U.N. Global-Warming Talks: Good for Diplomats, Indifferent for the Climate

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European Union (EU) Commissioner Connie Hedegaard, left, and Polish Environment Minster and rotating President of the EU Marcin Korolec gesture at each other during the closing press conference.

There are deals and then there are deals. That’s my takeaway from the U.N. climate negotiations in the South African city of Durban, which finally concluded early Sunday local time — more than a day after the talks had been scheduled to end. Exhausted negotiators — seriously, look at these poor guys — managed to reach an agreement of sorts and stave off the total collapse of the U.N. climate process. Here’s how the Guardian reported it:

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.

“I salute the countries who made this agreement. They have all laid aside some cherished objectives of their own to meet a common purpose – a long-term solution to climate change,” said Christiana Figueres, the United Nations climate chief.

That certainly sounds great. But it’s not exactly what happened.

(MORE: Expect Big Talk in Durban, and Few Results)

It’s true that negotiators from more than 190 countries did manage to reach agreement at Durban, one that — if looked at optimistically — moves the ball forward on international climate action. But for all the hours of negotiation, for all the anger and frustration, little was definitively accomplished at Durban — certainly not enough to make a dent in the rate of global warming.

Michael Levi at the Council on Foreign Relations — in a post well worth reading in full — lays it out. He notes that meaningful progress was made on the technical issues that tend to get forgotten — the fleshing out of a climate fund for developing nations, movement on avoiding deforestation. But much of the attention of activists and environmentalists has focused on the future of the Kyoto Protocol and the creation of a road map toward a bigger and broader global climate deal:

It is distressing to see how much attention has become devoted to form rather than function. The fact that people are so are fixated on the future of Kyoto and the potential for a new legally binding treaty – neither of which, depending on its specific content, need have any impact on emissions – is extraordinary. It is particularly worrying that so many parties were willing in Durban to risk their real substantive progress because they could not agree on what are, in practice, largely symbolic matters. Congratulations are in order to those diplomats who found a face-saving way for everyone to back down so that they could consolidate important incremental advances that they had made elsewhere. But the Durban outcome does not auger a “remarkable new phase” in the climate talks. Its most celebrated elements largely mask dysfunction as usual.

(MORE: The Science Is Dire on Carbon Emissions. The Politics Are Worse)

It’s important to understand the actual details of what was negotiated at Durban — and what wasn’t. Take the Green Climate Fund, which is meant to channel $100 billion a year in public and private funds to developing countries to help them battle climate change. If there’s one thing that international negotiations should focus on, it’s establishing a mechanism — and a reliable source of money — to ensure that the poorest countries have the means to deal with climate change. Yet while diplomats at Durban outlined the mechanisms of the fund, little headway was made in figuring out exactly where that money will come from — and with the euro zone in a state of crisis and the U.S. primarily interested in budget cutting, it’s easy to wonder if those promised billions will ever really materialize.

Then there’s that road map for a future climate deal. The big logjam at Durban — as it’s been at nearly every U.N. climate summit — was the split between developed nations and the big developing countries. The Kyoto Protocol — which was set to expire next year — mandates emission cuts from developed countries, but not from developing countries. That makes less and less sense every year, with developing nations — which under the U.N. climate system include rich nations like Saudi Arabia and South Korea, along with China and India — now responsible for 58% of global emissions, a share that grows every year.

So the crux of the summit, at least from America’s point of view, involves creating a new global climate deal that would embrace all major emitters, developed nations and big developing countries. European nations were willing to extend the Kyoto Protocol, but they wanted assurances that negotiations for a bigger climate deal would begin sooner rather than later. But the developing countries — especially India— weren’t terribly interested in taking on binding emissions cuts, worrying that any strict climate actions would hurt needed economic growth, as India’s Environment Minister, Jayanthi Natarajan, protested:

Am I to write a blank check and sign away the livelihoods and sustainability of 1.2 billion Indians, without even knowing what the E.U. ‘road map’ contains?

So, after days and days of sleepless negotiations, the climate diplomats did what they do best: they fudged, and what they couldn’t fudge, they punted. They established an agreement to begin “a process to develop a protocol, another legal instrument or an outcome with legal force under the Convention applicable to all Parties.” That might sound like a treaty that covers all the big emitters, but don’t be so sure. Again from Levi:

The first problem is with the word treaty, which appears nowhere in the agreement. Indeed some will insist that a mere set of formal decisions by the parties – like, say, the Cancun Agreements of last year – ought to qualify as an “outcome with legal force”; they may not have as much legal force as some would like, but surely one can argue that they have some. Perhaps this traps countries like China and India a bit: they can argue out of seeking a new instrument only by asserting that COP decisions have some legal weight. But one thing is clear: there is no commitment to seek a new treaty or protocol.

(MORE: Canada Turns Away from Climate Policy)

The result is that there’s no assurance coming out of Durban that we’re all that much closer to an actual treaty that would actually demand actual emissions cuts from all big emitters — developed and developing. What we have is an agreement to continue the process of negotiating what would be a real deal, but — at least when it comes to the legal language of the Durban text — little binding that would mandate anything like the sort of cuts needed to slow down climate change, as Elliot Diringer of the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions wrote:

What the deal says about the binding-ness or the symmetry of a future agreement is less than crystal-clear. It launches a process “to develop a protocol, another legal instrument or an agreed outcome with legal force under the Convention applicable to all Parties.”  (Notably, there’s no reference to the Convention principle of “common but differentiated responsibilities,” which developing countries have traditionally used to fend off stronger commitments.)

There were concrete achievements on carbon at Durban, with Europe agreeing to extend its carbon-cutting commitments under the Kyoto Protocol for another five years — though notably Russia, Germany and Japan, which ratified the original Kyoto Protocol, decided to opt out. (Don’t forget as well that Europe was already committed to carbon cuts through 2020.) And it could be that the Durban road map launches the international community on a path to taking much stronger action on climate change — but there’s little reason to expect that.

And even if we do see more ambition in the future, that’s likely to come from the bottom up, from countries pursuing climate policies for their own reasons, not because they’re forced to by an international treaty, let alone a “legal outcome” of unclear force. See Canada, which has decided to simply ignore its responsibilities under the Kyoto Protocol as the country’s oil and natural gas sector grew.

In a sense, the diplomats saved their own jobs at Durban, by banding together to do just enough to keep the U.N. climate process viable for another year. But it’s become very clear that the climate will not be saved at these meetings, if it’s to be saved at all. The hard work will be done elsewhere: in national legislatures, in statehouses, in laboratories and inside each person. That’s much less dramatic than a single meeting to create a single treaty — and it’s a lot less certain — but it’s our only choice.

MORE: 5 Lessons from the Cancun Climate Summit

Bryan Walsh is a senior writer at TIME. Find him on Twitter at @bryanrwalsh. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME