Skip to main content

Canadian Minister of Environment Affairs Peter Kent attends a plenary on the final day of negotiations of the COP17 Climate Change Conference at International Convention Centre in Durban on Dec. 10, 2011.Rajesh Jantilal/AFP/Getty Images

In the early hours of Sunday morning, as an Indian negotiator made an emotional speech against a European climate proposal, Canadian Environment Minister Peter Kent glanced around the vast room in the Durban convention centre and noticed the smug expressions of China's negotiators.

Throughout the marathon late-night talks here, China and India had fought to avoid any legal limits on their fast-rising carbon emissions. And under the agreement announced at 5 a.m. on Sunday, they seem to have won – for the next decade at least.

The deal keeps alive the Kyoto Protocol for another five years, but with Europe as the only significant source of emission cuts. It requires the world to negotiate a new legal protocol by 2015 to replace Kyoto, but those rules would not take effect until after 2020. And while this historic new protocol would for the first time apply to developing countries such as China and India, they would continue to have fewer obligations than developed nations. That's something Canada still wants to see changed, Mr. Kent said.

While politicians from virtually all of the world's 194 countries claimed victory after the Durban deal, the reality is that the Durban agreement is riddled with loopholes, delays and uncertainties. Its vagueness allowed all nations to accept the deal, but it postponed the key negotiations for years down the road.

The United States, which had been pushing for "legal parity" among all the world's emitters, insisted that the Durban agreement was a breakthrough: the first to provide "symmetry" among all countries in the developing world and the industrialized world.

Canada, too, was pushing for the same parity, to ensure that China and India and other developing countries would have the same legal obligations as the wealthy countries. The text of the Durban deal says the 2015 agreement would be "applicable to all parties" when it comes into effect, and Mr. Kent said he was "cautiously optimistic" that a legal protocol would be reached by 2015.

But within a few hours, Beijing issued its own statement – and declared its own victory. The Durban deal, it announced, was "fully in accordance" with the Kyoto's basic principle: the "common but differentiated responsibilities" of different countries. In other words, China and India would continue to have fewer obligations that the developed nations.

"I noticed that those at the Chinese desk were looking quite pleased that it does provide, at least until 2020, a continuing loophole for China to claim to be a developing country without responsibilities," Mr. Kent said in an interview after the final all-night bargaining session where tempers flared and the talks almost collapsed.

The final text did not eliminate the principle of differentiated responsibilities, he said. "It is [still there] and that's what we've got to work against."

Under the Durban deal, the new legal limits on carbon emissions won't take effect until after 2020. By that date, it will probably be too late to avoid a disastrous 3- or 4-degree rise in average world temperatures, analysts say.

Political leaders said the deal is a step forward because it would ultimately require a legal promise of emission cuts by all major emitters. But environmental groups were furious that the agreement won't take effect for a decade or more.

In another ambiguity, the Durban agreement fails to require the emissions limits to be governed by a legally binding treaty. Instead it calls for "a protocol, another legal instrument or an agreed outcome with legal force." Some analysts question whether this would be as strong as a legal treaty. "We worry about that a great deal," Mr. Kent said.

The Durban agreement also fails to provide details on the $100-billion Green Climate Fund, crucial to helping poor countries adapt to climate change. There is still no agreement on how to provide revenue for the fund. Proposals to tax the shipping and aviation industries were rejected.

"Expectations for what the Durban talks would achieve were already low, but what was achieved was even less," said Tonya Rawe of CARE, the humanitarian agency.

"In the closing hours we witnessed an undignified tumble toward the lowest common denominator, producing a text that delivers little beyond saving face," she said. "The fact that it took this long to get such a small outcome does not bode well for the well-being of the planet."

The Durban talks, scheduled to end on Friday, were prolonged for 36 hours to reach the final agreement. Critics said Mr. Kent played little role in the talks. He did not take the floor in the final session, and he was not a member of the select group of ministers who did the final preparatory work on Saturday. In the last day of meetings, he was seen repeatedly in discussions with U.S. negotiators.

"It shows that Canada has become irrelevant on the international scene," said Montreal-based environmentalist Steven Guilbeault. "We're not a player any more. The U.S. is the only country we're talking to and listening to."

Mr. Kent said he "didn't want to be a distraction" by speaking publicly in the final session. The Canadian negotiators were "deeply involved" in many key issues at the Durban talks, and were talking to many countries, he said.