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A Mild Victory in Durban

Posted on Dec 12, 2011
NASA / Glenn Research Center

By Eugene Robinson

I’m inclined to believe that the apparent result of the climate change summit in Durban, South Africa, might turn out to be a very big deal. Someday. Maybe.

That’s my view, but it’s hardly universal. After the meeting ended Sunday, initial reaction basically ranged from “Historic Breakthrough: The Planet Is Saved” to “Tragic Failure: The Planet Is Doomed.” Such radically different assessments came from officials and activists who have the same general view of climate change—that it’s real and something must be done about it—and who fully understand the agreement that the delegates in Durban reached.

The optimists and the pessimists disagree mostly on what they believe governments can do to curb the carbon and methane emissions that are warming the atmosphere, and when they are likely to do it. My conclusion is that for now, at least, the conceptual advance made in Durban is as good as it gets.

This advance is, potentially, huge: For the first time, officials of the nations that are the biggest carbon emitters—China, the United States and India—have agreed to negotiate legally binding restrictions.

Under the old Kyoto Protocol framework, which for now remains largely in effect, rapidly industrializing nations refused to be constricted by limits that would stunt their development. The United States declined to sign on to the Kyoto agreement or any other emissions-reduction treaty as long as China, India, Brazil and other rising economic giants got a free pass.


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As a practical matter, this meant that while European nations worked to meet emissions targets—or, in some cases, pretended to do so—the most important sources of carbon were unconstrained. When Kyoto was adopted, China was well behind the United States as an emitter; now, it’s far ahead. India recently passed Russia to move into third place.

The Durban talks seemed likely to go nowhere until the Chinese delegate, Xie Zhenhua, announced that Beijing was willing to consider a legally binding framework for regulating emissions. With China now responsible for fully 23 percent of the world’s carbon emissions, this was an enormous step forward.

India, however, wasn’t so sure about agreeing to negotiate a “legal framework” specifying binding commitments. Delegates spent a ridiculous amount of time and effort refining that phrase, first moving to “protocol or legal instrument” and then falling back to “legal outcome.” European delegates pitched a fit, saying that “legal outcome” was so vague that it allowed the possibility of voluntary carbon limits rather than mandatory ones. The European Union threatened to scuttle the whole summit.

India’s environment minister pitched a counter-fit. “India will never be intimidated by threats,” Jayanthi Natarajan thundered.

Compromise language was found: By 2015, delegates will negotiate an “agreed outcome with legal force.” What does this mean? Within four years, there is supposed to be something like a treaty—covering developed and developing countries alike—that limits carbon emissions. This treaty or treaty-like document is supposed to take effect in 2020.

Those who see Durban as a bitter disappointment point out that smokestacks and automobile exhaust pipes continue to spew carbon, that atmospheric warming will continue apace, and that world leaders still haven’t actually done anything. The representatives in Durban agreed to negotiate a pact that wouldn’t take effect for nearly a decade—and that’s the best-case scenario.

But I think it may be enough. Durban’s real accomplishment was to keep the slow, torturous process of climate negotiations alive—with the biggest carbon emitters now much more fully involved. This buys time for real solutions to emerge.

In Shanghai recently I had dinner with Edwin Huang, marketing director for Suntech Power Holdings, a firm based in nearby Wuxi that is the largest producer of solar panels in the world. “We’re creating American jobs,” he told me: One of Suntech’s manufacturing plants is in Arizona.

China is getting serious about alternative energy. Emissions will continue to rise, but a commitment by China alone is enough to begin bending the curve. As companies such as Suntech—and, one hopes, U.S. competitors—keep bringing the cost of solar panels down, we can begin to get a handle on the problem. By 2020 or even 2015, carbon limits may seem less onerous.

But it’s necessary to keep the negotiating process alive until it is possible to reach a meaningful agreement. So yes, you can argue that the Durban conference only managed to kick the climate can down the road. For now, though, that might be enough.

Eugene Robinson’s e-mail address is eugenerobinson(at)
© 2011, Washington Post Writers Group

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By ron hansing, December 16, 2011 at 9:54 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

If global warming is real, the solution is adaptation not cutting emissions…

How many mouths can we feed, if we spent a google trillion trying to reduce emissions. Answer None.

This will result in a massive die-off and by attrition, the co2 levels will drop.

ron hansing 12.16.11

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By balkas, December 14, 2011 at 7:55 am Link to this comment

entire nations are now prisoners and not just individuals. and many of
them wld surely evanesce if scientific expectations come true.
and do some nations [their leaders, really] plan to do away with possibly
6bn + people?
and achieve the coveted end of history? eliminate all or most darkies and
leave the earth for, say, 500mln chosen people? tnx

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Jack Phast's avatar

By Jack Phast, December 13, 2011 at 9:29 pm Link to this comment

You think that a plan to start negotiating a new
treaty in 2015 is a victory? The best predictions say
that our carbon emissions have to peak in 2015, and
start reducing sharply after that to have any chance
of avoiding cataclysmic climate change. Way too
little way too late.

And this is assuming that they actually intend to do
anything in 2015, or just postpone the negotiations

No, this wasn’t a victory. It was merely a bunch of
politicians who want to appeal to the environmental
vote, while actually doing nothing. Here’s to betting
that in 2015 a whole new group of actors will do the
exact same thing, and put off any decisive action for
the next guy in line.

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By balkas, December 13, 2011 at 9:49 am Link to this comment

however it maybe regarding any matter under the sun, one conflict may
be eternal: that of the godologists and nongodologists.
the first group is supported by mostly rich people, who then support
the theologists by making ever ‘better’ arms, forming army, police, spy
agencies, ‘private’ armies; setting up the right ‘education’.
[the right ‘education’/‘laws’] being probably the strongest tool in
enslaving people]

unless we resolve this conflict; basicly a conflict between rich and poor
people and rich nations and poor nations, we can expect only
worsenings. tnx

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By balkas, December 13, 2011 at 9:30 am Link to this comment

there are now concentration lagers in u.s. they are guarded by an
invisible but very powerful walls and barbed wire.
and its inmates fear police so much that a victim of a crime dares not or
does not want to tell police who the perpetrator was.

it seems these inmates know [or merely perceive] that the police is not
their police.
and i think OWS now sees that police, army, cia, fbi, W.H, congress, MSM,
education, banks, judiciary is not theirs. tnx

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By balkas, December 13, 2011 at 9:16 am Link to this comment

i do not expect that agreements to curtail emission wdl be worth much if
anything as long as u.s maintains 1k bases, patrols the waters with
warships, enjoys vast superiority in arms and wmd, etc.
that is the root of all int’l tensions and enables nato or nato/us to wage
wage more wars.

as a sign of good faith that we intend to save or try to save the planet, wmd
must be first destroyed.
it shld be followed by much demilitarization of entire planet. only thereafter
we wld have purposeful agreements on reducing the consumption which is
not necessary for our survival or well-being.

as long as we manufacture ever more and ‘better’ weapons, cars [which are
a huge negative wealth; making us all a dependency] and live under two
opposing ideologies, we can expect only disagreements and violation of
agreements, more wars, injustices, exploitation, etc.

even living in cities represents a serfdom or near-utter dependency on
people who live outside cities or in gated and militarily-guarded gated
it all boils dwn to whether we want [or are given a choice] to live in a society
in which one is hundredsfold-thousandfold richer/powerful than others or
one that is much more egalitarian.
so, the choice is between liberty, empowerment for all or just a few people!!
and that’s the choice [your inheritance, really] that the one percent wld
never ever present to u unless u fight for it with tooth and nail. tnx

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David J. Cyr's avatar

By David J. Cyr, December 13, 2011 at 7:55 am Link to this comment

QUOTE, Eugene Robinson:

“This advance is, potentially, huge: For the first time, officials of the nations that are the biggest carbon emitters—China, the United States and India—have agreed to negotiate legally binding restrictions.”

Agreeing to possibly, maybe, perhaps later negotiate binding restrictions to take effect after they’ll certainly be far too little and way too late to mitigate the climate change catastrophe is what the corporate party’s Democrats can consider a “potentially huge” victory.

Since America has such a long history of leading the whole world into this existential problem, the whole world should both expect and demand that America take the lead in getting serious about acting to mitigate the effects of climate change now… rather than taking a road to climate change solutions that looks remarkably like America’s all roads blocked roadmap to peace and justice for Palestinians.

Jill Stein for President:

Voter Consent Wastes Dissent:

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kerryrose's avatar

By kerryrose, December 13, 2011 at 7:04 am Link to this comment

This is the first ‘happy-face’ talk that I’ve read regarding the Durbin talks.

The first and only.

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By Big B, December 13, 2011 at 4:52 am Link to this comment

Robinson must have written this before Canada dropped out of Kyoto. That may be the first domino in the utter collapse of the agreement, making all progress of the last 14 years to address climate change moot at best.

Do we really think that 4 more years down the road that a USA where petroleum products are already dwindling that we will be interested in curbing carbon usage even more?

I predict that humans will indeed someday curb their carbon usage. That day will be right after it becomes too scarce and too expensive for the masses to use it (you know, in about 40 or 50 years)

This is not going to end well. If you know anybody with the nickname “Mad Max” I suggest you friend him now.

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By Everythings Jake, December 12, 2011 at 10:58 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Right well, you’re older, so not your problem I guess. 
But this article stinks.  In fact most of the criticism
from the left is not hysteria - there is no more time, and
the conclusion of the conference kicks the proverbial can
down the road.  But, y’know, thanks for your poor, badly
informed opinion.

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