Did the Durban climate change talks actually accomplish anything?

The UN's latest Climate Change Conference recently concluded after two weeks of intense negotiations in Durban, South Africa. There's going to be a new agreement to address climate change, but does that really mean anything? Let's break down what happened.

Top image: Chukchi Sea Polar Bears by AP/U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

There's no point in denying it — the Durban talks, otherwise known as COP17, didn't directly accomplish much at all, if anything. In fact, you could argue the talks represented a net loss for the world's commitment to fighting climate change, as Canada announced it was withdrawing from the Kyoto Protocol, the current UN agreement aimed at cutting climate change, placing it in the unusual position of being lectured by China about its environmental policy.

And if you were hoping for an agreement that would lay down concrete steps to cut carbon emissions or lower global temperatures, then these talks were a dismal failure. Instead, they simply got all the countries there to agree to be part of a future, legally binding agreement that will be defined by 2015 and go into effect in 2020. That might just sound like passing the buck — and yeah, it kind of is — but this does represent some small progress from the Kyoto Protocol.

For one thing, this new agreement has the United States on board, which infamously refused to ratify the Kyoto Protocol. Second, this future treaty will be legally binding for all countries, not just those classified as developed. While major developing powers like China and India ratified the Kyoto Protocol, they were under no real requirement to comply with it.

That should change with this new agreement, although a major contention of the final marathon 60-hour negotiating session was India's objection that their compliance not be "legally binding." They eventually settled on an agreement that would have "legal force." What's the difference? Your guess is as good as mine, though hopefully that will become clearer by 2015. It was also agreed to set up a fund to help developing countries pay for climate compliance, though there are no actual specifics on where the money would come from or how it would be managed.

So where do we stand? This is better than nothing, and the fact that the conference was extended by 36 hours just to get to this point suggests just how horribly difficult this process really is, and how quickly any minor progress could completely fall apart. Indeed, American officials reportedly thought this conference would end in failure, so even this minor success and modest commitment to future change has to be considered good news.

Admittedly, that's more a reflection of how bad the current situation is than anything else — we've got nowhere to go but up, and at least the world's most powerful governments are still trying, even if they're not accomplishing all that much. This, of course, is the most optimistic possible interpretation, because frankly I find the alternative is too depressing to contemplate — Greenpeace has already declared the talks a failure, and many smaller countries have criticized the major power brokers for not taking a stronger stance on cutting emissions.

We'll hopefully know a lot more about what the Durban talks really accomplished when the new treaty materializes in 2015 - and if no agreement arrives, which is unfortunately still a definite possibility, then we'll know how little these talks really mattered.

Additional Reading

This is a complex issue, and there's a lot of possible ways to read what happened in Durban. Here are some of the best ones, and we encourage you to check them out:

"What Really Happened in Durban–and Will It Be Enough to Combat Climate Change?" by David Biello
"A Post-Pollution Path to Global Climate and Energy Progress" by Andrew C. Revkin
"Durban: Winners and losers" by Richard Black
"Dangerous decade: What follows the Durban climate deal" by Fred Pearce
"Durban maps path to climate treaty" by Jeff Tollefson
"The mask slips: The Durban meeting shows that climate policy and climate science inhabit parallel worlds" by Nature staff
"The Durban Deal: Everything and Nothing" by James Hrynyshyn
"COP17 Closes: Long Live The Process, If Not Our Climate Or Our Future" by Matthew McDermott
"The top five takeaways from the Durban climate talks" by David Roberts
"2C or not 2C: That is the question about the Durban deal" by Joseph Romm

Image via COP17.