COP 17 Climate Change Agreement in Durban: the Politics of Compromise

Dec 15th, 2011 | By | Category: Canada

In a last-minute deal reached on December 11, 2011 at the 17th session of the Conference of the Parties (COP 17) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) meeting in Durban, South Africa, governments decided to adopt a universal legal agreement on climate change as soon as possible, but not later than 2015. Work will begin on this immediately under a new group called the Ad Hoc Working Group on the Durban Platform for Enhanced Action.

The value of an international consensus on any topic should never be underestimated. International law rests largely on agreements in the form of treaties and protocols. Consensus proceeds at the pace of the slowest and to the level of the most reluctant. 

The existing treaty, the Kyoto protocol, had not secured the participation of developing countries and some of the leading developed countries, not least the United States. With the existing Kyoto targets due to expire next year, only the European Union among major developed countries had committed to a continuation. 

Against this background, the agreement in Durban, to write a comprehensive global agreement that reduces greenhouse gas emissions, covers developed and developing countries, and comes into force in 2020 is groundbreaking. But it comes at a price. 

Scientists at the Climate Action Tracker, an independent science-based climate change assessment, warned that the world continues on a pathway of warming more than 3°Celsius (C) with likely impacts rated as extremely severe. 

The agreement will not immediately affect the emissions outlook for 2020, and decisions on further emission reductions have been postponed. Catching up on this postponed action will be increasingly costly. 

According to Bill Hare, Director of Climate Analytics, “What remains to be done is to take more ambitious actions to reduced emissions, and until this is done we are still headed to over 3°C warming. There are still no new pledges on the table and the process agreed in Durban towards raising the ambition and increasing emission reductions is uncertain at its outcome.” 

The next major UNFCCC conference, COP 18/ CMP 8, is to take place November 26 to December 7, 2012 in Qatar, in close cooperation with the Republic of Korea.


Details of Key Decisions from COP17 in Durban

 Green Climate Fund

  • Countries have already started pledging to contribute to start-up costs of the fund, meaning it can be made ready in 2012. This will also help developing countries get ready to access the fund, boosting their efforts to establish their own clean energy futures and adapt to existing climate change.
  • A Standing Committee is to keep an overview of climate finance in the context of the UNFCCC and assist the Conference of the Parties. It will comprise twenty members, represented equally between the developed and developing world.
  • A focused work program on long-term finance was agreed, which will contribute to the scaling up of climate change finance going forward and will analyze options for the mobilization of resources from a variety of sources.


  • The Adaptation Committee, composed of 16 members, will report to the COP on its efforts to improve the coordination of adaptation actions at a global scale.
  • The adaptive capacities above all of the poorest and most vulnerable countries are to be strengthened. National Adaptation Plans will allow developing countries to assess and reduce their vulnerability to climate change.
  • The most vulnerable are to receive better protection against loss and damage caused by extreme weather events related to climate change.


  • The Technology Mechanism will become fully operational in 2012.
  • The full terms of reference for the operational arm of the Mechanism – the Climate Technology Centre and Network – are agreed, along with a clear procedure to select the host. The UNFCCC secretariat will issue a call for proposals for hosts on 16 January 2012.

Support of Developing Country Action

  • Governments agreed to establish a registry to record developing country mitigation actions that seek financial support and to match these with support. The registry will be a flexible, dynamic, web-based platform.


Other Key Decisions

  • A forum and work program on unintended consequences of climate change actions and policies were established.
  • Under the Kyoto protocol’s Clean Development Mechanism, governments adopted procedures to allow carbon-capture and storage projects. These guidelines will be reviewed every five years to ensure environmental integrity.
  • Governments agreed to develop a new market-based mechanism to assist developed countries in meeting part of their targets or commitments under the Convention. Details of this will be taken forward in 2012.


About the Author

Paul Manning is principal at Manning Environmental Law and an Environmental Law Specialist, Certified by the Law Society of Upper Canada.  He has practiced environmental law for more than twenty years in the UK and in Canada. During that time he has dealt with most areas of environmental law for a diverse range of clients. Paul’s practice focuses on environmental, energy, aboriginal and planning law. He appears regularly as counsel in Tribunals and the Courts. He has a special interest in renewable energy and climate change regulation and holds a Certificate in Carbon Finance from the University of Toronto.

Photograph: Manchester UK Bridge Detail 2 by Michael Bittner, Boston, U.S.A.

Other EHS Journal Articles by Paul Manning


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6 Comments to “COP 17 Climate Change Agreement in Durban: the Politics of Compromise”

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    Malaysia’s has been a vocal voice of developing countries in all COP meetings and negotiation.

    Critical Analysis
    Her approach toward a “common but differentiated responsibility” is rather holistic and in compliance with ASEAN spirit and ASEAN CHARTER.

    This is rather different when compared with the US approach along this framework of working reference.

    India, China and the majority of developing countries have contributed tremendously toward the targets set in the 1st Commitment Period of the Kyoto Protocol.

    Developed countries unfortunately made not made significant achievement and performance as agreed according to the 1st Commitment Period.

    Jeong Chun Phuoc
    Expert Consultant at a major law firm in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia,
    and a Lecturer-in-Law
    and a pioneer advocate in Competitive Legal Intelligence(CLI)
    and a Reader in Syariah Competitive Legal Intelligence(sCLI)
    He can be reached at

    **The above professional analysis is the writer’s personal view and in no way represent the view/position of the research institutes/thinktanks/organisations to which he is currently attached to.

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