Durban climate politics and the growing importance of unity for vulnerable countries

By Matthew McKinnon, Head of Climate Vulnerability Initiative, DARA International. DARA played a key role in assisting the Government of Bangladesh to host the Climate Vulnerable Forum in November 2011. The Forum’s Outcome Notes are available online; the Forum – a gathering of those developing countries most vulnerable to climate change – was also supported by CDKN.

The UN climate talks in Durban (COP17) are now just behind us. As the main Chinese press agency, Xinhua, summed it up: “The 17th Conference of Parties.. because of strong divisions.. was extended an extra day… After 14 days of talks, the conference agreed to establish a working group to launch a process to develop a protocol..” Not the concrete outcome many were looking for, especially those highly vulnerable countries with the most at stake in the climate talks.

In the end, though, Durban accomplished a series of parallel steps forwards and backwards. Extending the Kyoto Protocol without gaps is a win, but “Kyoto 2” is a shadow of its former self in absence of four of the world’s largest industrialised countries. Politics can also change over time. Canada and others may leave Kyoto today, but they can always come back to the fold, as Australia did by ratifying the Protocol very late in the day in December 2007.

The fairly robust governance structure agreed for the Green Climate Fund (GCF) is another major achievement, but only if the fund itself is adequately capitalised. Unfortunately, the opposite seems more likely.  Analysis provided to delegations at the recent Ministerial Meeting of the Climate Vulnerable Forum in Dhaka, Bangladesh, outlines a near default on finance. So-called “Fast Start” resources for 2010-2012 are being disbursed so slowly that on current rates, the finance in question would still be being disbursed in 2029.

Among other concerns, Durban provided no further clarity on how to accelerate the disbursal of finance, nor on the levels of finance foreseen between 2012 and 2020. That is of course a shame. Climate finance is critical for protecting communities now seriously at-risk due to the negative effects of climate change. It will also generate new low-cost reductions in heat-trapping emissions that would otherwise not be possible. Both are fundamental to closing the ever-wider mitigation and adaptation gaps now faced.

So why the lack of progress? On the one hand, there is a something of a reverse beauty contest among developing countries vying for the elusive prize of the most vulnerable, and therefore, the most in need of climate funds. On the other hand, as the main Australian newspaper last week pointed out: “Ultimately, financing the GCF will become the negotiating chip for rich countries to buy off support from poorer ones.”

Nations squabbling over hypothetical resources that do not exist provides healthy fodder for the “divisions” referred to by Xinhua and echoed by many, including prominent UK climate writer, Mark Lynas. Lynas commented recently in The Financial Times: “Another interesting development in Durban was just how fractured the G77 coalition has now become. Indeed little in the negotiations united them.”

And yet low-emitting, low-capacity developing countries make up almost the entire G77. But their common front is splintered across different groups, from least developed countries (LDCs), to the Alliance of Small Island States, to the Africa group, Central America, and so on.

But consensus, not divisions, generate strong outcomes at climate talks. Copenhagen, Cancun and Durban also demonstrate the extent to which “nothing is agreed until everything is agreed”. The main elements of the negotiations are all tied, with divisions in areas such as finance and adaptation spilling across and capable of sapping at consensus elsewhere, as well as overall.

A wider and more unified front among, for instance, vulnerable developing countries of all shades, would support enhanced accountability and championing for a better implementation of pledges made on areas such as finance. That would benefit above all the LDCs, who generally speaking are most urgently in need of external support. A stronger collaboration among vulnerable countries would also contribute towards an enabling environment for achieving consensus by helping to smooth out competition and divisions. Initiatives like that taken by Bangladesh and other countries engaged in the Climate Vulnerable Forum have begun to strengthen the voice of those with the most at stake in the negotiations. The momentum generated plays a growing role in supporting high-ambition outcomes from the UNFCCC. As the stakes continue to mount, further increasing that pressure will be critical to securing new wins for the climate agenda and for the world.

Read the entry in the CDKN blog