Was Durban a success or failure? A holiday edition.

December 21, 2011, by Tim Stumhofer

It’s December, a month best characterized in many parts of the world by holiday cheer, winter revelry, and reflection of the year that’s about to draw to a close. But for those following international climate negotiations, the end of the year also marks the season for another brand of reflection: deriving meaning from the annual UNFCCC Conference of the Parties.

As an organization that makes a concerted effort to avoid wading into political debates, this is a season when we have historically parried “how was the COP?” questions to others’ analyses. This year, however, it’s been difficult to ignore that most questions about the COP have come wrapped around off-hand observations on the meeting’s outcomes; casual analysis that, intriguingly, seems evenly split in calling out Durban’s success or failure.

What do I mean exactly? Let’s look at the example of a holiday party I attended last week. As the event was hosted by a climate NGO (not GHGMI), it was inevitable that the fact that I had just the day before stumbled off a plane from South Africa after two weeks in Durban would work its way into cocktail fodder (though I should mention that the canapés garnered impressive conversation attention as well). Puff pastries aside, when the conversation did finally turn to the COP, a great climate see-saw began:

“How was the COP? It must have been so inspirational — they finally broke through the Berlin Mandate!”

“It sounds like not very much was accomplished in Durban. Did you at least have a good time in South Africa? Are they going to keep having these annual climate meetings?”

“What do you think of the Durban Platform? They really saved the process by the skin of their teeth, eh? Glad we’re finally going to see binding action for all major emitters. Did you get out of the conference center at all?”

“Another roadmap — sounds like Bali redux. Those diplomats have gotten really good at kicking the can down the road. What is Durban like? Did you have good curry?”

And back and forth we went.

Two images of Durban

Images courtesy of IISD

Considering my own post-COP reflections, with these contrasting cocktail party voices dancing in my head, two competing narratives take form. Just as the above images convey two perceptions of the COP, the eyes and ears behind those perspectives are more than ever writing to different audiences.

One need look no further than the Earth Negotiations Bulletin summary for one perspective. The ENB, famous for covering the minutiae of the negotiations, is the first stop for those tracking the pitch and roll of the UNFCCC’s awkwardly-acronymed negotiating tracks. At the end of each UNFCCC session the ENB publishes both a long form technical wrap-up and a shorter high-level summary. Perhaps still high on the adrenaline of the COP’s overtime feats of diplomacy, ENB’s Durban summary reads like a victorious warring country’s account of the technical details of a major peace accord. You can almost read the grins of elation on the authors’ faces.

In contrast, a quick survey of commentators leveling their punditry at audiences less steeped in close to two decades of UNFCCC talks reveals post-COP analyses served up with everything from a dose to an extra generous dollop of cynicism. Writing to populations eager to see targets and policy mechanisms that correspond with the scientific imperative, these analysts translate the UNFCCC process in highlights, noting that Durban may have secured, from the brink of collapse, a roadmap to targets and corresponding reductions that notably transcend long-standing negotiating impasses. Yet, the same voices are quick to qualify this progress with the observation that the Durban Platform will not for years translate into the type of ambitious action needed to manage climate change.

Indeed both voices make the same high-level points, it is in the balance of their weighting that they diverge. Whereas one lauds the success in process and relegates external measures of success to footnotes, the other underscores the need for action and decries the slow progress of the UNFCCC process for its insufficiency in meeting the challenge.

Measured progress

So which is it? Was Durban the disruptive breakthrough that the ENB insiders would have us believe? Or just another year and another set of questions to be answered another day? Good COP, bad COP? Success or failure?

Amidst this debate, I reckon the most appropriate question is a clarifying one: by what measure success? Some observers may balk at the very thought of having to carefully qualify success metrics, lashing out against assiduously calibrated assessments as an exercise in rebranding failure or justifying incrementalism in the face of challenges requiring sea change. Such assertions are not without merit and indeed are emblematic of a flavor of activist pressure that plays a valuable role in the political discourse on climate action. But for those seriously looking to assess the progress of the negotiations, both context and metrics matter.

And here’s exactly where our two dialogues diverge. Whereas the ENB junkies may become so fully ensconced in the UNFCCC context, they celebrate procedural success in the face of what may seem to more casual observers as glaring omissions (i.e., no near term ambition; and many open questions for the medium to long term). (As one European headline rather pointedly put it: “Durban saves climate talks rather than climate.”) Conversely, much analysis proffering this breath of fresh air, weighing negotiating progress against measures from science and economics, does not fully account for the complex political economy of climate change and systematically undervalues the vast distance climate negotiations have come in addressing an unparalleled collection action challenge.

So what does this all mean? Aside from success being in the eye of the pundit, it seems like these two groups could use to listen to each other. Climate negotiations are complicated; yet complex or no, the timeframe for action is narrowing.

As for the holiday revelers, I punted, concluding that interpretation of the outcomes from Durban depended on one’s expectations and measures of success. And for the rest of the night I reverted to raving about the nibbles, sticking carefully to COP17 topics more befitting holiday cocktail conversation… “Did you know there was no side event catering in Durban?”

What was GHGMI up to in Durban?

In addition to a number of workshops, meetings, and exhibiting, we managed a frenetic slate of events at the COP. We are grateful to our partners, fellow panelists, organizers, and most importantly the engaged attendees that made these events a success. Below is a short list of some of the Durban events to which we contributed:

UNFCCC media training workshop for developing country journalists: The CDM and carbon market actors

GHGMI participated in a UNFCCC-hosted panel of carbon market participants examining the Clean Development Mechanism. An on-demand video webcast of this event is available on the UNFCCC website here.

Professionalization: A pathway to a mature, resilient, capitalized carbon market


GHGMI co-hosted —with the University of Michigan and the International Forest Carbon Association— a panel discussion on the GHG measurement, reporting, and verification and financial system investments needed to scale the carbon market participation. A short write-up of the event is available on the University of Michigan website here.

The 2nd International Compliance and Voluntary Carbon Market Assembly

GHGMI offered an update on the U.S. voluntary market as part of a panel of experts speaking on national carbon market innovations. A short summary of the event, coordinated by Climate Markets & Investment Association, Ecosystem Marketplace, and IETA/ICROA, is available on The CarbonNeutral Company’s website here.

Alternative markets for CERs in the absence of a global deal


In an event co-hosted by EcoMetrix Africa, Evolution Markets, and legal specialists IMBEWU, GHGMI provided perspective on the possibility of future U.S. federal, regional, and state (California) participation in the market for international offsets. The panel was organized around an article published in the Dec 2011/Jan 2012 issue of Trading Carbon magazine. The article “South Africa’s Carbon Crossroads” is can be found on p16-18 of the magazine and is accessible free-of-charge online here.

Verifying in a world of disparate accreditation models


GHGMI participated on a diverse panel representing offset project developers, verifiers, buyers, and GHG program administrators in an International Emissions Trading Association hosted panel examining the confusing and often “behind the scenes” world of verifier accreditation.

Press briefing announcing GHGMI and iCET Chinese training partnership


GHGMI held a press conference with a number of partners to announce the new Chinese training partnership. Click here for more information on this initiative.



One response to “Was Durban a success or failure? A holiday edition.”

  1. Nele Marien says:

    I have a quite clear view on this, summerized: Durban was officially sold to the world as a success, but having a closer look, it’s easy to see it doesn’t do what it is suposed to do, and it does what it shouldn’t do.
    The full idea: http://www.nelemarien.info/durban_not_success/

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