See the Tabbed Pages for links to video tutorials, and a linked list of post titles grouped by topic.

This blog is expressly directed to readers who do not have strong training or backgrounds in science, with the intent of helping them grasp the underpinnings of this important issue. I'm going to present an ongoing series of posts that will develop various aspects of the science of global warming, its causes and possible methods for minimizing its advance and overcoming at least partially its detrimental effects.

Each post will begin with a capsule summary. It will then proceed with captioned sections to amplify and justify the statements and conclusions of the summary. I'll present images and tables where helpful to develop a point, since "a picture is worth a thousand words".

Monday, December 12, 2011

Durban Platform Agreement Concludes 2011 Climate Change Talks

Summary.  This year’s UNFCCC conference to negotiate a climate change treaty convened in Durban, South Africa.  On December 11, 2011 the attending parties agreed to the Durban Platform, embodying new climate change objectives.  For the first time, agreement was reached to negotiate a legally binding world-wide treaty to limit greenhouse gas emissions.  The objective is to complete the negotiations by 2015, and to implement them by 2020.  Unfortunately, these dates are greatly extended from earlier timelines.  They permit greenhouse gases to be emitted unconstrained and to continue accumulating in the earth’s atmosphere without sanctions in the interim.  Because of the delay, climate scientists are concerned that the global average temperature will increase considerably more than previously hoped.  This would mean severe changes in climate and weather, leading to increased numbers and severity of extreme weather events.

Introduction.  Following up on the 2010 Cancun conference, this year’s meeting under the U. N. Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) took place in Durban, South Africa from Nov. 28 to Dec. 11 (an unscheduled extension of two days was needed to reach a conclusion).  The principal objective had been to negotiate a successor agreement to the Kyoto Protocol (see this post), originally concluded in 1997, and which expires at the end of 2012.  It covers only “developed” countries such as the U. S., Europe and Japan, but the U. S. Senate unanimously refused to ratify the pact so that the U. S. in fact has not been bound by its terms.  The Kyoto Protocol went into effect in 2005.  Under its terms, most participating states undertook to reduce man-made greenhouse gas emissions below their emission levels of 1990 by 8%, during the commitment period, 2008-2012. 

Another goal was to negotiate implementation of commitments made last year at the Cancun conference on funding adaptation efforts, verifying greenhouse gas emissions, and reforestation.

The Kyoto Protocol specifically excludes developing countries of the world from its terms. In 1997 developing countries had very low levels of economic activity, and emitted very small amounts of greenhouse gases (mainly carbon dioxide).  Since then, however, the principal developing countries, such as China and India, have expanded dramatically, and have become major contributors to man-made greenhouse gas emissions.  China overtook the U. S. in total amount of emissions around 2009, and now emits the most of any country on earth.

Developing countries have argued that the economically advanced countries had been burning fossil fuels, generating greenhouse gases, for more than a century as they reached their present state of economic well-being.  Developing countries insisted that they too should have the opportunity, if not be granted the right, to use fossil fuels to similar extents in order to develop their economies along similar paths.   That is, they object to being placed under future restrictions affecting their growth because of the past history of greenhouse gas emissions from the industrialized countries of the West.

China’s position, for example, in recent years has been that the terms of any new accord be based on carbon intensity, i.e., the amount of greenhouse gas emitted per unit of economic activity (e.g., gross domestic product), rather than the absolute amount of emissions.  As measured in this way, China’s greenhouse gas intensity has been trending lower year-by-year, although China  still continues pouring more and more absolute amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.

The “Durban Platform”.  After 2 days of intense negotiations extending beyond the scheduled end of the conference, the parties agreed to the new “Durban Platform” (see References below for sources).  As had been foreseen before the conference began (see this post) agreement on a specific format for an agreement after 2012 to follow the expiration of the Kyoto Protocol was not reached.  Rather, it was agreed that negotiations to reach a formal agreement by 2015, to take effect no later than 2020, would start now.  It is felt that the Durban agreement represents a significant positive departure from earlier agreements such as the Kyoto Protocol, and the Cancun Agreements of last year.  A major stipulation of the Platform, to be incorporated into the treaty to be negotiated, is that all parties would be legally bound to abide by emission limits agreed to in the treaty. 

This represents an important positive step over the voluntary efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions that were incorporated into the Cancun Agreements (reported here).  It would bring major emitters from the developing world such as China and India, on the one hand, and the U. S., currently not bound by the Kyoto Protocol, on the other, under the same legal framework for reducing emissions and limiting the accumulation of atmospheric greenhouse gases.  This feature is a crucial concession from both sides of the emissions argument granted in reaching the platform agreement.  Indeed, the U. S. special envoy on climate change, Todd Stern, expressed misgivings about undertaking an initiative that would likely encounter opposition in the U. S. Congress.  He stated “This is a very significant package. None of us likes everything in it. Believe me, there is plenty the United States is not thrilled about.”  Yet he understood that the Platform incorporates important new features that would fall apart if all parties did not buy into them.  In this regard, the Yale University Project on Climate Change Communication reports that, based on a nationwide U. S. survey taken in November 2011, 21% strongly support, and 45% somewhat support, signing a treaty that requires the U. S. to cut emissions of carbon dioxide by 90% by the year 2050.

Additionally, the Durban Platform included an agreement to extend the Kyoto Protocol for five years beyond its expiration in 2012.  Currently only the European Union has an emissions reduction “roadmap” already in place (see this post). It has set the goal of reducing its greenhouse gas emissions by 20% below the levels of 1990 by the year 2020, to increase energy production from renewable sources to 20% and to reduce overall energy use by 20%.  Its ultimate goal is to reduce emissions by at least 80% by 2050.  Its emission rate is already decreasing; in the period from 1990 to 2009, the gross domestic product of the EU grew by 40%, while overall emissions were reduced by 16%.

Financing for Adaptation and Mitigation

The Durban Platform included an agreement to begin assembling the “Green Climate Fund” for these purposes from developed countries and disbursing the funds to developing countries.  The Cancun Agreements committed to achieving a level of $30 billion by 2012, and a long-term goal of providing $100 billion/yr by 2020, to help poorer countries adapt to changes in climate and to promote development of renewable sources of energy. 

Reforestation and Record-Keeping

The Durban Platform also included portions implementing other objectives presented in the Cancun Agreements, namely, protection and expansion of the world’s forests, and the documentation with verification of each nation’s greenhouse gas emissions.

Efforts Accomplished Leading up to the Durban Conference

Under China’s 12th Five Year Plan (see this post), the country proposes many programs to reduce its energy intensity (energy use per unit of gross domestic product created).  It is planning a significant expansion of solar generation, albeit beginning from a quite low capacity in place currently.  Nevertheless the absolute amount of greenhouse gas emissions envisioned under the Five Year Plan continue to increase because of the installation of new fossil-fuel driven power generating plants under the Plan.

Australia recently passed a law implementing a cap-and-trade carbon tax on its fossil-fuel driven power and industrial enterprises.  It sets further goals for long-term reduction of emissions, 60-80% by 2050, and promotes development of renewable energy sources.


The Durban Platform embodies, on the one hand, the recognition by developing countries that the past history of emissions by now-industrialized countries cannot be reversed, and on the other hand, the recognition by developed countries that all nations of the world must be brought under a legally binding world-wide climate agreement.  Because of the persistence of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere (see below), and the fact that emissions from one location or region pervade the entire earth, all nations of the world have to accept responsibility for limiting emissions in order to constrain warming of the planet.

The Durban Platform, of course, is only an agreement to negotiate a binding agreement.  The hard part begins now, if the timeline established at Durban is to be met.  Difficult bargaining lies ahead to establish targets for reducing emissions, especially from the countries with the highest emission rates, and the highest rates of growth of their economies and hence their demands for energy.

The delay until 2020 as the year in which the next regime for limiting emissions begins represents a serious setback to efforts to constrain atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases within environmentally acceptable limits.  The Cancun Agreements of 2010 explicitly acknowledged the finding of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) that “climate change represents an urgent and potentially irreversible threat to human societies and the planet, and thus requires [it] to be urgently addressed by all Parties”; they must strive to constrain the average global rise in temperature to 2ºC (3.6ºF) or less.  The concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere required to achieve this limit is 450 parts per million (ppm) of carbon dioxide (CO2) equivalents.  Currently, with the concentration of CO2 at about 392 ppm, the world-wide average temperature has risen about 0.7ºC (1.3ºF) above the temperature that prevailed before the industrial revolution began.  These numbers are significant because CO2 persists in the atmosphere for 100 or more years (barring some reabsorption from reforestation), since there is no natural mechanism for shortening its lifetime.

The CO2 concentration in the atmosphere can be envisioned as a bathtub containing CO2, with the faucet adding more CO2 each year, but with a drain that is essentially blocked, preventing CO2 from draining out.  Each year’s CO2 emissions raise the level of CO2 in the bathtub.  It’s the overall level of CO2 in the atmospheric bathtub that determines the extent of the warming of the global average temperature, not whether any year’s emissions are greater or less than the previous year. 

This is why the nine year delay in implementing significant limitations on emitting greenhouse gases is so critical.  Each year’s delay adds more CO2 and other greenhouse gases to the atmosphere, which persist and make limiting the temperature rise within a desirable bound all the more difficult.  Furthermore, each year’s delay means that the countries of the world will continue installing new facilities that burn fossil fuels, and that will continue in their need for fossil fuels for their effective economic lifetime, 30-40 years or more.  Thus today’s actions along “business-as-usual” lines have detrimental consequences that persist for decades.

Under the Durban Platform, growth in emissions can continue unabated without sanctions (save for voluntary efforts to limit them) for the next nine years.  As a result, long-term world-wide average temperature resulting from higher greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere will increase more than anticipated earlier.  Consequently many regions of the world will suffer more, and more severe, damages and harms due to extreme weather events brought on by the higher average global temperature.  Climate scientists fear that the delay in implementation of any new agreement will lead us to higher global average temperatures than the 2ºC goal established by the IPCC.  Keith Allott, the head of climate change policy at WWF-UK, stated “we must be under no illusion — the outcome of Durban leaves us with the prospect of being legally bound to a world of 4C warming. This would be catastrophic for people and the natural world….”


Natural Resources Defense Council, blog: (accessed Dec. 12, 2011).

Natural Resources Defense Council, blog: (accessed Dec. 11, 2011).

Natural Resources Defense Council, blog: (accessed Dec. 12, 2011).

© 2011 Henry Auer

No comments:

Post a Comment