets, although they have been hampered by a lack of global participation and the economic downturn. Closer to home, the northeastern states of the US have successfully reduced emissions as a result of the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI), and California is again leading the US with an innovative combination of projects, including one that involves the Brazilian state of Acre in the Amazon (see my previous blog with Tom Stone). These national and sub-national efforts are paving the way to establish the broad support that will be necessary for a meaningful global accord. We are learning from these “experiments” what works and what could work better, demonstrating that emissions can be greatly reduced at affordable costs, and even with economic advantages.

If one insists on being an optimist (and I do, because the alternative is so depressing), then one can envision how these state, national, and international efforts could finally come together. At the same time that incremental diplomatic advances are being made at the COPs to harmonize a single international agreement for the end of this decade, the multiple emissions reduction programs flourishing at state and national levels are demonstrating how it all could work effectively, so that there will be more support and more experience to make something work internationally once the diplomats have worked out an international protocol mechanism.

Will that be too late? John Holdren (my predecessor as Executive Director at the WHRC and now President Obama’s science advisor) often states that we have three options with respect to climate change: mitigation, adaptation, and suffering. He points out that we are already doing all three to some extent, but that the future mix of those three will depend on when we start taking effective mitigation actions. By not having reached a successful approach to reducing emissions after 17 years of COPs in the UNFCCC process, we are already bearing the high costs of adaptation to and suffering from climate change. By not getting effective action until the end of this decade, we will be committing ourselves and future generations to even more severe costs of climate change adaptation and suffering. Eventually, we will learn that mitigation is smarter, more cost effective in the long run, and reduces suffering. We need a stable climate to maintain the agricultural and natural ecosystems that provide the food, water, health, and economic prosperity upon which we depend. That message will prevail – the question is when, and how much suffering will occur in the interim.

Despite the frustration that is inevitable from this slow pace of progress to date, we must remain determined to minimize human suffering and environmental degradation by demonstrating the inescapable scientific facts of climate change. As those contributing from the ground up, we at the WHRC study and communicate the science of climate change impacts on forests, soils, water, and people. We also apply our studies to advancing forest conservation, which is an important part of solving the climate change challenge.