Negotiators reach stunning, sudden agreement at Durban summit on climate change

The Takeaway

Going into the weekend, there was little hope that negotiators at the U.N. summit on climate change in Durban, South Africa, would be able to reach any sort of agreement on a treaty to replace the expiring Kyoto Treaty from 1997.

But then, there were signs of progress and a 24-hour extension of the conference — an unprecedented step. At the end, there was an agreement by all sides to work toward a legally binding agreement on redcucing global emissions that would encompass both developing and developed nations.

It would be a monumental shift in climate change politics.

Andrew Light, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress and professor at George Mason University, attended the conference and said he thinks this agreement will be vastly more effective than Kyoto.

“The rules that were set in the early 90s for Kyoto, ensured there would be this firewall between developing and developed nations, no matter how big they were, no matter how big their carbon footprint. Essentially, we created an agreement where, by the end of the day, only 15 percent of carbon emissions were covered,” Light said. “The new agreement…will include all the major polluters in whatever they agree to.”

Light said a big reason there was this progress this weekend was likely because there were many, smaller, already agreed-to projects that would have died absent some larger agreement. Not wanting that, they came to the table and finally reached a deal, he said.

The agreement represents a major compromise between the United States and China. Neither side had been willing to move without the other — at least on a binding agreement. China is the largest producer of carbon emissions and is expected to surpass Europe in per capita emissions in the next few years.

The United States will remain the largest emitted on a per capita basis for the foreseeable future.

“I think the island nations helped (drive this.) But it was the big carbon polluters who were outside of the Kyoto protocol, China, India, the United States, that had to come together to make this happen,” Light said. “The EU … complained it was turning into a G2, between the U.S. and China driving it. Fundamentally, I think that is how they got it.”

The agreement requires a new agreement to be in place by 2020. They’ll now have to figure out what exactly they’re looking for, in terms of a treaty or a protocol, but also the scope of what that document will include.

“What you have to do now is get projects on the ground that are getting carbon out of the system, and the Green Climate Fund is going to be the principal mechanism for making that happen,” Light said.

The fund is a system where the developed world will send money to the developing world in order to enable those poorer countries to take concrete steps to reduce global emissions. For example, in Indonesia, the country will undertake more efforts to protect more of their forests and to monitor the burning of peatlands forests that do go on.

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