The recently concluded talks in South Africa yielded an agreement. But to what end? Figuring that out is anybody’s guess.

(See related posting.)

This past Friday, December 9, a day before the COP17 talks concluded, a long-time observer of climate policy predicted: “The best case scenario for those wanting success at the Durban Climate Conference is going to be the kicking of the can way down the road.”

News Analysis

And that was exactly what happened. This, despite recent warnings that the world is headed for “irreversible climate change” if the can got kicked down the road. Mainstream media outlets, however, have generally painted the Durban outcome as a success. For example, here was the Guardian‘s lead-in:

The world is on track for a comprehensive global treaty on climate change for the first time after agreement was reached at talks in Durban in the early hours of Sunday morning.

Negotiators agreed to start work on a new climate deal that would have legal force and, crucially, require both developed and developing countries to cut their carbon emissions. The terms now need to be agreed by 2015 and come into effect from 2020.

Never mind the timeline, what about the deal itself? Some climate analysts, such as widely read blogger Joe Romm, appeared conflicted. He hailed the agreement as “a pretty big success,” but also acknowledged in the same breath that it was “sadly lacking” in terms of “what is needed to avert catastrophic climate change.”

There was no such equivocation from Michael Levi, a climate and energy analyst with the Council on Foreign Relations. He called all the happy talk about the “landmark deal” (which is how the AP characterized it), “nonsense.” Levi examined the fine print of the Durban agreement and found that its true meaning doesn’t jell with how it’s been reported by the press. Here he is on the brinksmanship that produced the flexible language he’s pointing to:

The precise dynamics that unfolded in the final days are still unclear. In the end, though, the talks came down to a simple choice. Europe insisted on language that would commit all countries “to launch a process to develop a protocol or another legal instrument under the Convention applicable to all Parties”. India strenuously insisted that “a legal outcome” be included as a third option. It is not clear exactly where China or United States, which were both fine with including “legal option” but otherwise largely sat out the final public fight, would have drawn the line if forced. Everyone ultimately compromised: an “outcome with legal force”, rather than a “legal outcome”, was added as the third option.

It is difficult to avoid concluding that the Europeans ultimately blinked, though you wouldn’t get that from their spin or from the media coverage. The New York Times, adopting a similar interpretation to most other outlets, reported that the deal foresees “a future treaty that would require all countries to reduce emissions that contribute to global warming”. Alas, there’s nothing much like that in the text.

Alas, as the NYT‘s John Broder wrote in a separate news analysis, “maybe the task is too tall.” As he assessed the situation:

Effectively addressing climate change will require over the coming decades a fundamental remaking of energy production, transportation and agriculture around the world — the sinews of modern life. It is simply too big a job for the men and women who have gathered for these talks under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, the 1992 treaty that began this grinding process.

Broder then quotes Nick Robins, an energy and climate change analyst at HSBC, the London-based global bank, who makes this observation: “There is a fundamental disconnect in having environment ministers negotiating geopolitics and macroeconomics.”

That’s something to chew on for the future. But right now, regardless of the sunniest spin put on the deal reached in Durban, there is also a fundamental disconnect between what climate science says about the unabated rise of carbon emissions and what the world’s response has been to that science.

Keith Kloor

Keith Kloor is a New York City-based freelance journalist who writes often about the environment and climate change.