Going Deeper On What Happened In Durban: An Ethical Critique of Durban Outcomes

Dec 27th, 2011 | By | Category: Capacity Development, CoP17, Development and Climate Change, Financing, News, Opinion, UNFCCC

Climate Ethics: I. Introduction: What Is Missing In Reporting About The Durban Outcome?

It has now been two weeks since negotiations at the 17th Conference of the Parties (COP-17) under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) were completed in the early morning of Sunday, December 11, 2011 in Durban, South Africa. We will claim that there is something missing from the reporting of what happened in Durban that is crucial if one aspires to think critically about the Durban outcomes. That is, reporting on Durban has for the most part missed the biggest story, namely that most nations continue to act as if they have no obligations to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions to their fair share of safe global emission, that the positions they have been taking on most major climate issues fail any reasonable minimum ethical test, that an acknowledgement that nations not only have interests but duties and responsibilities continues to be the key missing element in the negotiations, and that some nations in particular have lamentably not only failed to lead on climate change but are continuing to take positions that not only fail to satisfy their immediate international duties to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions but also encourage irresponsible behavior of other nations.

Among these nations are the United States, Canada, Russia, and Japan and several developing countries. As we shall see, these countries, among others, have continued to negotiate as if: (a) they only need to commit to reduce their greenhouse gas emission if other nations commit to do so, in other words that their national interests limit their international obligations, (b) any emissions reductions commitments can be determined and calculated without regard to what is each nation’s fair share of safe global emissions, (c) large emitting nations have no duty to compensate people or nations that are vulnerable to climate change for climate change damages or reasonable adaptation responses, and (d) they often justify their own failure to actually reduce emissions to their fair share of safe global emissions on the inability to of the international community to reach an adequate solution under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. We are not saying that these countries were exclusively the blame for disappointing Durban outcomes, there is plenty of blame to go around. Yet, some countries have distinguished themselves by their positions that are obviously based upon national economic interest rather than a fulfillment of global responsibilities.

Although the leadership in the United States and other nations that are failing to make commitments congruent with their ethical obligations will no doubt claim that their position in the international climate negotiations is limited by what is politically feasible in their countries, the world needs national leaders who are prepared to urge their nations to make commitments congruent with their ethical obligations, not on national self-interest alone. (For an example of national leadership that fulfilled this requirement, see, Brown, 2009)

As has been the case for recent COPs, commentators about achievements at COP-17 are split on whether these negotiations accomplished some important positive steps toward an eventual meaningful global solution to climate change or whether Durban must be understood as another tragic international failure to come up with an adequate solution to the immense threat of human-induced warming. (For a good articulation of these two views, see: Light, 2011, and Hertsgaard, 2011)

As we shall see this difference of opinion about how to characterize Durban outcomes is ultimately a disagreement about whether each COP outcome should be judged on the basis of what is politically feasible at that moment in history in which the COP takes place or whether what is politically feasible at any moment in history should itself be critically reflected on. If one judges Durban outcomes on the basis of what was deemed politically feasible coming into Durban, one can reasonably draw positive conclusions about Durban outcomes. But if one reviews Durban outcomes from the standpoint of what nations should agree to in light of their ethical and moral responsibilities, Durban is another tragic missed opportunity.

ClimateEthics has frequently explained that the key missing element in international climate negotiations as well as in the development of domestic climate change policies for most nations has been acknowledgement that nations not only have economic interests that can be affected by climate change policies but also have duties, responsibilities, and obligations to protect people around the world and the natural resources on which life depends. (See for example, Brown, 2010a) This is so because climate change must be understood as a civilization challenging ethical and moral problem and the failure to acknowledge and act on this has been responsible for an inadequate global response to climate change’s immense threat during the twenty years of international negotiations that have sought to reach agreement on a global solution. That is the major problem with international climate negotiations is that most nations are approaching the negotiations has if their economic interests trump their global responsibilities.

If climate change is an ethical problem, then practical consequences for national positions on climate change follow. (See, Brown, 2011 for a discussion of specific practical consequences that follow from recognition that climate change is an ethical problem) These consequences include that nations should commit to do what their ethical responsibilities, obligations, and duties requires of them without regard to whether all other nations are agreeing to do so.

This post examines concretely what happened in the recently concluded Durban climate change negotiations with the goal of explicating why the lack of acceptance of duties and responsibilities, that is lack of acceptance that climate change is an ethical problem, continues to be the major barrier to achieving an adequate global approach to reduce the threat of climate change. Unless, the international community can convince or cajole nations to make commitments consistent with their ethical obligations, then international climate negotiations are likely to continue to be plagued by the failure to tackle the most difficult climate change issues.

II-Durban Outcomes.

Without doubt, the Durban COP made some progress on a few potentially significant issues, yet it is also undeniable that there is a huge gap between what nations have agreed to do in Durban and what science is saying is necessary to prevent dangerous anthropocentric interference with the climate system. As we shall see, once again, in Durban resolution of the most important climate issues were deferred to future negotiations.

On a positive note, the major accomplishments of the Durban COP were agreements to:

1. Negotiate an agreement by no later than 2015 that would apply for the first time all parties under the UNFCCC, that is both developed and developing countries, on mitigation, adaptation, finance, technology development and transfer, transparency of action, and capacity building, and that such agreement will come into effect and be implemented by 2020. (UNFCCC, 2011a)

2. Initiate a new Green Climate Fund as the financial mechanism under the UNFCCC in regard to mitigation and adaptation in developing countries.(UNFCCC, 2011b) Several European countries in Durban pledged more than $50 billion in seed money to establish this fund, an amount that is expected to rise to $100 billion per year by 2020.

Durban also produced several other agreements that could eventually be helpful in implementing a comprehensive international solution to climate change on technology transfer, reference standards to be used in the program to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from deforestation and degradation (REDD+), sources of funding for REDD+, an extension of the Kyoto Protocol for a second commitment period, and procedures on national climate adaptation planning. (For copies of these decisions, see UNFCCC, 2011c)

Despite these accomplishments, strong criticism of the Durban outcome is warranted because the agreement to cooperate on a new binding legal instrument is only an agreement to negotiate an agreement about which almost nothing has been settled and that will not likely become effective until 2020.

Because there is a growing scientific consensus that the world is running out of time to prevent an additional 2 degree C warming, let alone 1.5 degree C or lower warming limits that may be necessary to prevent rapid, non-linear warming, the Durban outcome may be seen as another tragic lost opportunity to put the world on a path that avoids dangerous climate change.

Given that the voluntary greenhouse gas emissions reductions agreed to at COP-16 in Cancun are expected to allow an additional 3.5 degree C warming and that significant greenhouse gas emissions reductions are necessary before 2020 to have any reasonable chance of limiting warming to 2 degrees C, the Durban deal can be seen as almost insuring dangerous warming unless nations agree to make further emissions reductions before 2020, the effective date of the new Durban deal. (For a discussion of the gap between voluntary emissions commitments, and emissions reductions needed to achieve a warming limit of 2 degrees C, see, Holme, et al, 2011)

Although the Durban deal included agreement to create a second commitment period under the Kyoto Protocol, since Canada, Japan, and Russia joined the United States in announcing their unwillingness to accept new emissions reduction targets under an extended Kyoto framework, the Durban extension of Kyoto is not likely to produce significant reductions in the threat of climate change. It is notable, however, that some nations agreed to commit to a second commitment target under Kyoto despite the fact that most of the larger polluters refused to do so, thus recognizing that some nations seem to acknowledge that they must act on the basis of obligation to the planet and not only on the basis of self-interest alone.

Although Durban finalized many of the administrative details of a new mechanism to administer funds for mitigation and adaptation in developing countries, the Green Climate Fund, adequate, predictable, and additional financing at agreed upon levels has not yet materialized in UNFCCC climate negotiations.

III-An Ethical Analysis of Durban

To evaluate what happened in Durban it is necessary to have some understanding of prior negotiations leading up to Durban and in particular the UNFCCC COPs at Bali, Poznan, Copenhagen, and Cancun. This history is necessary to have some concrete understanding of the negotiating positions and their context that nations took coming into Durban and how this history reveals that most nations have been guided primarily by economic self-interest, not international responsibility.

Looking at the most recent COP before Durban, the 2010 Cancun COPs goals were modest in light of the failure of COP-15 in Copenhagen the year before to achieve an expected global solution to climate change. Copenhagen was expected to produce a global solution to climate change pursuant to a two-year negotiating process and agenda that was agreed to in Bali, Indonesia, in December 2007.

At the COP-13 negotiations in Bali, Indonesia in 2007, parties to the UNFCCC agreed to replace the Kyoto Protocol with an agreement that would create a new emissions reduction commitment period under the UNFCCC and would include binding emissions reductions for developed countries and new programs on adaptation for developing countries, deforestation, finance, technology transfer, and capacity building. This agreement was referred to as the Bali Roadmap, which also called for articulating a “shared vision for long-term cooperative action,” including a long-term global goal for emission reductions.

The original UNFCCC climate treaty had neither a quantified temperature limitation goal nor a ghg concentration atmospheric stabilization goal. In the Bali Roadmap the international community agreed to negotiate such a goal.

The Bali decision also recognized that developing countries could make contributions to solving the climate change through the development of Nationally Appropriate Mitigation Actions (NAMAs), meaning climate change strategies for developing countries. The NAMAs, however, would not constitute binding emissions reduction requirements for developing countries in contrast to the binding obligations of developed countries in the Kyoto Protocol that would be further developed and extended in Copenhagen.

Over the next few COPs, progress was made from the standpoint of the United States and several other developed countries, most notably when US President Obama in 2009 personally negotiated the Copenhagen Accords which were somewhat strengthened by the agreement reached in Cancun a year later in December of 2010. In Copenhagen, President Obama was successful most notably in getting all nations to identify voluntary emissions reductions commitments and getting key developing nations to agree to procedures to that would allow the international community to better verify these commitments. Yet, the US negotiated in Copenhagen, Cancun, and Durban as if it need not commit to reduce its emissions until other nations made commitments.

The United States approached negotiations in Durban as if the United States need not make binding emissions reductions commitments unless it could secure commitments to reduce GHG emissions from high-emitting countries including China and India that had no binding commitments under the Kyoto deal. For this reason, the US pushed for agreement to negotiate a new international agreement that would include all nations, a goal that was achieved in Durban.

In Copenhagen US President Obama led negotiations that appeared to be motivated, at least in large part, by what was politically feasible in the United States. In Copenhagen, Obama was clearly interested in getting China, India, Brazil,and South Africa to make commitments on climate change because the failure to get commitments from major developing countries would guarantee that no climate deal would get ratified by Congress. Most observers would agree that there was little chance of getting US congressional support for an international deal on climate change unless China and India and other high-emitting nations agreed to commitments. For this reason, Obama was focused on getting some developing nations to agree to voluntary emissions reductions, an outcome that he succeeded in accomplishing in Copenhagen. Yet, as we have explained in ClimateEthics before, no nation may deny its duty to reduce its emissions to its fair share of safe global emissions on the basis that others who are contributing to the harm have failed to cease harmful behavior. (Brown, 2009) This is so because no nation or person has a right to continue destructive behavior on the basis that others who are contributing to the harm have not ceased their destructive behavior.

And so what has been politically feasible on climate change in the United States is inconsistent with what ethics and justice would require of the United States. If this is the case, strong criticism of the United States is warranted as long as the US leadership is not advocating among its own people to support positions that ethics and justice would require of it.

The United States and several other countries have been acting in the last four COPs as if they need not commit to impose costs on themselves to reduce the threat of climate change as long as others refuse to commit because other nations who do not impose emissions constraints on themselves would benefit economically by being able to produce goods at lower costs than those who increase energy costs through adoption of climate policies. In other words, the United States has been consistently negotiating as if its economic interests trump its ethical obligations to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions to the US fair share of safe global emissions.

As ClimateEthics has frequently explained, as a matter of justice no nation, including the United States, can refuse to reduce its emissions to its fair share of safe global emissions levels on the basis that others won’t act. Yet this is consistently what the United States and a few other nations have done. Making matters worse, the negotiations leading up to Durban beginning at the Poznan COP in 2008 have been plagued by the United States insistence that it would not agree to be bound to a second commitment period under the Kyoto Protocol, an agreement that the United States alone among the nations of the world refused to ratify largely because it did not contain emissions reductions commitments for developing nations. This US position ultimately made the negotiations much more complicated than they needed to be by insisting that negotiations continue under two tracks, one for the Kyoto parties and one that would ignore the Kyoto agreement and its architecture. In taking this position, the United States was communicating to the world it need not commit to emissions reductions until others so committed. And so one of the world’s largest emitters of greenhouse gases has consistently refused to reduce its emissions to its fair share of safe global emissions on the basis of national economic interest.

The United States and several other nations including Canada, Japan, and Russia have now refused to make a commitment in a second commitment period under the Kyoto Protocol on the basis that they need not commit to reduce greenhouse gas emission until other nations make equivalent commitments. Although the US has agreed to make voluntary reductions under the Cancun agreements, this was committed to on the basis that developing nations made voluntary commitments under Cancun also. (Brown, 2010a) Also, as we shall see, these voluntary commitments are inadequate to prevent dangerous climate change.

In examining previous COPs, ClimateEthics has proposed ethical criteria that any proposed post-Kyoto regime must meet at a minimum. (Brown, 2010 b) That is any post-Kyoto regime must:

  • Require sufficient greenhouse emissions reductions to assure that the international community is on a greenhouse gas emissions reduction pathway that will prevent dangerous climate change harm. This is sometimes referred to as the environmental sufficiency criteria.
  • Begin to base differences among national allocations on the basis of equity and justice. This is sometimes referred to as the equity criteria.
  • Assure that those responsible for climate change provide adequate, predictable adaptation funding to enable developing countries and in particular the most vulnerable developing countries to do what is necessary to avoid climate change damages in cases where it is possible to take action and to prevent damages, or be compensated for climate change damages in cases where it is impossible to take protective action. We refer to this as the just adaptation criteria.

Although these three criteria, that is environmental sufficiency, equity, and just adaptation constitute the minimum ethical considerations that any climate regime must satisfy, they don’t capture all ethical questions raised by any proposed climate change regime. There are numerous other ethical questions raised by any proposed climate change regimes that go beyond these minimum requirements including issues of fair process, gender issues in policy formation, obligations of sub-national governments, organizations, businesses, and individuals for climate change, human rights issues relating to climate change and many more. This post, however, now looks at Durban in light of the three minimum criteria.

A. Environmental Sufficiency

Durban not only failed to produce an agreement that assures that the international community is on a greenhouse gas emissions reduction pathway that will prevent dangerous climate change harm, it deferred serious implementation of any new commitments in emissions reductions until 2020. Although Durban accomplished the laudable goal of getting all nations to negotiate an agreement with legal force, it did almost nothing to put the world on an emissions reduction pathway that had hope of preventing dangerous climate change. Although the Cancun COP the year before Durban did produce voluntary commitments from the most important developed and developing nations, these commitments leave at the very minimum a 5Gt gap between emissions levels that will be achieved if there is full compliance with the voluntary emissions reductions and what is necessary to prevent 2°C rise, a warming amount that most scientists believe could cause very dangerous climate change, and an amount that has been adopted as the ultimate goal of the UNFCCC. (See for a fuller discussion of this Brown, 2010) There is no reason to believe that future negotiations that were agreed to in Durban will overcome the unwillingness of nations to commit to emissions reductions that are necessary to prevent dangerous climate change. In Durban, the hard issues have simply been deferred to the future.

B. Equity Criteria

The second minimum ethical criteria that all post-Kyoto proposals must meet is the requirement that national emissions reduction proposals must be consistent with what “equity” and “justice” demands of nations. That is, equity requires that each nation reduce its emissions to its fair share of safe global emissions. And so, each nation’s emissions reduction levels should be based upon what distributive and retributive justice demands, not on national self-interest. Although there are different theories of distributive justice that lead to different national allocations, many justifications for national ghg emissions allocations voluntarily agreed to under Cancun fail to satisfy any ethical scrutiny. In other words, it is not necessary to know what perfect justice requires to conclude that some voluntary proposals for national ghg allocations under Cancun are unjust and Durban did nothing to change this. These issues have been deferred to future negotiations under Durban.

C. Just Adaptation Criteria

The third minimum ethical criteria for judging any second commitment period under the UNFCCC is that it must provide adequate funding to support adaptation programs in developing countries given that some developing countries have done nothing to cause climate change and must take steps to avoid harsh impacts The Durban agreement did manage to create an Green Climate Fund that will be the financial mechanism to manage adaptation funding and also made some progress on a few other adaptation issues. Yet Durban failed to identify dedicated sources of funding to implement an adaptation agenda that is based upon “mandatory” contributions to “new”, “predictable,” and “additional” sources of funding. Therefore Durban failed to satisfy the ethical criteria for adequate funding for adaptation.

IV Conclusion

To adjudicate the disagreement about whether Durban was a disaster or a meaningful step forward, one must look at Durban’s resolution of the major issues needed to get the world on a reasonably hopeful path that would avoid dangerous climate change, whether nations are agreeing to commit to their fair share of safe global emissions, and whether mechanisms for needed adaptation are in place. Under these criteria, Durban was a huge failure.

It is true, that given what was deemed to be politically possible going into Durban, Durban achieved some important progress. Yet identifying this progress, without recognition of the magnitude and seriousness of the overall failures obscures the message that most needs to communicated to citizens, namely that most nations are failing to live up to their global obligations and this puts tens if not hundreds of millions of people and the resources on which life depends at great risk.

To rectify the failure of nations to take their ethical obligations seriously, strategies need to be developed that turn up the volume on the ethical obligations of nations on climate change. At the top of the list, is a strategy that would require nations to make their positions on major ethical issues entailed by climate change explicit so that they can be reflected on by citizens around the world. ClimateEthics will make more detailed recommendations on how to implement this strategy in an upcoming post.

There is a need to make national positions on climate change’s major ethical issues explicit because nations are frequently taking positions on climate change that are obviously deeply ethically flawed, but citizens around the world or the press have no way of commenting on these positions without speculating on the justification for the national position. Requiring nations to expressly identify their positions on such issues as what is their fair share of safe global emissions would allow critical reflection on what each nation’s position is on a safe global atmospheric concentration stabilization level, given that atmospheric target what that nation believes is an acceptable global emissions reduction pathway to achieve the atmospheric target, what is that nation’s position on its equitable share of future global emissions that will achieve the needed emissions reductions pathway, as well as their ethical justification for all of these issues.

Although nations are likely to continue to resist committing to emissions reductions consistent with what ethics would require of them, making national positions on these issues explicit would create an opportunity to exert global pressure on the most irresponsible nations.


Brown, Donald, 2011, Ten Practical Policy Consequences of Acknowledging That Climate Change Is An Ethical Problem, ClimateEthics.org. http://rockblogs.psu.edu/climate/2011/08/ten-practical-policy-consequences-of-acknowledging-that-climate-change-is-an-ethical-problem.html

Brown, Donald, 2010, An Ethical Analysis of the Cancun Climate Negotiations Outcome, ClimateEthics.org, http://rockblogs.psu.edu/climate/2010/12/an-ethical-analysis-of-the-cancun-climate-negotiations-outcome.html

Brown, Donald, 2010b, A Comprehensive Ethical Analysis of the Copenhagen Accord. ClimateEthics.org, http://rockblogs.psu.edu/climate/2010/01/a-comprehensive-ethical-analysis-of-the-copenhagen-accord.html

Brown, Donald, 2009, The Strong Scottish Moral Leadership On Climate Change Compared To The Absence Of Any Acknowledged Ethical Duty In The US Debate ClimateEthics.org, http://rockblogs.psu.edu/climate/2009/08/the-strong-scottish-moral-leadership-on-climate-change-compared-to-the-absence-of-any-acknowledged-ethical-duty-in-the-us-debate.html

Hertzgaard, Mark, 2011, Durban, Where the Climate Deniers-in-Chief Ran the Show, The Nation, http://www.thenation.com/article/165155/durban-where-climate-deniers-chief-ran-show/

Holme, N, et al, 2011, Negotiations Heading toward a High, High Cost Pathway, 1.50C, http://climateactiontracker.org/assets/CAT_Durban_update_2011_2.pdf

Light, Andrew, 2011, Why Durban Matters, Center For American Progress, http://www.americanprogress.org/issues/2011/12/why_durban_matters.html

UNFCCC, 2011a, Establishment of an Ad Hoc Working Group on t he Durban Platform for Enhanced Action, Draft decision-/CP.17, http://unfccc.int/files/meetings/durban_nov_2011/decisions/application/pdf/cop17_durbanplatform.pdf

UNFCCC, 2011b, Green Climate Fund-Report of the Transitional Committee, Draft decision-CP.17, http://unfccc.int/files/meetings/durban_nov_2011/decisions/application/pdf/cop17_gcf.pdf

UNFCCC, 2011c, Durban decisions are available at http://unfccc.int/2860.php/


Donald A. Brown
Associate Professor, Environmental Ethics, Science, and Law
Penn State University



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